Make your course accessible to all for the benefit of all


Dear Education Committee, Each year students in my classes approach me to request learning accommodations for disabilities or special circumstances. In addition to these student-specific accommodations like extra time on tests, how can I make my sections of introductory biology and cell biology more accessible?

—Wanting to Accommodate

Dear Wanting to Accommodate,

Educators leading introductory “filter” or “weedout” classes with high drop/fail/withdrawal rates may recognize the larger problem embedded in this question. The traditional STEM teaching paradigm is broken, hurting many students including those with disabilities. Universal design for learning (UDL) could be a useful approach to improving overall accessibility within courses and curricula. The idea is based on the architectural concept of universal design, which introduced ramps and cut-out curbs to improve access to buildings. These interventions also broaden overall accessibility: A ramp might have been provided at a building entrance with a wheelchair user in mind, but the same ramp also benefits people with bicycles, strollers, roller skates, or heavy cargo. In a learning context, a class that has been designed toward accessibility benefits all students, including those with documented disabilities who choose to disclose that information to their instructors. Captioned lectures, for example, can help those with learning differences, members of the deaf community, English language learners, and students who are in the library while they review video-based course materials.

UDL strategies have been widely implemented in K–12 curricula, and more recently in higher education as part of a broader conversation about promoting inclusivity in learning environments. (Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning has excellent teaching tools on this topic: Here I will be focusing on using UDL principles to improve accessibility of course content. The recommendations of UDL include promoting accessibility at three different interrelated learning processes: engaging with the concept, learning the concept, and demonstrating mastery of the concept. This helpful interactive graphic provides details and includes links to research supporting the approach in K–20 education: (Some of these references are dated. See Suggested Reading for more-current studies focusing on higher education and assessing benefits both for students with disabilities and for overall class performance.)

UDL is ideally a curriculum-wide intervention, supported by learning technologists, student support, and administration. If you are teaching just one section of a course it might not be feasible to accept assignments in different formats for different students, but you can check to make sure a screen reader can interpret your PDF and read it to both a student with vision problems as well as a commuter student driving to class, work, or daycare.

Overall, make it easy for students to engage with and learn the material by presenting it in different ways. Why? Students will be listening, watching, or reading and they will experience the material through different devices one of which is almost certainly a smartphone. If you were teaching during the height of the pandemic and its associated lockdowns, at least some of your course materials are likely in an online format. Even if you are new to teaching, there are a lot of cell biology resources out there, including the Allen Institute, HHMI Biointeractive, Xbio, and iBiology. These resources and materials can complement your teaching even when you have returned to in-person instruction.

Here are some easy steps to make your course materials more accessible based on UDL approaches.

  1. Interface. Do you know what your learning management system (e.g., Canvas) page looks like when accessed from a phone? You should check. 
  2. Files. PDFs should include optical character recognition (OCR; so a screen reader can interpret them and read them aloud to your students. Unless your course relies on scanned documents, you should be able to use OCR except for older papers. The files that you upload should be an appropriate resolution so as not to tax your students’ data plans. 
  3. Captions. Add captions to your videos. If you have recorded presentations from last year, and want to use them force yourself to watch them first. (I know. It’s the worst. Do it anyway.) Edit to make sure your recordings are short—not more than 10 minutes. If you did not use captions in your presentations, you can add them retroactively either by uploading a file containing a transcript or using automatic transcription and then fixing the mistakes. Zoom’s automated transcription is generally terrible for biology classes. The screencast software that I use (screencastomatic) does know I mean “cell” like the basic unit of life and not “sell” like goods and services, but it still makes mistakes. YouTube also has a closed caption feature and you can make your videos available only to those with a link, i.e., your students. 
  4. Describe images. Use alt-text—short written descriptions of images—and when you are discussing an image make sure you describe it as you go. 
  5. Use direct links to open source materials when possible. You know that feeling when you click on a link to a paper and you have to log in to three things and then hit a paywall? Yes. And that was something you were already interested in. How many screens will someone new to the material go through before they get your thing? Not many. 
  6. Put your efforts where they are most needed. Start with the topics your students struggle with. Do steps 1–7 above. Include links to other resources you find helpful: animations, lectures, etc. 

Six steps are a start. You’ve opened different windows onto the course concepts providing more entry points for students to learn. 

Further Reading

Tobin TJ, Behling K (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Schreffler J, Vasquez III E, Chini J, and James W (2019). Universal design for learning in postsecondary STEM education for students with disabilities: A systematic literature review. International Journal of STEM Education 6(1):8. doi: 10.1186/s40594-019-0161-8.

Increasing Accessibility of College STEM Courses through Faculty Development in Universal Design for Learning | DO-IT. Retrieved July 12, 2021.

About the Author:

Alison Dell is an associate professor of Biology at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY and member of ASCB’s Education Committee. Twitter @dell_alison