Open Dialogues: How to make open content accessible

By emi1989 posted on July 28th, 2017

The open education movement has helped people access content that they would otherwise not be able to view or interact with. Open education resources reduce costs for students and allow for greater flexibility for instructors. And according to Tara Robertson, the accessibility librarian at the Centre for Accessible Post-Secondary Education Resources (CAPER-BC), the idea of accessibility can help push the open education movement even further forward.

For Tara Robertson accessibility means social inclusion. “A lot of the people who work in open education are optimists and they are really thinking about financial access, especially with open textbooks and open access research.” Questions like: “Can people around the world access this information or is it just people in large research universities in developed countries who can access it?” often appear to be on the forefront of discussions around open education resources.

But the accessibility librarian asks something else. “What if we just broaden it a little more from just financial access to accessibility and people with disabilities? It wouldn’t be a stretch from a philosophical standpoint and it would make the movement much more impactful,” she added. “We work in higher education because we believe in the transformative power of education. So I believe that it should be accessible to all people, regardless of ability,” said the accessibility librarian. “We should ask ourselves what kind of society we want, and how education can help us get there.”

CAPER-BC is funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education to provide services to students with print disabilities at 20 institutions across the province. For students where the print textbook is a barrier, Robertson and her team put it into a digital format that these students can use.


In an ideal world all education would be accessible. Robertson suggests that it can be easier when faculty and instructional designers think about the accessibility of their open educational resources proactively, from a universal design perspective, rather than trying to retrofit their already created resources.

Afsaneh Sharif, a faculty liaison for the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at UBC agrees. “It’s always recommended that you spend some time at the beginning planning your course to make the content more accessible,” she said. “As an educator, if I can give more students the opportunity to get access to what I am teaching, then I am doing a good job.”

To help faculty get started, the accessibility librarian recommends putting technical specifications for making the content accessible – which are important, but can be quite intimidating – aside.

“It’s better to start from a place of empathy for the different kinds of people who may be accessing your open content and to understand what their access needs are and to be curious about that. If you’re curious about why and you care about those people, then those kind of, the technical questions and what do I need to do to make this accessible, you’re more curious and you’re more interested in the answers.”

With the help of Amanda Coolidge from BC Campus and Sue Doner from Camosun College, Robertson has put together an accessibility toolkit for open textbooks. The idea is to give open textbook authors the tools that they needed to make sure that the content they are writing is accessible from the start.The toolkit has been adapted and remixed as a UBC-focused guide on creating accessible open educational resources.

In the toolkit there are different checklists for different types of content, including images, videos, tables, etc. There’s also some automated accessibility checkers that can be useful to see where there may be issues.

Universal design for learning

Robertson believes that making content accessible is good practice for all learners in all kinds of environments. “For example, video captions are necessary for deaf and hard of hearing. But if you think about it from a universal design for learning perspective, it also means that people for whom English is an additional language might be able to get that content better. Or for complex scientific words, people who have English as their first language can also see how they’re spelled.” In other words, universal design for learning, by thinking where the digital curb cuts are in the classroom, allows for better access for different kinds of learners, including people with disabilities.

For Sharif it begins with an understanding that education is not a privilege, but a right. “One of the things that I look at when I design courses is how to represent course content in different ways or give students different opportunities to show their knowledge,” added Sharif who recommends UBC instructors reach out to instructional designers in their unit or CTLT to help create content that is accessible.

“The very basic characteristic of education is sharing,” said Sharif. “Sharing knowledge is all about accessibility, making sure that whenever you create something – whether it’s an event, a workshop, a classroom or a course – that it is accessible.”

If you would like to learn more about accessibility at UBC, visit the Access & Diversity website.