The Key Partnerships for Designing Accessible Online Classes

As online courses become increasingly popular, making sure they are accessible to all students is crucial.

Today, many universities are seeing more students with hidden disabilities and students who decide not to disclose their disabilities. Being proactive about accessible course design, particularly online, helps ensure that no student is left behind.

But if you are new to accessible online course design, where do you even begin and who needs to get involved?

In this webinar, Dawn Hunziker, IT Accessibility Consultant, and Janet Smith, Quality Assurance Coordinator, from the University of Arizona (UA) will help answer these pressing questions. They will share how they built out their team, how they got faculty buy-in, and what tools they have created to help individuals across campus build accessible online courses.

In this webinar will cover:

  • Who is involved in course design at UA
  • What collaborations they formed to create accessible learning and IT environments
  • Their process for designing accessible online courses
  • How they interact and talk with faculty
  • Key lessons learned and challenges they confronted


Dawn Hunziker
IT Accessibility Consultant | University of Arizona

Janet Smith
Instructional Designer, Quality Initiatives | University of Arizona

Elisa Edelberg (Moderator)
3Play Media

Q&A: The University of Arizona’s Proactive Approach to Online Accessibility

In 2015, the University of Arizona (UA) realized they needed to change their online course experience to be more inclusive.

“As our leaders looked around at the landscape, they wanted a process in place to ensure quality and move towards being more proactive around accessibility,” said Janet Smith, Quality Assurance Coordinator, from UA.

UA online, the campus’s online learning portal, is rapidly growing every year. As part of their proactive measures toward greater accessibility, the university implemented a team that creates accessible online courses for faculty.

Below is a snippet from the Q&A in the webinar covering how they got faculty buy-in, how they handle captioning, and how they select accessible vendors.

How do you work with faculty that is too busy to make their content accessible?

DAWN HUNZIKER: We’re creating these designs that give faculty a template that’s already accessible. If they implement their course material using that template, then they’re already 90% there in terms of having their content in an accessible way.

How does that work in terms of instructors who are too busy to find an accessible PDF, for example? That’s really where the Disability Resource Center steps in and serves as an accommodation piece for the student. And then at the end of the semester, we do reach out to that instructor and say, hey, we either found accessible PDFs for your course, or we have created accessible versions of your PDFs, and provide those documents to the instructor as an option to add into their course.

And then the other piece of that is the training. The instructional designers make sure that the instructors are aware of the fact that an accessible PDF isn’t just for someone who has a disability and using assistive technology. It also increases access for individuals using mobile devices, laptop, desktop, maybe individuals who are in rural areas where the network isn’t as fast.

So it’s definitely a work in progress. I can’t say that we are perfect in that. But we are definitely continuing to go through that process.

How do you handle automatic captions that aren’t correct, like on Panopto?

DAWN HUNZIKER: We rely on captioning vendors to caption our course-related content. We don’t produce those captions using auto-captions or in-house areas of functionality of processes.

How do you choose accessible vendors?

JANET SMITH: If we are purchasing a solution for our campus-wide environment, then testing for accessibility and working with the vendor around accessibility is built into that process.

There’s always the areas of the piece of technology that aren’t accessible, so looking at that technology and saying, “OK, if we have a student with a disability in this course, and the instructor is using XYZ piece of that technology, what are we going to do to address that? How is that going to work?”

We’re always piloting new technologies. I think one of the key things in making sure that we’re aware of what’s coming down the road in terms of those innovative technologies. We’re watching those pilot classes to see what are the interactions, what’s going on, how is this technology being used. If you have 30 faculties, and they’re all using it the same way, then the chances are that when we incorporate the other 500 faculties on campus, they’re probably going to use it in that same way as well. [For example,] D2L has a lot of components. And there are five areas that are predominantly used by all faculty. So addressing those first and making sure that those pieces are accessible in that part of the role on campus.

On VoiceThread, do you include student responses in the captioning as well?

DAWN HUNZIKER: Yes, if a class is using VoiceThread, and there’s a deaf or hard-of-hearing individual in the course, we are captioning both the instructor prompts and any student responses that are part of that. And we turn those around within two to eight hours. And again, that’s with a captioning vendor.

How do you handle synchronous meetings?

DAWN HUNZIKER: With synchronous meetings, in terms of captioning, we do coordinate with the faculty member and the students. First of all, we ask the faculty member, “Are you requiring students to attend a synchronous meeting?” If yes, we’re going to expect the student who’s deaf or hard of hearing to be attending as well. We provide a CART capturer or a CART writer, just like we would for an in-person course. So that person then has access to the course. They are capturing the content. And that access is provided.

If the synchronous meeting is optional, then one of the things that we do is we talk to the student. And we say, “Are you planning on attending?” If so, great, we’ll have someone there that’s captioning the meeting as it happens. If not, then we’re going to caption it after the fact and talk to the student about that and see what their preference is.

Do you hire student workers to help make content accessible?

DAWN HUNZIKER: For the Disability Resource Center, our student workers are converting documents. They’re downloading the video files to get that content captioned. In very rare cases, if the video is very short, they may provide a transcript of that video, which then is provided to the captioning vendor for syncing to that video.

Then they are also assisting in our testing accommodations process, checking students in and out, delivering exams, copying exams, all that kind of office work.