Roman emperor holding a scroll representing history.

Taking online history classes with low vision

Helpful accommodations & tools for taking online history classes with low vision.

Fun fact- all of the history classes that I have taken since ninth grade have been online history classes. I took my first online history class shortly before starting tenth grade because of a scheduling issue, and while I hadn’t planned on taking additional online history classes, I ended up taking a total of four- three in high school, and one in college. Here are my tips for taking online history classes with low vision, from a student who took various required history classes. Please note that I did not take any AP history classes, though these tips can still be applied to students who are in those types of classes.

About my history classes

In my home state of Virginia and in the two school districts I attended, students are required to take four out of these five classes, with Civics/Government being a required course:

Since Geography was my first high school history class, my first online history class was World History 2, which I took as a summer class online through what would eventually be my second school district that offered several types of online classes. After moving to my second school district junior year, I started taking AP US History, but ended up being transferred to a virtual US History class about two months into the school year because the teacher did not have the resources to provide large print in the classroom, and I felt comfortable creating my own digital accessible materials in a virtual classroom. I chose to take Civics/Government online my senior year, as this was an option open to all students, and had the same teacher that taught my World History 2 class a few years before.

In college, I was required to take a class called HIST 125: Introduction to World History. I chose to take this online because I had experience taking online history classes and I didn’t feel like walking to class early in the morning or late at night during my first semester. If my college had accepted credit for it, I would have taken a History CLEP exam so I could take another fun class, however this was not an option at the time.

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Get high-resolution images of maps

While I didn’t take Geography online, I did work with a lot of digital materials in my class. One of the most helpful things my teacher provided was high-resolution images of maps that could easily be magnified, zoomed in on, or annotated with various drawing programs. Large print labels and legends are also extremely helpful for students with low vision, since smaller text may become pixelated when magnification is used.

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Locate accessible primary source documents

A lot of the primary source documents I had to read for various classes were scanned images or featured poor contrast due to age and fading. My teachers would provide typed transcripts of documents as needed so that I could adjust the font size or use a screen reader, which was very helpful for taking notes and scanning through passages. I have an entire post on creating accessible historical documents for students with visual impairments linked below, which was created after my visit to two different presidential libraries.

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Find books on Bookshare

For my college history class, we had to read several different books about various history topics, instead of reading a traditional textbook. I was able to find all but one of the books on Bookshare, which is a free service for students with print disabilities and provides accessible copies of books in various formats. For the one book I couldn’t find on Bookshare, I found a free PDF copy online, though if that wasn’t possible I would have requested an accessible copy through my school’s assistive technology office.

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Use browser extensions to make text easier to read

One of the things that surprised me about my first online history class was that there was so much text to read online. I tend to get eye fatigue very easily, and didn’t know how to manage it other than closing my eyes for a few minutes (and inevitably falling asleep). Nowadays, I love using various browser extensions to make text easier to read with different contrast options and simplified displays, and I sometimes even use these tools to have text read out loud without using a traditional screen reader. This has helped tremendously with eye fatigue as I have switched to taking online classes full-time.

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If possible, see if videos are available with audio description

For my World History 2 class, the teacher would assign various videos for students to watch and write a response paper about. Unfortunately, a lot of these videos relied on visuals and featured flashing lights, so I had to complete alternative assignments because of my photosensitivity. In college, I learned about the amazing world of audio description, and discovered that the Described and Captioned Media Program offers lots of audio described history content free of charge for teachers and students to use, including many of the videos I had been assigned in previous online history classes. This is an awesome resource that teachers should take advantage of to help their students with visual and hearing impairments!

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Use assistive technology and accessibility tools for virtual tours

While I never had to do this in any of my history classes, one of my friends had to navigate a virtual tour of the 9/11 Museum for their history class, and they weren’t sure how that would work as a student with low vision. A lot of museums and cultural sites now have free audio tours and apps that users can benefit from during virtual tours, as well as text-based descriptions of sites and artifacts available on their websites and apps. If an audio tour is available at physical locations but not online, I recommend sending an email and requesting the mp3 files, though it may take a few days to receive a response.

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Summary of tips for taking online history classes with low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes,

Updated August 2023; original post published August 2020

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