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UDL On Campus · Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

Accessibility and Open Educational Resources


What is this resource about? OERs (Open Education Resources) are online digital educational materials, tools, or even techniques that are offered freely and/or through open licensing. This resource provides examples, key factors and resources about accessibility of OERs.


Why is this important for higher education? Educators and institutions alike have a legal responsibility to provide accessible educational materials, including OERs; additionally, accessible OERs provide opportunities to create flexible learning experiences for all students in and beyond the immediate course by contributing to shared knowledge online.

UDL Connection

Affective network icon

Multiple means of engagement through authentic and social learning connections that motivates and encourages persistence.

Strategic network icon

Provide multiple means of action and expression: Multiple means of action and expression through interactive components within OERs, as well as through distribution of OER in broader online networks and communities.

Recognition network icon

Provide multiple means of representation: Multiple means of representation through accessible embedded multimedia content.

Examples of accessible OER

Below are examples of accessible OERs.

  • Open Professionals Education Network (OPEN) helps users find openly licensed media elements to use within courses, and is especially useful for TAACCCT grantees.
  • California State University, MERLOT, Open Education Consortium, and the National Federation of the Blind are working together to support building an open community of educators who can contribute their expertise on accessible technology. Every organization is welcome to join this federated community and use MERLOT's open educational services to improve the quality and effectiveness of accessible technologies for all.
  • Frustrated by the limitations of traditional textbooks and courses, Dr. Richard Baraniuk founded OpenStax (then Connexions) in 1999 at Rice University to provide authors and learners with an open space where they can share and freely adapt educational materials such as courses, books, and reports. Today, OpenStax CNX is a dynamic non-profit digital ecosystem serving millions of users per month in the delivery of educational content to improve learning outcomes.

Open Educational Resources in Postsecondary

OERs, or open educational resources, are “full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, videos, tests, software; and any other tools, materials, or techniques offered freely and openly to educators and students to support access to knowledge.”1 The National Educational Technology Plan of 2010 supports the use of malleable digital curriculum materials and as does the major investment by the Department of Labor in the development of OERs for community college use. The Babson Survey Research Group's 2012 Report, “Growing the Curriculum: Open Education Resources in Higher Education,” asked approximately 4,500 higher education faculty about their use of digital materials and resources, in general, in their instructional practice.2 Eighty-three percent of respondents indicated that they used digital materials to some extent.3 Two-thirds of postsecondary chief academic officers perceived OERs as a viable means for reducing student costs.4 As the use of digital materials continues to expand, the need to ensure accessibility to all students increases as well.

A UDL Approach to Addressing Challenges in OER Design

The seven key factors listed below – metadata, accessibility, standards, bias, efficacy-based research, assessments, and visioning – are critical to consider when developing the content of an OER, as these will impact its quality and integration in interconnected instructional ecosystems.5 To minimize challenges and optimize potential, OER acquisition or creation should begin by considering these seven design factors and how they apply to learner variability. Since potential and challenge increase with the complexity and robustness of OERs, accounting for the full range of learner variability from the outset in both the creation and adoption process avoids retrofitting and overhauling to accommodate perceived deficits later on -- minimizing cost and maximizing impact.

Metadata: Locating Content

Metadata is descriptive information about a resource. Metadata typically added to OERs include creator, publisher, publication date, copyright information; as well as media type, resource format, size, language, content area; and, more rarely, information such as reading level.


The Babson Report mentioned previously in the Overview included in its findings faculty-reported challenges in locating and evaluating OERs as a barrier to their adoption, as was a lack of a centralized clearing house for OERs.6


As digital resources proliferate, the use of descriptive metadata has been increasingly standardized to facilitate the storage, organization, location, and use of these resources. For example, standard meta- (and micro-) data “schemas” are maintained by an international collaborative entity known as For a model of’s standardized meta- and micro-data used to provide detailed information about a “book,” see this digital example.

A bar chart depicting the barriers that faculty encounter to adopting OERs, with the primary reason being difficulty in searching for and locating appropriate resources
Barriers Very Important Important Total
Difficulty in searching 24% 38% 62%
Lack of a comprehensive catalog 19% 40% 59%
Concerns about time to learn and use 25% 22% 47%
Need better mapping to learning outcomes 14% 32% 46%
Lack of support for non-local curriculum 13% 25% 38%
Lack of faculty ratings and comments 10% 26% 36%

Metadata: Locating Accessible Content

Accessible content refers to instructional materials that are designed from the outset to be flexible and responsive to the needs and abilities of students with physical, sensory, or learning disabilities, by offering media in multiple formats and/or by being interoperable with assistive technologies.


Of the respondents to a 2012 survey conducted by SCORE (Support Centre for Open Resources in Education at Open University) in the UK, approximately 89% worked in the higher education sector. When asked which accessibility features were deemed most important to them as they searched for OERs that could be used by the widest range of users, their collective responses highlighted the importance of alternate format availability, the ability to customize OER content, and the importance of features that would make the resource usable by individuals with sensory or physical disabilities (see graph below).


The emergence of accessibility-focused metadata has been supported by the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI), whose goal is to establish a process for its inclusion in educational resources to enhance their discoverability and describe their applicable instructional use (grade level; content area; and, soon, accessibility supports; etc.). Learning objects that are LRMI-compliant are designed to be searchable using standard web search engines (Google, Bing, etc.) and able to be compiled and commented upon at the Learning Registry, a federally-supported initiative. The primary purposes of the LRMI initiative are: (1) to enable educators and students to locate desired resources efficiently and accurately and (2) to ensure that information about learning resources and their usage is captured, collated, and correlated to other educational data systems (interoperability). OER aggregators such as OER Commons or MERLOT have committed to using all or most of LRMI’s metadata elements. As of January 2014, the Learning Registry has committed to using a set of accessibility-focused metadata developed by the A11Y Accessibility Metadata Project. For more detail about accessibility-related metadata, see this wiki entry.

The Learning Registry is also enhancing their EasyPublish Tool to include practical and unambiguous accessibility-related resource information based on A11Y standards.

It is intended that LRMI’s accessibility-oriented metadata elements will become widely adopted by both OER creators and sites that provide content cataloguing, aggregation, and search capabilities, since this uniform and detailed approach to OER identification could significantly increase the efficiency and accuracy of OER location for faculty and students alike. Further, by making accessibility information about an OER resource readily available, this effort will be a step forward toward addressing the needs highlighted in SCORE’s 2012 Survey.

Screenshot of LRMI Accessibility search box

Accessibility/Universal Design for Learning

“Accessibility” is the term used to reference the degree to which a product or activity is usable by those with physical, sensory, cognitive, or learning disabilities; “universal design” is an approach to product or activity creation that addresses these needs from the outset, to avoid, to the greatest extent possible, the need for ad hoc retrofitting.


In contrast to the range of options available to institutions for retrofitting a print work to increase its accessibility—digitizing via an inexpensive scanner and optical character recognition (OCR) software; sourcing from Bookshare, Learning Ally, or American Printing House for the Blind or other braille producers—few if any institutions have the knowledge or capacity to retrofit digital materials effectively in-house. A variety of federal education and civil rights statutes compel education institutions to provide equitable access to educational opportunities for students with disabilities, including access to technology-mediated opportunities.7 A 2011 Hewlett Foundation/Virtual Ability study reviewed 60 open college textbooks using federal and international accessibility guidelines.56% of these materials were web-based; 42% were downloadable PDFs. Nearly half of the web-based textbooks (42%) evidenced accessibility problems with page layout, headers, and tables; none of the PDFs reviewed were accessible.


On a positive note, products from OER aggregators Connexions, Flat World Knowledge, and Open Learn were determined to be moderately accessible. This study also noted that, functionally, digital instructional materials such as open textbooks could not be separated from their delivery medium: If a web site hosting the materials was inaccessible, then students with disabilities were effectively blocked from those resources. In an investigation with similar findings, the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities found that readily discoverable information about the accessibility of a product was available for approximately half of the open source products reviewed.8

Standards/Course Alignment

The larger OER aggregators (OER Commons, College Open Textbooks, OER Consortium, Connexions and others) often provide information on how their resources align to specific content standards.


Smaller OER publishing operations may not offer materials with standards-alignment.


Some OER stakeholders provide online tools for OER classification’s OER Evaluation Tool (now incorporated into OER Commons) and some purveyors of OER creation software offer utilities for faculty to align OERs to standard-specific expectations.

Check for Bias

Content that is free from bias in religion, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation


In the OER space, editorial oversight is often accomplished via user reviews and other types of crowd-sourcing approaches.


Editorial oversight is a hallmark of savvy and responsible publishing, especially for content designed for postsecondary instruction. Authors who consciously design materials for the widest possible audience, including students with disabilities, are addressing variability from the outset and are more likely to monitor the orientation of their content for its balance.

Some states, such as Washington, Kansas, Utah, and California, which have actively moved to incorporate open resources as key instructional materials, have established editorial criteria and a review process for OER selection.

Efficacy-Based Research

Efficacy-based research refers to the extent to which materials have been proven to be effective in helping students to meet instructional goals.


In contrast to the instructional efficacy validation often required of commercial (print) textbooks and their associated instructional materials, research related to the educational efficacy of OERs is spotty at best. This may have to do with the informal nature of OER publishing and the associated lack of research-based distribution and procurement protocols, and it may be partially to do with the fact that OERs exist as only one component in the digital learning universe where content, delivery, data, and discussions are all part of the education process. This connectivist theory of learning postulates that digital learning requires both a learner and a learning community and that knowledge occurs at the intersection of the two as a distributed function. Reviewing the efficacy of OERs through this lens as well as in light of activity theory and social constructivism, Panke and Seufort have explored the importance of self-regulation and engagement as important factors influencing the success or failure of students using OERs. These researchers noted that OERs present distinct challenges for efficacy research and felt it was unlikely that a single theoretical framework or approach would prove to be sufficient in capturing both the potential and the liabilities of these resources.


There is little reported efficacy research information associated with specific OERs, the best approach to assuring that resources are felt to be effective and useful is to ask colleagues or students for their impressions. The Open Education Group Review Project provides a summary of empirical research on the impacts of OER adoption.


Various types of assessments may be included with, embedded into, or aligned with OERs.


The SIIA Report notes possible links between assessments and OERs. Fundamental to the field of assessment and progress monitoring, however, is the extent to which OER resources are designed to track user data or are interoperable with systems that do so—not simply end-of-lesson assessment information but real-time data tracking: student log on/off, activity dwell time, pathways, support/resource selection, etc. Without this rich trove of user information, fixed documents (like PDFs) are as inert from a research perspective as they are instructionally, and they fail to advance the understanding of which materials, activities, and supports are truly critical to the process of education. When this type of user/material interaction data is available it can be correlated to academic achievement outcomes using available tools of learning analytics.


Prior to adopting an OER for use, it would be important to determine whether the resource was a stand-alone product (similar to a printed textbook) that was not designed to be interoperable with a content management or delivery system. In this circumstance, it might be important to determine whether or not any assessments were provided by the OER author(s).

Multiple Versions

Multiple versions of OERs can ensure that resources display across a variety of devices and technologies and allow for the addition of location-specific content.


The issue of keeping OER versions up-to-date also highlights the problem of OERs to remain topical and up-to-date. Many OERs are positioned as “one off” resources that become fixed in time and functionally unresponsive as regular updating is necessary to keep them current both in terms of their subject matter and their compatibility with new technology. This may become increasingly more of a challenge as OERs of this type proliferate and the original authors or other resources required to update them are simply unavailable.


Aside from the challenges presented by format compatibility issues and the capacity to access and render OERs across multiple operating systems, browsers, player software, and devices, the most flexible and scalable OERs are those that are also customizable and allow for the addition of region, state or content -specific standards that may be mandated by different municipalities.

Selecting Accessible OERs

Accessible OERs comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation act as well as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) most recent version. The Department of Justice is increasingly holding education institutions accountable for the extent to which their educational technology and content accommodate the needs of people with disabilities (e.g., EdX violation of Title III of the ADA). As more and more learning takes place through online and digital media, OERs must be selected according to accessibility criteria.



Accessibility Requirements

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended in 1998 by Congress to include enforceable standards related to ensuring that technologies—both hardware and software— purchased by the federal government were accessible to individuals with disabilities. Since many vendors of digital hardware and software sell products to both the federal and the education markets, Section 508 accessibility requirements—regularly detailed by product developers using a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template or VPAT—have become the accepted national baseline for describing accessible products.

A well-developed VPAT can provide a detailed product accessibility overview and ease product comparisons; however, the majority of OER developers and distributors do not provide VPATs for their materials. The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities maintains a VPAT table on the Center's web site. The “Purposeful Sampling of Technologies Employed in K-12 Online Education” is a collection of nearly 100 products often used in elementary and secondary online learning. Materials are categorized by the extent to which accessibility information is readily discoverable in their product information or on their respective web sites. The table is designed to provide stakeholders—educators and developers alike—with a resource for determining the ways in which a product may be appropriate for use in a school or classroom that seeks the active and full participation of students with disabilities.

As of this writing, the United States Access Board, with input from a wide range of stakeholders, is poised to issue an update to the Section 508 accessibility standards to align it more closely with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which provides an additional level of accessibility detail and checkpoints. Movement on the Section 508 “refresh” is anticipated during Q3 of 2014 and should result in a collection of accessibility specifications that reflect more accurately the content, structure, and delivery of digital resources including OERs.

Rubrics for Selecting Accessible OERs

The not-for-profit organization has created a set of eight rubrics to support the selection of OER resources. subsequently partnered with OER Commons, which hosts the rubrics on their site as an evaluation tool. By using’s rubrics, online tool ratings will become attached to OERs available from OER Commons and made discoverable using the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI). The rubrics are designed to assess elementary and secondary level OERs’ alignment with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and Rubric VIII is specifically designed to identify the accessibility of a resource.

An alternative set of rubrics has been developed by the Higher Education Academy at the JISC in the UK. This set of three rubrics and their associated criteria place accessibility, layout, intuitiveness, and coherence in the first rubric (captured under the title “Immediate Reaction to the Resources”) and offers some elegance in its simplicity. What these rubrics lack in detail they make up for in common sense and can likely provide an easy entry point for those interested in a careful, but not intense, evaluation of OERs.

Acquisition/Interoperability and Use

Both Educause and SIIA reports reference the challenges inherent in acquiring, assigning, and interweaving OER materials into a well-structured online course of study (generally mediated by an institution-wide Learning Management System [LMS] like BlackBoard, Moodle, Desire2Learn, or many others). Many widely-used LMS’s may require an adherence to technical structures that may not be present in or are unavailable to OERs, thus requiring alternate access to these resources such as connecting to them via external links. Alternatively, a number of commercial LMS vendors—Desire2Learn, Blackboard, Sakai, and others—have created accommodating infrastructures and procedures that support the inclusion of OERs alongside proprietary materials. In today's postsecondary settings, LMS’s are more than just delivery systems or content containers; most offer cross-referencing and communication tools built on the assumption that integrated content has the features necessary to take advantage of them, which may be true for some OERs but not others.


Learn more about accessible and open educational resources.


1 Goldberg, E.J. & LaManga, M., (2012) Open educational resources in higher education. College & Research Libraries News, Vol. 73, No. 6. (2012), pp. 334-337 Key: citeulike:12114455

2Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2012). Growing the Curriculum: Open Education Resources in Higher Education (, Babson Survey Research Group, Babson Park, Massachusetts.



5Software & Information Industry Association. (2013, March). SIIA Guide to the Use of Open Educational Resources in K-12 and Postsecondary Education Resources. Washington, DC. Authors: Sue Collins and Peter Levy.

6Ibid., Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2012).

7The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, 2012; The Foundation of Online Learning for Students with Disabilities, Lawrence, KS



Open educational resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are openly and freely available for use.


UDL is an educational approach based on the learning sciences with three primary principles—multiple means of representation of information, multiple means of student action and expression, and multiple means of student engagement.

multiple means of engagement

Multiple means of engagement refers to the why of learning. Because learners vary in how they can become interested or motivated to learn, it is crucial to provide multiple ways to engage learners.

multiple means of action and expression

Multiple means of action and expression refers to the how of learning. Because learners vary in how they express their knowledge, it is crucial to allow them to express what they know in different ways.

multiple means of representation

Multiple means of representation refers to the what of learning. Because learners vary in how they perceive and understand information, it is crucial to provide different ways of presenting content.


Multimedia refers to the combination of several media (e.g., text, graphics, audio clips, video) to represent content concepts.


Assessment is the process of gathering information about a learner’s performance using a variety of methods and materials in order to determine learners’ knowledge, skills, and motivation for the purpose of making informed educational decisions.


Metadata is information that refers to one or more pieces of information that can exist as separate physical forms (data about data). Any description can be considered metadata. In the information technology world the term is often used to indicate data which refers to digital resources available across a network.


Self-regulation is the ability to strategically modulate one’s emotional reactions or states in order to cope or engage with the environment more effectively.

Section 508

Section 508 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act that requires all federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to individuals with disabilities.


The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international consortium that produces specifications and reference software for free use around the world. The W3C established the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which has working groups developing guidelines for content accessibility, browser accessibility, and authoring tool accessibility.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in a variety of contexts, including public and private colleges and universities.


The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a tool that vendors can use to describe the ways in which their hardware and software products meet accessibility standards.

learning management system

A learning management system is a software application or suite of applications or a web-based system that provides educational programs and their components such as classes, resources, assessment, tools, and communication, etc.; as well as organizational tools for administration, record-keeping, information sharing, database management, etc., with the intention to manage all parts of a learning process.