Enhancing Accessibility in Online Learning: A Quick Guide to Screen Readers

Accessibility isn’t just a buzzword, it's a fundamental requirement for inclusivity. For individuals with visual impairments or other disabilities, screen readers serve as indispensable tools, making digital content accessible through synthesized speech or Braille output. As online learning continues to surge in popularity, ensuring compatibility with screen readers is paramount for educators committed to inclusivity.

In this quick guide, we'll explore common screen readers, creative applications for the technology, and essential strategies for preparing both your online course content and your learning management system for compatibility with accessibility devices.

Introducing Some Commonly Used Screen Readers

Screen readers are software applications that interpret text and communicate content to users via non-visual means. Learners who require a screen reader to access your content have a number of different options, with their selection dependent on factors such as the operating system they use, the languages they speak, and the kinds of content they typically access. Some of the most popular screen reader options available include:

  1. NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access): Developed for Windows, NVDA is a popular open-source screen reader known for its reliability and extensive features. It supports various languages and is compatible with many applications and web browsers.
  2. VoiceOver: Built into Apple devices, VoiceOver is a robust screen reader that provides seamless integration with iOS, macOS, and iPadOS. It offers gesture-based navigation and supports Braille displays, making it versatile for users with different preferences.
  3. JAWS (Job Access With Speech): Widely used in professional environments, JAWS is a powerful screen reader designed for Windows. Its advanced features include customizable verbosity settings and support for complex web applications.
  4. ChromeVox: This screen reader extension for Google Chrome offers accessibility features tailored to web browsing. It's lightweight, easy to use, and provides text-to-speech functionality for online content.

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Taking Inspiration From Accessibility

The core technologies utilized by screen readers and other forms of assistive technology can ultimately benefit all learners. A richer audio experience would be enjoyed by many members of your audience, and still more would benefit from having certain details read aloud, even if they don’t have a vision impairment that would necessitate the technology. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Interactive Storytelling: Transform written narratives into more immersive auditory experiences by incorporating sound effects, music, and dynamic voice acting. You  can enhance storytelling by delivering audio cues and character dialogue, making the content engaging for all learners.
  2. Auditory Feedback in Assessments: Integrate screen readers into quizzes and assignments to provide real-time feedback to students. By using speech synthesis to communicate correct answers, explanations, and feedback, educators can reinforce learning objectives and accommodate diverse learning styles.
  3. Virtual Field Trips: Take students on virtual excursions to historical sites, museums, or natural landmarks by using speech synthesis. Provide vivid descriptions and contextual information to immerse learners in the experience, fostering curiosity and understanding beyond traditional textbook learning.

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Preparing Online Course Content for Screen Readers

In order to create accessible content you’ll need to pay attention to a number of standards and conventions that screen readers and other assistive technologies rely on when interpreting text. Particularly, you’ll want to pay attention to the following elements:

  1. Semantic HTML Structure: Use semantic HTML elements such as headings, lists, and landmarks to create a well-structured document outline. Clear hierarchy and descriptive labels enable screen readers to navigate content efficiently and provide context to users.
  2. Alt Text for Images: Include concise and descriptive alternative text (alt text) for images, graphs, and charts to convey visual information effectively. Alt text should provide relevant details without being overly verbose, enabling users to comprehend the content without visual cues.
  3. Transcripts and Captions: Provide transcripts for audio and video content to ensure accessibility for users with hearing impairments or those who prefer text-based formats. Additionally, include closed captions or subtitles to synchronize spoken dialogue with visual media, enhancing comprehension for all learners.

Open LMS admins can assess these elements and more using the Brickfield Accessibility Toolkit, an extension that evaluates content, provides remediation workflows, and facilitates bulk update actions to keep your content compliant. Our Adoption and Education team is also available to provide a more thorough assessment of your learning environment.

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How Screen Readers Dictate a Better Learning Future for Everyone

Screen readers play a vital role in fostering inclusivity and accessibility in online learning environments. By familiarizing themselves with common screen readers, exploring creative applications, and implementing best practices for content preparation, educators can create a more equitable learning experience for all students.

The world of online learning is in bloom with new applications of trusted tools like screen readers that benefit all learners. Embracing accessibility not only benefits individuals with disabilities but also enriches the educational experience for every learner.

If you want to optimize your content and aren’t sure where to begin, please contact us for an accessibility discovery call with the Open LMS Adoption and Education team.
Jaime Ade
About the author

Jaime Ade

Adoption & Education Specialist, Open LMS

Jaime Ade is an Adoption and Education Specialist at Open LMS, and a long-time Edtech Guru with experience working with learning management systems, learning analytics software, and a wide range of other products in the industry. She's an educator, and has taught classes to internationally-based K-12 students as well as professional development courses to learners of all ages. She's also a beekeeper and the founder of Cerebral Palsy Sunrise, an organization providing access to resources, support, and community for individuals with Cerebal Palsy. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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