Accessible Remote Instruction

Whether you’ve taught online for years or have recently moved to a virtual classroom, the User Research Center (URC) can help you create an accessible experience for all students, including students with disabilities.

It’s the responsibility of every instructor to provide an educational experience that conforms to the Harvard University Digital Accessibility Policy. Courses that are designed with accessibility in mind contribute to an inclusive culture that complies with government regulations.

Tips for Accessible Remote Instruction

Start with the basics

Relax--the first step is to continue doing all the things you already do that make you a great teacher:

  • Use inclusive language about people with disabilities
  • Get to know your students as individuals
  • Communicate your expectations clearly, and make yourself available through email or office hours

Know your audience

Some disabilities that might be apparent in face-to-face interactions will not be apparent remotely. Most disabilities, however, are not apparent even in person. In fact, you’ve undoubtedly already taught many students with disabilities. It’s a good idea to assume that your classroom is a diverse collection of learners, and each student may interact differently with the web and the course material. 

We recommend: 

  • Inviting participants to contact you in advance of class to request accommodations such as live captions or materials in alternative formats
  • Being prepared to send a set of accessible PowerPoint slides in advance of each lecture if requested. 

Remember: Students may choose whether or not they disclose their disabilities, and some disabilities are temporary or situational. 

Use accessible tools

Ensure that any technology you incorporate in your class, such as tools from third-party vendors, conferencing platforms, polls, exam software, and research tools conform to the University’s procurement process and meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA. Many Harvard-provided teaching tools, like Canvas and Zoom, are accessible. For questions about using an app from a third-party vendor, contact disabilityservices@harvard.edu.

Tips for teaching via video

  • Always turn on your video and face the camera. Seeing the speaker helps maintain participant attention, and it can be helpful for students who are reading lips.
  • Don’t cover your mouth while presenting, unless it is necessary due to your environment.
  • Use a high-quality microphone and eliminate background noise.
  • Ensure that lectures and pre-recorded videos have captions and transcripts. If using Zoom, use the built-in function to create a recording and transcript.
  • For guidance on captions, review this tutorial on how to create captions using YouTube Studio 

Tell, rather than show

When speaking to a virtual class, imagine you’re on the telephone and your listeners cannot see what you see. Discretely summarize key sensory elements:

  • Key steps in a technique you’re demonstrating.
  • The results of an impromptu class survey
  • The trend represented on a graph.
  • Noteworthy facial expressions or visual characteristics of a photograph being discussed.
  • The relationship between two points on a map.

Keep in mind that expressions such as, “right here” or “here we see” or "in the upper-right" will not translate well to students who cannot see the screen. Be descriptive and clear in your descriptions.

Follow best practices for written content

  • Incorporate best practices for using headings
  • Write in clear, concise sentences that are grouped into short sections
  • Make sure your tone aligns with the Harvard Library writing guide
  • Avoid experimenting with customized or novel digital features. These enhancements may not be accessible, and may complicate rather than improve the learning experience for some students.

Create accessible presenations and student interactions

  • Choose high-contrast colors to differentiate between text and background, or between items on a graph or pie chart. 
  • Use an easy-to-read sans-serif font.
  • Add alt text to images to describe their content and purpose.
  • Encourage all students to identify themselves by name before speaking. This helps those who cannot use gallery view to follow and participate in the conversation. 
  • If students must use their laptop cameras to show something to the class, use it sparingly and with forethought about workarounds
  • Encourage all students to incorporate accessibility in their classroom presentations.

Testing and reviews

If you're interested in reviewing your content for accessibility or testing with a screen reader, please email libraryux@harvard.edu to request a consultation.

Accessibility Resources

Teaching Resources

Zoom Accessibility

Captioning

Document Accessibility

Meetings and Presentations

Questions?

Each school and administrative unit at Harvard has at least one digital accessibility liaison who serves as a point of contact for their community. Liaisons can help identify resources to ensure the accessibility of their unit’s web pages and web applications. Find your department’s Digital Accessibility Liaison.