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Course Design


Natalie Cole

Learning, Technology, Access & Equity Administrator

CMC Student Services

Universal Design

Universal Design is a philosophy for developing systems that go beyond accessibility and accommodation to creatively design user experiences that work for all. In an educational setting, one resource, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), is a research-based framework for designing for all students.

Learner Engagement: Affective - The "Why" of learning
Learners differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn.

Content Representation: Recognition - The "What" of learning
Learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them.

Action & Expression: Strategic - The "How" of learning
Learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

What does this mean for you as a faculty member at a public college?

Generally, it means that you must provide basic accessible access to all aspects of your course. You may wonder if you only have to provide accommodations if there is a student known to be disabled in your class, and the answer is that for some types of accommodations, yes that would be the case. However, to broadly address the issue of accessibility to content in such a way that avoids singling out students, institutions have adopted the requirements for access to online content that must be provided to all students as part of the basic course design and to meet ADA requirements.

Although following ADA requirements may seem like extra work, it is essential and is considered best practice for quality course design more generally. All students benefit from a principle known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Below are examples of effective ADA design benefits that positively affect other students.

  • students who are second language learners may also benefit from the available closed captions
  • mild hearing loss is very common among the general population, meaning that students with any hearing loss may also benefit from the available closed captions
  • students who would qualify for disability services may not have been formally identified
  • students who have disabilities that affect their learning may not ask for the help they need and deserve

Keep in mind that following ADA requirements is the law. There are potentially serious repercussions for both individual faculty members and institutions who do not make efforts to comply.

The seven (7) elements below must be met for any online content provided to students.

  • Layout/Organization
  • Headings
  • Images
  • Links/URLs
  • Color
  • Tables
  • Video Captioning CC/Transcripts

ADA requirements also apply to in-person learning, but with additional requirements. Two examples of ways the seven online elements might be used in face-to-face learning are given below.

  • If you are showing a movie in class, provide access to closed captioning.
  • If you are using PowerPoint slides, you must test for color contrast and make sure alternative descriptions of images are available.

In addition, the physical space of in-person learning must be accommodating.

Additional accommodations may also be provided for individual students depending on their specific needs. 

  • Quality course design utilizes the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and commits to accessibility, ensuring all learners can access all course content and activities and all learners can easily navigate and interact with course components. (Overview of QM Standard 8)
  • The course should provide alternative means of access to course materials in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners.
  • The course design and the multimedia should facilitate ease of use, maximizing usability. (QM standards 8.3, 8.4, 8.5)
  • The course design should facilitate readability. (QM standard 8.2) The course navigation should facilitate ease of use. (QM standard 8.1)

7 Online Accessibility Requirements

The importance of accessible online content cannot be overstated. Students are entitled to have the opportunity to fully participate in all aspects of the educational environment to become successful and independent learners. Providing accessible content in Canvas can help students gain equal access and become independent learners. The following guidelines are a glimpse at some of the ways to create accessible content; however, there are many things to consider when it comes to accessibility and usability. See the additional resources for more in-depth information.

Providing multiple ways for students to access content and demonstrate knowledge benefits all students, including those with disabilities. There are some important guidelines you can follow to improve accessibility and usability in your course.

The way you organize your course can be unique to you. However, the organization needs to be logical and consistent so students can succeed.

Some best practices are:

  • Organize content into modules by timeframe (e.g., weekly, class period), by topic, or by another unit appropriate to course segments. These online modules help students locate important and time-specific information quickly.
  • Limit the number of items that display for students in the left-hand navigation menu (see settings/navigation). Keep only tools and links your students will use during the course.
  • Create a Start Here or Welcome module that orients students the first time they enter the course. Keep important course logistical information in this module.
  • Plan for how you want students to navigate your course. Consider user needs. Create a video tutorial to show them how they should navigate your course and how to use technology that is required for their learning.
  • Keep the modules concise so that students are not overwhelmed. Create an introduction to each module (overview page) that lists module learning outcomes, links to learning materials, and lists/links to learning activities. You can use internal links to pages, discussions, and assignments for ease of access.

Your program may also have a suggested or required course structure. Often these are used to reduce the student learning curve because all courses in a particular program use a similar layout. In this way, students can focus on your content and learning activities and not waste time figuring out new navigation for every course each term. Check with your program director to see if this applies to you. The LX Design team can also assist with suggestions for optimal layout and organization of a course.

Headings help e-readers to navigate text. Use properly formatted headings with the Canvas HTML editor style. Unfortunately, highlighting the text and applying a different font type, a larger font size, bold formatting, colors, etc. does not make a proper heading. Headings should be formatted using proper heading styles within Canvas for students using assistive technology e-readers.

If you are copying text from another source, clear the formatting first using notepad or a similar .txt only tool to strip out any formatting that may interfere with how Canvas presents the text in HTML code for the e-reader technology. You cannot rely on formatting in MS word or another text editing tool to copy over correctly into Canvas.

Canvas Headings.png This image shows how to use the Canvas HTML editor to select headings that can be read by an e-reader.


Canvas does provide a tool for you to clear previous Canvas formatting and start over. Use this if you have formatted text in Canvas that you want to re-style. When copying text from another source, it is best to clear formatting first before pasting it into Canvas.

Shows where to find the clear formatting tool in the Canvas HTML editor.

Include images that have an alternative text/long description attached to them. Students who have low vision may not be able to correctly see your image and may rely on an e-reader to describe the image. This is really when a picture is worth a thousand words. When you upload an image, Canvas will ask you to provide additional details about the image. You can include attribution information like copyright or Creative Commons attribution, but for any images that directly relate to the learning material, please provide a long description that would reasonably inform someone unable to see the image of its purpose and content. If you are using an image to convey statistical information in a table, do not use copied images. More information will be provided below about how to represent accessible tables.

If the image is purely decorative, like scenery, you can indicate that with a check box and do not need to provide alternative text. Keep in mind that including such images may reduce the overall experience for low-sight students.

Image shows options in Canvas for adding alternative text for low vision students to make the image meaningful with an e-reader.

Accessibility Checking Tool

Canvas provides a useful tool to help you monitor how accessible your images are after you have uploaded them in a page. Look in the lower left corner of the image. You will see a small red or green meter. By hoovering over the meter icon, you can see if your image passes an automated accessibility check. This feature does not monitor the quality of your long description, but it will help indicate if you have provided a long description or alternative text for a given image. This automated accessibility checking tool can be used by administrators to give a rough evaluation of how accessible your course images are.

Image shows an example of Canvas green and red icons to indicate an image with correct alternative text and incorrect alternative text as an accessibility rating.

PDF Scans Should Read as Text

At times, PDF files are scanned images. These files are not accessible to users of assistive technology and may not be readable by other users. Consider the reader. You may have experienced poor-quality scans in the past where the text was skewed or unclear, the pages were sideways or upside down, or the image was over or underexposed. Start with the "cleanest" possible scan. Avoid copies of copies; the quality deteriorates with each copy. When possible, work with original files. The library may be a good resource for locating original files, such as journal articles. To improve the accessibility of scanned PDFs, run the Make Accessible Action Wizard in Adobe Acrobat. While this quick "wizard" won't remedy all issues, it will improve the readability for most users.

Create hyperlinks with text descriptions instead of simply pasting the URLs. Describe what the link is and avoid using "click here". It is best to also include a brief description in parenthesis letting the reader know that the link opens in a new window or tab, although Canvas provides a small icon to show a page on a page. Canvas also automatically indicates hyperlinks by underlining the hot spot and changing the color to light blue.

Hypertext Example

The example image below shows two light blue underlined hyperlinks that lead to internal documents. Avoid using underlines for anything in your text other than hyperlinks and avoid using blue color for text so as not to confuse students about what is and is not a hyperlink.

This image shows an example of using descriptive hyperlinks for internal links.

Internal and External Hyperlinks

Canvas allows both external hyperlinks (linking out to other websites) and internal hyperlinks (links to pages and files) within your Canvas shell. These hyperlinks both display to students identically. When uploading documents, Canvas creates an internal hyperlink to the course document. To insert a hyperlink, use the insert tool in the HTML text editor. Then choose the type of link, "Course Links" (internal) or External Links, you would like to insert.

Links External Links.png The image shows how to insert both external and internal hyperlinks


For external hyperlinks, an additional popup box will open asking you to paste the link and provide descriptive text for the link.The image shows how to create a descriptive text hyperlink for external URLS instead of just posting the original URL.

For internal hyperlinks use the insert tool from the HTML text editor and select "Course Links." A side menu will open to allow you to choose the type of course link you seek. You may click on the type of material or search for an artifact by title of the internal file. This image shows how the internal course link menu open on the right side to allow you to locate an internal course link to insert into your text.

Embedding Videos

To add videos, you can also use embed code to place a small version of the video within the page itself. The embed tool is under the insert tool on the HTML menu. Embed code from videos can usually be copied as an option from the Share tool on their site.

Embed tool .png Tool showing how to embed code in Canvas under the Insert tool

Under Share in YouTube you have the option to select the embed code and copy it into Canvas using the Insert tool.

Image shows sharing options from YouTube. Select embed code to bring up a pop-up window with HTML code to embed your video in a Canvas page.

Conveying Meaning

Do not use color to signify importance or convey meaning in a document. Users with color visibility deficiencies (color blindness) may have difficulty comprehending the content. For color blind readers, many colors of similar value can be hard to distinguish from each other making it difficult to gain useful information. If you need to use color as a property in the text of an image, provide an alternative method for gaining access to the information as well.

Subway map image shown with color and without color in grey-scale. For some color blind users, it can be difficult to distinguish between two similar color values.

Color Contrast

Adequate contrast between the text foreground and background is important for users with low vision. The example below shows how you can use a tool to check color contrast. provides a color checking tool you can use to check the color contrast ratio of materials you use. also provides a useful color contrast tool.

Lecture slides are a primary location when font and background colors display. When using slide templates or creating your own, be mindful of selecting colors with high contrast ratios for readability. Dark colored text on white or very light background is recommended. This consideration applies both for online and in-person slide use.

Shows a color-selector panel

Avoid using tables as an organizational tool unless you are representing data. E-readers find tables clumsy to interpret. When you use a table to organize and present data, create it using the Canvas table tool. Do not copy a table from another location or text editor. Do not use an image representing the table because these images may not be readable by the assistive technology.

Lists can be alternative ways of presenting organized information. Best practices with lists include using bullets or numbers to indicate hierarchy and separate one item from another. Add bullet points and/or numbered lists using the Canvas editing tools.

Recorded Video

When using videos for learning material, make sure students have access to closed captioning and an accurate transcript.

Most video recording or processing technologies can automate this process. Studio, a video recording tool accessible through Canvas, provides the opportunity to enable Closed Captions (CC) and edit the text after you have finished recording.

YouTube provides the option to create a video transcript that can also be edited after the video is loaded.

Live Video

Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams video conferencing all offer live closed captioning technology. The host typically enables this when they set up the meeting or first enter the meeting software. In some cases users can request access to the technology. One best practice is to include brief instructions for students on how to access Closed Captioning during a live class meeting and to include this in your meeting setting up checklist to make sure it is enabled for each session.

The example shows Closed Captions being used in a WebEx meeting. When turned on by the host, these captions can be enabled in the dot,dot,dot extra menu option.

Image shows closed captions in Webex.

Quality Video

For additional information on producing quality recorded videos for your course review the document linked below.


Accessibility with Video in Canvas

Canvas is the chosen Learning Management System (LMS) for CMC. They have a robust support system at their YouTube channel, CANVAS LMS, that provides many short, high quality, just-in-time training videos to help you learn and use their tools to build and maintain your class. (The link opens in another tab/window).

In addition to learning the basics about how to use Canvas to load your class and interact with students, the CANVAS LMS site provides training on making your learning materials accessible to meet the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). By law, disabled students who notify CMC of their disability are eligible for reasonable accommodations and modifications to the learning environment to provide equity in education. Common and expected modifications are:

  • all videos include closed captions and transcripts
  • all print content can be read by an e-reader tool
  • images include alternative text for e-reader tools for students with low sight

These are a few examples among other accommodations that Student Affairs may deem to be reasonable. The three accommodations listed above are examples of seven (7) total best practices for online accessibility design and because they impact access for all students, not just students with documented disabilities, they are required elements of your Canvas shell. Other accommodations may be more student specific; and depending on a specific student's needs, Student Affairs may ask you to offer extended time on tests, an adapted testing environment, or access to digital materials, or special technology, etc.

The two 30-minute videos below provide a thorough introduction to how to make your content ADA accessible. Since ADA standards are part of federal education law, you will be expected to take steps in your course design to make your course accessible. Choose at least one of these videos to watch to learn the different aspects of accessible design and how to implement them using Canvas in your course.

Additional Resources