#BbWorld15 – Increasing Student Engagement: Best Practices for Accessible Course Design

This post was authored by Vince St. Germain, eLearning and Instructional Technology Specialist in eLearning and Emerging Technologies at GVSU.

Designing your Blackboard course so that it’s accessible to students with physical or learning disabilities is much easier than you think. According to Instructional Designer Marlene Zentz and Student Accessibility Specialist Aaron Page of the University of Montana, it’s really just about using a little “common sense”. Both Zentz and Page presented on the topic at this year’s Bb World 2015 Conference in Washington D.C. back in July. They were able to make their point very clearly when they demonstrated the JAWS screen reader and how unintelligible it sounds when reading aloud a long URL. It was one of those “A-HA” moments that no one in the room expected or will ever forget.

Session Notes:

When building a course in Blackboard be sure to design your content with the following accessibility technologies in mind.

  1. High contrast color setting
  2. Built-in settings of your device
  3. Screen readers (JAWS)
    1. Job Access With Speech, is the world’s most popular screen reader
    2. http://www.freedomscientific.com/Products/Blindness/JAWS
  4. Screen magnification
    1. Browser dependent

Simply use common sense as you add content! Here are five easy to use and configure accessibility functions that will make a big difference to users who require the tools above.

Heading structure

  • Use item/content naming fields appropriately
  • Creating subheadings – use “heading” option in text editor
    • Choose appropriately based on the structure of your content
  • Add text to offset visual cues
    • Example: Instead of highlighting or changing font color add descriptive text.
  • Consistency is important
  • Use exclamation and question marks appropriately.
  • “Do not” use emoticons

Alternative text for images

  • Depends on the context of the image – use appropriate, short descriptions
  • Use only images that have meaning and purpose that supports the content
  • Eliminate clutter – remove unnecessary images
  • Don’t tag decorative images – leave blank
  • Complex images – use short tags, add descriptions, captions
  • Text should not be included in images only logos

Use Self-describing links

  • Do not use “click here”
  • Use name of site or a description as name for the link
  • “Do not” paste long URLs, always create self-describing links


  • Let the Text Editor tools create the list
  • Always use ordered or unordered lists
  • Lists are faster than tables


  • Use sparingly
  • Set column type as headers