Improving Accessibility to Enhance the Online Classroom Experience for All Students

Lockdowns. Quarantines. One thing is for sure, the past 20 months or more were not a typical learning experience. We used a host of new technologies and invented several new phrases. However, to make education possible for everyone, UW Continuum College provides a variety of ways to learn. To do that, UW Continuum College’s Learning Experience team is looking at every angle of the online classroom experience.


The advent of COVID-19 brought about a real need to re-create some aspects of classroom-based instruction in a digital format. The past year’s events also amplified the importance of accessible course material, especially the diversity and equity piece.

“Instead of accessibility, we’re using the term inclusivity because you can make something accessible, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s inclusive,” says Krissy Jones, director of learning design at UW Continuum College. “We’re working on ensuring inclusivity, so students with physical, mental, academic or any other type of needs within the classroom, all feel included in the learning,” she says.

We were a group formed to come up with practices for instructors who had never been online before to learn about how to teach online.

 — Krissy Jones, Director of Learning Design, Continuum College 


When the pandemic began, Jones and the Learning Experience team pitched in to help on the Tri-Campus Council. This emergency group formed out of the COVID-19 response and the immediate move to remote teaching with representation from the University of Washington, University of Washington Bothell and University of Washington Tacoma.

“There are significant differences between emergency remote teaching, where the goal is just to get content to students any way you can, and the online delivery of a course where you have audiovisual components and various media to deliver the learning content,” Jones says. “We were a group formed to come up with practices for instructors who had never been online before to learn about how to teach online,” she says.

Due to the increase in rapid transition to online learning courses during the last 18 months, the team also worked closely with instructors using the UW Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology resources to ensure that PowerPoint presentations are inclusive to all. A few of the strategies they increased emphasis on include captioning and audio describing all videos, describing all slide images, reading all text on the slides and summarizing graphs and charts.

team members meet to discuss their latest book study

In addition to sharing accessibility guidelines and resources for online learning across all campuses, the Learning Experience team conducted accessibility checks on courses this past year. These checks run via Continuum College’s course management system, Canvas. The idea stemmed from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Learning and Engagement Committee and examines documents, links and other course materials.

“This has been a fabulous addition that has enabled us to score how accessible our courses are and improve upon them,” explains Jones. “The next step is establishing quality standards we can review each course against so we can improve student learning and the delivery of that learning.”

The more fully online courses we can offer the more access we provide to students who are unable to come to a campus.

 — Krissy Jones, Director of Learning Design, Continuum College 


Due to the incredible work accomplished by the Learning Experience team during the rapid transition to online learning courses, instructors who’d taught only in-person were able to move more efficiently and effectively to remote teaching. Now, some of those instructors even want to create fully online courses. “The more fully online courses we can offer the more access we provide to students who are unable to come to a campus,” Jones says. “Increasing access to education is always a win.”

Likewise, since the Learning Experience team began implementing accessibility checks this past year, more than 100 courses have been made more accessible. “Our program management courses started with accessibility scores in the low-80s, and we’ve been able to increase them to the mid-90s,” says Jones. “If our accessibility check flags items we can fix quickly, we’re even able to improve our courses before they run,” she adds.

Going forward, the team plans to continue to work on inclusivity, especially regarding students from various ethnographic backgrounds and nationalities. “We’re taking a whole look at what is diversity, equity and inclusion all in one,” Jones says. “And how we can approach it from a more holistic way by looking at all the aspects our students bring to the classroom, including those who may need additional assistance with their learning as well.