Content advertised as “open access” and “freely accessible” may give the impression that OER are universally accessible, but many users still face inequitable barriers to access. Therefore, accessibility, usability and Universal Design are key considerations to ensuring truly inclusive access to OER.


  • Ensure OER meets institutional and national guidelines or standards for accessibility e.g. W3C standards and guidelines.
  • Apply Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles in OER creation and open pedagogy.

Actions and Considerations

  • Undertake accessibility assessments and usability testing.
  • Include accessibility information on OER.
  • Think about UDL, usability, and accessibility early on in your process.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal design is the process of creating products (devices, environments, systems and processes) that are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest possible range of situations (environments, conditions and circumstances). It arose out of the broader accessibility movement, as well as the advent of adaptive and assistive technology.

In the context of OER, universal design for learning or UDL means removing potential barriers to access for students by designing content for all learning styles.

UDL guidelines are based on the three primary brain networks shown in the slides below:

  • Affective networks – The “why” of learning
  • Recognition networks – The “what” of learning
  • Strategic networks – The “how” of learning
This slide show describes key facts about the brain from a UDL perspective. To advance to the next slide, click the blue progress bar at the bottom of the image or the small arrow next to the 1/3 text.
Creating learning experiences that activate these three broad learning networks is a useful pursuit for educators as it works towards the goal of expert learning. Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has identified a series of principles to guide design, development, and delivery in practice to address each of the different networks:
  • Multiple means of engagement
  • Multiple means of representation
  • Multiple means of action and expression

Watch the short video below to learn about the benefits and principles of UDL.

Video: Universal Design for Learning [5 mins, 52 secs]

Note: Close captions are available by clicking on the CC button in the video.

You might find it helpful to see what UDL can look like in learning and teaching. Here are some examples of UDL in a variety of learning environments.

Multiple means of engagement

  • Explicitly state learning goals and/or examples
  • Provide note-taking support
  • Give opportunities to celebrate
  • Offer opportunities for reflection

Multiple means of representation

  • Provide content in multiple ways
  • Employ interactive learning activities
  • Use multimedia resources to deliver content

Multiple means of action and expression

  • Develop an agenda or learning plan and follow it
  • Provide access to resources to deepen learning
  • Include a variety of communication options
  • Offer opportunities to review content or practice skills

Good Practice Example: Universal Design for Learning in Foundations of Neuroscience

Foundations of Neuroscience explicitly acknowledge they have included multiple means of representation to engage students with the content. This includes clear, accessible text; images and animations; captured video versions of the text and interactive activities.


Accessibility is one of the primary—but not the only—benefits of using UDL principles from the beginning. An OER that is created correctly from the beginning will significantly reduce the barriers to anyone using the OER. There is, moreover, also both a legal and moral impetus for creating accessible resources. Both accessibility and usability need to be built into your development process and should not be an afterthought.

Accessibility checklist

Below is a list of minimum requirements your OER should meet to be considered accessible:

Organising Content

  • Content is organised under headings and subheadings.
  • Headings and subheadings are used sequentially (e.g. Heading 1, Heading 2)


  • Images that convey information include alternative or ‘alt’ text descriptions of the image’s content or function.
  • Graphs, charts and maps also include contextual or supporting details in the text surrounding the image.
  • Images don’t rely on colour to convey information.
  • Images that are purely decorative contain empty alt text descriptions. (Descriptive text is unnecessary if the image doesn’t convey contextual content information).


  • Links are meaningful in context and don’t use generic text such as ‘click here’ or ‘read more’.
  • If a link will open or download a file (like a PDF or Excel file), a textual reference is included in the link information (e.g. ‘[PDF]’).


  • Tables include row and column headers.
  • Tables include titles or captions.
  • Tables don’t have merged or split cells.
  • Tables have adequate cell padding.


  • A transcript is available for each audio resource containing relevant non-speech content, including:
    • the speaker’s name
    • all speech content
    • relevant descriptions of speech
    • descriptions of relevant non-speech audio
    • headings and subheadings
  • Videos have captions of all speech content and relevant non-speech content.
  • Videos include audio descriptions of contextual visuals (e.g. graphs, charts).


  • Simple equations use symbols that will be correctly interpreted by screen readers (e.g. minus signs and not hyphens).
  • Complex equations are written in MathML or written in such a way they can be translated into MathML (e.g. written in LaTeX and rendered with MathJax).
  • Equations are images with alt text descriptions if MathML is not an option.

Font Size

  • Font size is 12 point or higher for body text.
  • Font size is 9 point for footnotes or end notes.
  • Font size can be zoomed to 200 per cent.

Case Study: BCcampus’ Accessibility Journey

This case study describes the work BCcampus Open Education has done to support the creation of accessible open educational resources (OER) in the province of British Columbia, Canada, and beyond. It describes the research and collaboration that went into the creation of the Accessibility Toolkit, a guide designed to support authors in creating accessible OER. In addition, it discusses how BCcampus has supported accessible design more directly, including by remediating existing inaccessible open textbooks and providing professional development opportunities to support others in creating accessible OER from the very beginning. The case study concludes by discussing the challenges that have come up with accessibility, including creating accessible equations, balancing the design considerations of print and digital formats, and making accessible design scalable.

Accessibility Statements

While all OER authors should strive to make OER accessible, not all OER can be made 100% accessible, even with the best efforts. It is important to acknowledge this with an accessibility statement in the OER. In open textbooks, this usually appears in the front or back matter and includes a checklist of accessibility features. In other types of OER, this information might be included in the description. This information will be useful to anyone using special software to navigate the OER; they will know immediately what issues they might encounter. This makes the process a little less frustrating for the user.

What Is an Accessibility Statement?

An accessibility statement lets your users know the work has gone through a review process and that issues with accessibility are documented so readers know what to expect. A good accessibility statement includes a way to contact the authors if there are issues.

Accessibility review is for everyone, not just readers with special needs. Just like closed-captioning benefits those with hearing loss and those with certain types of learning difficulties, integrating accessibility into your workflow will benefit all your users/readers.

Writing an Accessibility Statement

Here are tips for writing a useful accessibility statement from the Open Education Accessibility Toolkit by Coolidge et al. (2018):

  • Use clear and simple language, avoiding jargon and technical terms
  • Include information about how people can personalise their experience. This might include information about:
    • features of the platform used for the resource (e.g., if a book is in Pressbooks, mention the ability of users to increase the font size in the web book)
    • the ability to change browser settings
    • a link to each available file format
    • assistive technologies
  • Outline specific accessibility features and how to use them when relevant
  • Do not make false claims or ignore known accessibility issues. Be as transparent and open about accessibility barriers as possible. This means:
    • describing what is being done to fix the problem and a timeline
    • providing any temporary workarounds
  • Include information about who is responsible for the accessibility of the content and their contact information so people can submit issues, suggestions, or complaints related to accessibility.
  • Describe the organisation’s accessibility policy, and the work that has been done to make the resource accessible. Here, you can provide information like:
    • accessibility guidelines you are following (e.g., WCAG 2.0)
    • any federal, provincial, or state legislation you are conforming to
    • any user testing you performed (Gray, 2018)

It is important to keep your accessibility statement page up to date as you make updates to the content, or if the software itself is updated to be more accessible. Conduct an annual review if possible.

Good Practice Examples – Accessibility Statements

Here are some sample accessibility statements that you can adapt for your own purposes:

Your accessibility statement should also include contact information in case there are any issues that need addressing.


Usability is a way to measure how easily and well a user can navigate a specific site to complete a task. You have probably heard of usability testing on websites or may have participated in a usability test yourself. According to Nielsen, a leader in usability studies,

“Usability” is defined by five quality components:

  1. Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  2. Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  3. Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  4. Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  5. Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

There are many other important quality attributes. A key one is utility, which refers to the design’s functionality: Does it do what users need?” (Nielsen 2012)

There are many resources available to help you understand the importance of usability, such as the What is Usability website that explains how to design for optimum usability (Interaction Design Foundation, n.d.). It is a good basic overview of the concepts and principles for creating usable websites, and many of the concepts can be applied to OER.

There are also some rubrics you can use to validate the usability of your OER. For example, the Washington State University web communication page includes a 25-point list for how to design for optimum usability and a printable rubric for reviewing your website.

Usability Testing

Doing a usability review or audit can help you identify the pain points in the OER. You may not have control over some things, such as the hosting platform not being completely accessible or you cannot integrate certain functionality. In other cases, you may be able to catch problems early and correct them before the development process goes any further. Keep in mind that a usability review is not a definitive process but one tool that you can use to make the OER as user-friendly as possible. For more guidance on doing a usability review, see A Quick Guide to Conducting a Usability Review).

Beta Testing

Beta testing is one way to determine the usability of your product (Dennen and Bagdy 2019). Rather than publishing the OER or releasing the module to the public and then using it in the classroom, do some beta testing by using the text in the classroom before actually publishing it. Instructors can use the text in a PDF or Word format in the classroom and get feedback from students about the content, layout, and design before creating the work on its final platform, where it might be more challenging to edit the content later. Another option is to have colleagues review the content before rollout (a peer review of sorts) or engage the students and authors in focus groups about the text to make improvements. All of this information will help in the creation of a usable final product. Once published, you will still want to be open to additional feedback from students and other users, but the majority of the feedback from your students should happen pre-publication.

Activity: Redesign or Accommodate?

The “Redesign or Accommodation?” activity is grounded in student-centred Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—a framework that recognises that we cannot design learning experiences for a specific type of student.

“Redesign or Accommodation?” also incorporates the humanising element of student Personas. Each participant adopts a Persona and advocates from that student’s perspective when presented with a Scenario that is based on common or recurring components of course delivery.

In facilitated discussions, participants identify potential barriers that the Scenario presents for their Persona-selves, consider what accommodations to address the barrier would look like—and if their Persona would even qualify to receive one, and then determine if the barrier/s could be avoided entirely by applying a UDL-based redesign to the course components in question.

We have created several Scenarios for this activity, but we also recommend you try running Scenarios arising from your own practice and within your own institution against your Persona-based selves; it may help to proactively identify and address barriers before they affect your students.

Below are assorted “Redesign or Accommodation?” activity materials.


This activity is from BCCampus’s Accessibility Toolkit used under a CC BY 4.0 licence. 


Universal Design for Learning



Copyright note: This section has been adapted in part from:

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