Retrofitting and Proactivity for Accessibility in Online Courses

Author Information
Erin Blauvelt
Kimberly Barss
Institution(s) or Organization(s) Where EP Occurred: 
Excelsior College
Effective Practice Abstract/Summary
Abstract/Summary of Effective Practice: 

As an institution whose mission states that it “provides educational opportunity to adult learners with an emphasis on those historically underrepresented in higher education”, Excelsior College wants all of their students to succeed. One particular group of students that requires a unique set of means to succeed is those with disabilities. In early 2012, the College decided to shift its approach to serving students with disabilities from a reactive position to a proactive stance. Historically, we have outfitted elements of courses to meet the needs of an individual student after they have been approved for an accommodation through our Disability Services Office. This was a process that could take a long time to complete, putting the student behind in their coursework. By taking a proactive approach to serving these students, we made the decision to edit our entire library of courses, which began as approximately 435 but has since grown, to include several accessibility standards so that they would be ready when students needed them. We also incorporated these same standards into our course development and revision process, so that all newly developed courses from July 2014 and beyond are also accessible. This does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations to be added to courses, as each student’s needs are different, however in most cases this greatly decreases the time that it takes to provide all accommodations to the student and incorporates Universal Design guidelines to help all of our students. Many of the accessibility standards that we are implementing not only assist our students with disabilities, but also positively impact our students without disabilities. Quality Matters Standard 8 states that it “incorporates the principles of Universal Design for Learning”, which increases quality for all students. Inclusion of universal design principles in courses can help students who use English as a Second Language, those with environmental barriers, and those with diverse learning styles.

Description of the Effective Practice
Description of the Effective Practice: 

Implementing accessibility standards into online courses can be very time-consuming and costly, as many college faculty and staff members aren't trained in accessibility. Since legally, providing accommodations to students who request it, often through a disability services office, can be done retroactively upon request, the time isn't spent at many institutions to retrofit courses in existence or implement standards into new courses. We've developed a process and set of guidelines, standards and materials to implement accessibility elements into online courses that is scalable and simple. Accessibility standards and accessibility standards implementation is rarely described as being simple.

Even though this project has been implemented in a large number of courses, the process, documentation, and materials can be used in a single or smaller number of courses. The development of a standards and guidelines list customized to our courses has been the key to implementing accessibility. Conducting a needs analysis on a single course, a group of courses, or an entire library of courses helps to narrow the focus from a large and complex number of federal standards to a set of standards and guidelines that is very manageable.

Amongst many small tasks, this project had two major parts: adding accessibility standards into our existing courses (retrofitting) and incorporating these standards into our course development and revision process (proactivity). Before either of these parts could begin, the first task of this overall project was to take a critical look at the elements in our courses and how they compared to the standards in Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act and to Quality Matters Standard 8 (“Accessibility & Usability: The course design reflects a commitment to accessibility and usability for all learners”, Quality Matters, 2014). We created a standards list and set of guidelines customized to our course design to focus our efforts and ensure that we were incorporating the standards consistently in all of our courses. These standards are geared towards students with all types of disabilities, including both physical and cognitive disorders. After the standards list was developed, a process with several tasks was implemented to analyze, collect necessary feedback for, edit, and review each course (retrofitting).

Task Procedure:
See tasks.jpg

After almost two years of incorporating accessibility standards into existing courses (retrofitting), we implemented these standards into our course development process, so that new and revised courses are also accessible (proactivity). This part of the process guarantees efficiency in the inclusion of accessibility standards for the future, and ensures that we won’t have to backtrack to fix courses later. This process included developing manuals and resources as well as offering information sessions and training to various staff members.

Training Session Information
For Faculty Program Directors:

  • 1 face-to-face 60-minute informational session and 1 face-to-face/live online/recorded 60-minute informational session were offered
  • Not mandatory

  • For more information, see accessibility_training_plan.docx

Instructional Designers/Course Development Specialists (Course Programmers)/Academic Unit Course Managers

  • 3 face-to-face 2-hour hands-on training sessions were offered for staff to choose from
  • Mandatory
  • For more information, see accessibility_training_plan.docx

Materials created for and distributed to staff:

  • Accessibility Training Manual
  • Accessibility Checklist - CDS
  • Accessibility Checklist - ID
  • Accessibility Needs/Resources FPD/SME
  • Accessibility Division of Responsibilities
  • Accessibility Training Plan

Project completed by:
In the Center for Online Education and Learning and Academic Services, we aligned the following resources:
Instructional Designer/Project Manager:
An Excelsior College Instructional Designer with experience and a certification in accessibility standards in online courses served as the project manager, supervising the external contracting company, making decisions regarding edits for individual courses, obtaining feedback regarding content from the academic units, and reviewing/approving each course after edits were completed. The Instructional Designer also created documentation and held information and training sessions for other staff members as part of the implementation of accessibility standards into the course development and revision process.

Instructional Design Team and Course Development Specialist Team:
Instructional Designers and Course Development Specialists centralized to the College, whose day-to-day tasks focus on designing and programming course content and who are in the front line of incorporating accessibility standards into the course development and revision process have and will continue to complete training to become educated on incorporating accessibility standards into the courses. Some staff have completed additional training and participation in the accessibility project, becoming “resident experts”

In the academic units:
Online Course Managers:
Online Course Managers who are specific to each academic unit and take care of small course edits and emergency fixes, completed training so that they are complying to our accessibility standards list.

Program Directors:
Program Directors in each academic unit who oversee the development, revision, maintenance and running of the online courses attended information sessions to understand items that they may need to consult on or provide to the Instructional Designers relating to accessibility standards during the course development and revision process.

During the course development and revision process, instructional designers locate areas of the courses that need accessibility standards implemented and work with faculty program directors and subject matter experts to obtain the necessary information and content. This information and content is recorded in the development documents and programmed into the course by the course development specialists. After the course is programmed, instructional designers and course development specialists use the accessibility checklists to review the accessibility elements in the course to ensure accuracy.

Supporting Information for this Effective Practice
Evidence of Effectiveness: 

The project at Excelsior College has two facets, a retrofitting and a proactive component. The retrofitting component is an initiative in which all of the existing almost 500 courses offered and developed prior to the initiation date for accessibility standards at Excelsior College are made to be accessible. The proactive component of the project is one in which all new course development projects are created following the project guidelines and using the tools developed at the College.

As the project nears the conclusion of its 4th year, 365 courses have been retrofitted to have virtually no ADA-related errors. Since the implementation of the accessibility training for staff involved with course development, approximately 65 courses have been developed after the new guidelines went into place. For the purpose of analysis, 25 courses were evaluated against the 10 main areas of accessibility related design for the proactive component. An in-depth look at our data reveals an average of 5.9% errors calculated among the observed 2,720 ADA-related criteria, only 171 minor errors were counted. These 171 total errors were found in 10 courses, with an average of 8 modules per course and 7.5 pages per module, making it an average of .28 errors per page.

The data snapshot is:
Average Error %: 5.9
Average Images per course: 40
Average Multimedia per course: 0.4
Average Links per course: 230.8
Average Tables per course: .8
Average Total ADA items per course: 287.2
Average Errors per course: 17.1
Average Errors per Module: 2.1
Average errors per page per module: 0.28

Total Observed data: 2720
Total Errors: 171
Modules per course: 8
Average Pages per module: 7.5
Error median: 7
Error Mode: 0, 7
Error Range: 42

The results are very encouraging. Observed data includes all images and alt text including quality of text description, properly formatted hyperlinks, properly formatted mathematical equations, properly coded tables, proper usage of color and contrast, text-based PDFs, avoidance of underlined text, and the availability of a transcript for video, audio, or other multimedia objects.

A significant reduction in accessibility-related violations is not the only measure of this project’s success. Additionally, we have had faculty report that in certain courses, students have reported fewer technical issues with using Flash media on mobile devices and different browsers since we have text-equivalents so students have access to the content however they view the course. We are also taking a different approach to repackaging multimedia when browser and software upgrades cause media not to function for some students. As we already have text-equivalents for these files in a number of courses, we can point students to these files in place of the original multimedia, providing a very quick solution. If the course does not already have text-equivalents for the media, we have a process in place for creating these, which many times is much faster than troubleshooting the media, bringing a solution to the student more quickly.

We anticipate many of our students with disabilities do not identify themselves to us, so it is difficult to measure how many students with disabilities are benefitting from the changes that we’ve put into place. One example is that we had a student with a hearing impairment recently request accommodations for three courses. Luckily, the courses that she requested the accommodations for had gone through our course edit process (retrofitting), so a number of the accommodations that she needed were already in place. All of the video files presentations with audio that are internally hosted within these courses already had transcripts. The only items that we had to take care of were creating transcripts for externally hosted videos, but since we had a process in place for creating transcripts, we were able to have these created in a very simple and timely manner.

As a result of this project, we were able to provide all accommodations for this student much more quickly than if these courses had not been edited for accessibility and everything was set and ready to go before the student began each course. We anticipate that the work completed during this project, and the procedures set in place for the future will greatly reduce the turnaround time for providing accommodations to our students, reducing the chance of them getting behind in their studies.

Approximately 40% of our student population is either active duty military or veterans. Our military students can be accessing our courses from any number of locations and situations around the world, so having text-equivalents and transcripts for our media means that they can access content from nearly any device, despite whether they have specific software or speakers/headphones. According to the American Council on Education (2011), individuals who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have up to a 40% chance of acquiring a traumatic brain injury. With such a high number of our students having served, we can anticipate there are more students with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) than have registered with our Office of Disability Services. We also can expect to see an increase in students that will benefit from the accessibility standards that we have and are putting in place. PTSD and TBI sufferers typically experience difficulty with attention, concentration and information processing (American Council on Education, 2011), so standards like page organization and consistency, which are covered in our accessibility standards and guidelines, can be important in their ability to absorb the content.

How does this practice relate to pillars?: 

This accessibility project directly relates to each of the pillars in a very meaningful way. Beginning with the most deeply correlated pillar, access, this area is defined as a learner’s ability to obtain access to an education. Access relates to areas such as finances, infrastructure (living in a rural area without high speed internet, for example), geography (living in an area that is hundreds of miles from a college), in addition to the physical ability to obtain the information (such as one’s ability to obtain a braille textbook), even in a virtual campus. For Excelsior College learners, who are almost exclusively online, access for the purposes of our accessibility project, is a learner’s ability to obtain an educationally equivalent experience in the online education environment. Learners of all types have and are continuing to benefit from this project, as universal design and accessibility principles allow for an “equal playing field” for all learners.

Student Satisfaction
A student utilizing a screen reader would, for example, likely experience increased satisfaction with a course whose development and design was focused on accessibility compliance and inclusion. Designing with accessibility at the forefront of design planning ensures that all requirements are met and students are included from the beginning, instead of as an afterthought. Consistency in courses allows students to be confident in expecting course elements to be linked in a certain way, plain text versions of multimedia included, etc. so that technical barriers are eliminated and content can be the focus.

One of the best parts about our accessibility project is its easy, seamless, and inexpensive scalability. The process and resources can be used to implement accessibility standards into one course, a group of courses, or several hundred courses, as we have done. The manual and checklists can be used to design and evaluate a single course by a faculty member with some basic knowledge or by a wide range of staff with advanced knowledge. The manual and checklists can also be used to as a guide for a single staff member or to train a larger number of staff to implement standards on a wider-range of courses.

Learning Effectiveness
Students who are having difficulty accessing course information or for whom design is unnatural and not inclusive, have a difficult time learning. Items can feel distracting, poorly planned, or inappropriate (such as the case may be for a screen reader reading an inappropriately labeled table within a course). Individuals with environmental limitations like lack of a location to play audio, learning preferences like auditory and visual, or language preferences such as English as a Second Language all benefit greatly from universal design principles weaved into courses. Learning is more smoothly facilitated when barriers of preference, disability, language, and environment are removed.

Faculty Satisfaction
Faculty express satisfaction not only with teaching courses with universal design and accessibility elements but that it makes for an easier and more enjoyable experience for all students. After the implementation of the project, there have been fewer reported technical issues, which creates a much smoother facilitation process for faculty. If a student requests an accessibility accommodation, much of the work that would normally fall on the faculty, is already taken care of. For the elements that relate to a student’s specific accommodation requirements, there is a plan in place to quickly address the gaps, which eases much of the time and attention from faculty.

Equipment necessary to implement Effective Practice: 

In order to be successful in implementing an accessibility project at another institution, minimal equipment is necessary. No special technology, software, or subscriptions are needed. What is needed the most in order to be successful with implementing the retroactive component of the project is the dedicated man hours used to analyze the courses, solicit feedback, where necessary, and physically make the changes to the programmed courses or master templates. For the proactive component of the accessibility project, it is necessary to dedicate time to training, process development and implementation, and the adoption of the review tools (checklist, division of labor, and other documents). In addition to the training pieces, slightly more time during course development should be spent providing thoughtful analysis of the integrated learning materials and course design, to ensure that all accessibility and universal design components are met.

Estimate the probable costs associated with this practice: 

Since this initiative is so scaleable and can be done without the purchase of any software or resources, we are going to define the costs in terms of man hours to complete certain tasks.

Retrofitting courses:
Review the course for needed edits: on average, approximately 2 hours per course
Make necessary edits to a course: on average, approximately 4 hours per course plus additional time for transcription
Review/testing of edits (optional): on average, approximately 1 hour per course

Proactive approach:
Preparing accessibility elements during the course development process: on average, approximately 2 hours per course plus additional time for transcription or extensive media
Programming accessibility elements during the course programming process: on average, approximately 2 hours per course plus additional time for transcription or extensive media

References, supporting documents: 

Supporting documents:

  • Accessibility Training Manual
  • Accessibility Checklist - CDS
  • Accessibility Checklist - ID
  • Accessibility Needs/Resources FPD/SME
  • Accessibility Division of Responsibilities
  • Accessibility Training Plan
  • References:
    American Council on Education. (2011). Accommodating student veterans with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder: Tips for campus faculty and staff. Retrieved from http://www.acenet.

    Blauvelt, Erin (2014) "Get Rid of the Gray: Make Accessibility More Black and White!," Internet Learning: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 4.
    Available at:

    CAST. (2013). About UDL. Retrieved from

    Dell, C.A., Thomas, F. & Terry, L. (2015). Applying universal design for learning in online courses: Pedagogical and practical considerations. Journal of Educators Online, v12(2), p166-192.

    Izzo, M.V. (2012). Universal design for learning: Enhancing achievement of students with disabilities. Procedia Computer Science, v14, p343-350.

    King-Sears, M. E., Johnson, T. M., Berkeley, S., Weiss, M. P., Peters-Burton, E. E., Evmenova, A. S., & ... Hursh, J. C. (2015). An Exploratory Study of Universal Design for Teaching Chemistry to Students With and Without Disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 38(2), 84-96.

    Quality Matters. (2014). Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, 5th Edition, 2014. Retrieved from

    Tobin, T. J. (2014). Increase in online student retention with universal design for learning. Quarterly Review Of Distance Education, 15(3), 13-24.

Other Comments: 

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Contact(s) for this Effective Practice
Effective Practice Contact: 
Erin Blauvelt
Email this contact:
Effective Practice Contact 2: 
Kimberly Barss
Email contact 2: