Closing the digital learning gap: The importance of accessibility in education

By: Verbit Editorial

Students working on laptop


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As the world becomes more digital, the need for accessible digital spaces grows. And the classroom is no exception as technology and online learning continues to play an increasingly important role in education at all levels.

Digital accessibility involves making websites, online content, technology and devices accessible and usable to people of all abilities. It means, among other things, providing digital materials so that people with disabilities can use accommodations to access them, making sure documents are displayed in an accessible format and layout and providing alt text and image descriptions for photos, illustrations, graphs and charts.

Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) require educational institutions to provide equal access for individuals with disabilities to all educational benefits and opportunities that are provided online or in other digital formats. However, as technology and digital instruction become more prominent across higher education, experts says that more colleges and universities are fielding complaints that their websites and digital services do not meet accessibility requirements.

Accessibility challenges persist

A recent EDUCAUSE Quickpoll of more than 700 IT professionals found that 68% said that their institution has faced at least one website accessibility challenge, with more than 25% reporting having faced more than one.

Additionally, a report by risk management firm AAAtraq found that 97% of US colleges and universities do not have accessibility compliant websites, with many institutions having errors on their home page. AAAtraq CEO Lawrence Shaw said that it took just 30 seconds to identify failings in most websites.

“We are really concerned that colleges and universities are being told their sites are compliant but, in reality, they are not, and no one knows how to check,” he said.

Emphasizing this need for greater digital accessibility, the US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice issued a joint letter in 2023 reminding higher-ed institutions of the importance of improving their websites’ digital accessibility. The letter noted that many colleges, universities and other postsecondary institutions increasingly rely on their websites and third-party online platforms to provide services, programs and activities, including online courses, podcasts and videos featuring lectures, conferences, sporting events, admissions information, graduation ceremonies and other events. This content, officials said, is considered a program of the institution and must be accessible to all students.

The education department issued similar letters in 2008 and 2015.

Students at a study table, working on open laptops

Digital accessibility benefits everyone

Research shows that roughly 65% of the population are visual learners, processing information presented in visual form more effectively than that presented in writing. However, if that information is presented without consideration of accessibility, visual processing, and basic design principles, its lessons and messages can be lost. By making digital accessibility a priority, schools and educators can narrow the learning gap for students with unique educational needs, ensuring they have equal access to educational opportunities like their peers.

Below are just a few things to consider when designing digital learning experiences.

Accessibility first. Choose digital tools and resources designed with accessibility in mind, like those that are compatible with screen readers and provide keyboard navigation and adjustable fonts. Look for applications and platforms that comply with accessibility standards such as those outlined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Keep it simple. Choose fonts that are easy to read and avoid making them too small or too light in color. Be aware of color combinations (text against backgrounds) that can hinder readability thanks to low contrast.

Captions, transcripts and descriptions. For videos, add captions, transcripts or audio description to make them accessible to students who are deaf or hard or hearing (or who simply prefer to read along with the instruction) or blind or with low vision. A third-party captioning, transcription and audio description provider like Verbit can help simplify the process, ensuring top-quality solutions that accurately convey the lesson to all students. It’s important to note, too, that many video and learning management platforms offer built-in automatic captions, though some of these auto captioning and transcription services vary in terms of accuracy.

Provide alt text. Alt text (alternative text) describes an image on a page, helping individuals who are blind or with low vision to understand what the image shows. Label images with descriptive alt text that clearly and properly explains the image.

Use accessible document formats. Ensure any shared documents are in accessible formats, such as PDFs featuring text layers that can be read by screen-reading software.

Offer multiple methods of engagement. As noted above, roughly two-thirds of the population are visual learners, with 30% being auditory learners and 5% kinesthetic learners, or someone who would rather perform physical activity to learn something as an active participant instead of passively listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration. Because everyone has their own learning style, it’s important to give students different ways to interact with the lessons. This can include providing video lectures, written documents and hands-on activities. It’s also a good idea to share both digital and physical versions of readings and assignments so that students can choose the assignment that works for them.

A man and a woman look at their laptops

Partner with Verbit for greater education access

Creating inclusive learning experiences requires specialized expertise. Verbit’s team has the experience, knowledge and technologies, including live captioning, video captions, transcription and audio description to help. We’re trusted by a variety of colleges and universities, such as the University of California, Santa Barbara, the University of Akron and the University of Texas at San Antonio, among others, to make their classes and classrooms more inclusive. Connect with us to learn more about how we can work together to enhance the accessibility of your courses, campus events and more.