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UDL On Campus · Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

Creating Accessible Open Educational Resources


What is this resource about? There is no single checklist to guide the creation of Open Education Resources (OERs) designed with learner variability in mind; but Section 508 (WCAG 2.0 AA), EPUB3, and the EDiTEUR Guide to accessible publishing are good baselines to ensure accessibility. This page provides information about Best Practices and Resources for creating accessible OERs.


Why is this important for higher education? By adhering to accessibility guidelines, designers can be assured that their OER content can be rendered in the appropriate formats individual users require, and retain compatibility with a variety of assistive technologies employed by individuals with physical, sensory, or learning disabilities.

UDL Connection

Just as cutting-edge architectural and engineering developments take baseline standards to a higher level and foster progress, the creators of ambitious open educational resources have the potential to generate innovative approaches to universally designing OERs that will support learning for all.

Accessible OER Creation Requires Collaboration and Innovation

With the goal of designing accessible OERs, programmers and designers are often in search of a checklist that can easily guide the creation of such materials. Unfortunately, a checklist is a one-size-fits-all approach, and may be too simplistic for the creation of resources that are designed with learner variability in mind.

Rather than aiming to meet basic Section 508 guidelines, collaborative efforts should be fostered as much as possible between instructional designers and programmers to ensure that pedagogically rich content development is bolstered by decisions made at the programming level, and vice versa. For example, Section 508 not only requires that videos be captioned1 but that any additional visual information essential to the understanding of the content be auditorily described2. Further, both of these alternate formats must be synchronized with video. Although content creation often ends where programming begins, there is an opportunity to bring program developers into the fold when creating OERs to design content in ways that take advantage of the unique affordances associated with various media types. The creation of alternate-format versions of materials, while generally viewed as an accessibility task, is, in fact, equally an editorial one since content needs to be effectively conveyed and contextualized across all media used. While the goals of jointly created open resources are clear, the mechanisms that can foster purposeful and productive collaboration need to be more fully explored as OERs begin to take a more prominent role in higher education.

Essential and Optimal Best Practices

As more and more postsecondary institutions incorporate OERs into courses and programs, identifying and following some key guiding principles can help assure—to the greatest extent possible—that a degree of due diligence regarding accessibility is routinely addressed. One way of approaching this process is to identify a list of best practice performance measures that can be used by those creating and by those reviewing OERs. The DIAGRAM Center at Benetech has created a list of performance measures for creating accessible EPUB (digital book) documents and the majority of those indicators, along with edits to make references generic and applicable, can be applied to the creation and review of OERs.

Essential Best Practices

Present all text in a logical order

Use structural mark-up to define the natural reading order of the primary narrative and to distinguish secondary material such as footnotes, references, figures, and other auxiliary content.

Separate content from presentation

Visual reading is only one way of accessing content. Visual-only cues such as colored text, font size, or positioning should not be used as the only clue to the meaning or importance of a word or section. The meaning of the content should be the same both with and without any styles or formatting applied, whether presented visually, auditorily, or tactilely.

Provide complete navigation

A complete table of contents should be provided in a book’s front matter and smaller tables of contents at the start of each section, if applicable.

Create a meaningful structure

Document headings (title, subtitle, section heading, etc.) should be structured in a logical sequence. Specify content components, e.g., the preface of a book, index, glossary, etc.

Use images for visual components, not for tables or text

Content embedded in an image is not available to visually impaired readers if there is no text description for that image. If the textual contents of an image are required for comprehension, proper and complete presentation of text and tabular data, including headers and scope attributes for tables, should be used. If images of text are unavoidable, a description and transcription of the text should be provided.

Include image descriptions

Alt text should be present on every image ("null" if the image is solely decorative) and a longer, full description should be considered for more complex images or images with text embedded in them. See the DIAGRAM Center’s Accessible Image Sample Book for best practices.

Include page numbers

Page numbers are the primary means of navigation within a book. For any book with a print equivalent, page numbers should be designated even if they are not displayed.

Provide alternative access to media content

Native controls for video and audio content should be enabled by default. Provide fallback options such as captions/subtitles or descriptions for video and transcripts for audio.

Ensure accessible interactive content

Interactive content (JavaScript, SVG, Flash) should be operable via keyboard, mouse, or gesture and assistive technologies to be accessible.

Optimal Best Practices

Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) should be used for images

Accessible SVG graphics allow text in images to be rendered in an accessible way. SVGs also make it possible to deliver tactile images electronically to blind users with appropriate devices and help to automate the creation of tactile images that can be provided to readers with minimal human intervention.

MathML should be used for mathematical content

MathML makes mathematical expressions such as equations accessible to everyone by eliminating potential ambiguities in verbal descriptions and providing a wider variety of use of mathematical content. There are many tools available that support MathML creation.

Accessibility metadata should be used

As part of general good practices of documenting content accessibility, accessibility metadata should be provided so end users know what features are present and search engines can discover the accessible materials.

OER Creation Resources

In March 2013, a publication of the Open Education Database listed 80 OER resource tools for publishing and development initiatives. The resources listed below are a sampling of those available.

Handbooks & Guides

The FLOE (Flexible Learning for Open Education) Project at OCAD University in Toronto has made available a free resource for OER creators, the Inclusive Learning Design Handbook. This resource is designed to guide the accessible creation of OERs across a wide variety of media: text, audio, images, and video. Associated with the FLOE Project is the FLUID Project and their open-source OER creation tool, Infusion, designed for creating accessible web-based resources suitable for instruction.

BC Campus Open Ed, an initiative of the British Columbia Ministry of Advanced Education, has created a collection of OER-related tools for searching, adopting and modifying OERs with an emphasis on inclusive, accessible content. In particular, their Inclusive Learning Design Handbook incorporates the work of the FLOE project and emphasizes the benefits of creating OERs using EPUB3, the international standard for eBooks. The Handbook addresses techniques and rationales for the creation of accessible content, including accessible assessment, and resources for testing and validating the accessibility features of OERs.

IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum) offers the EPUB 3 Accessibility Guidelines in a well-structured website, as well.

Online Tools

The Open Educational Resources Infokit produced by the UK-based Higher Education Academy/JISC Open Educational Resources Programme offers both a highly-detailed overview of the importance of designing for accessibility from the outset and the XERTE Online Toolkit (XOT)—an open-source tool for OER creation with explicit emphasis on attending to accessibility features.

Offered by CAST, UDL Studio and the UDL Curriculum Toolkit are online resources designed to facilitate the creation of digital curriculum projects (UDL Studio) or entire course web sites (UDL Toolkit) with both accessibility and UDL-based features. Both of these online tools offer models and step-by-step instructions as well as comprehensive background information on the effective use of differing types of digital media (text, audio, images, and video) to achieve instructional goals. UDL Studio provides a turnkey template for curriculum development with features that facilitate comprehension (e.g., highlighting, accessible text, vocabulary support), encourage action and expression (e.g., note-taking, prompts for writing, drawing, and audio recording), and recruit and sustain engagement (e.g., video, instructor feedback, collaborative whiteboard use). For the more technically inclined, the UDL Curriculum Toolkit can be set up to offer all of the features of UDL Studio and can be used to track student progress; see and compare student responses, highlighting, and notes; and provide individual or group feedback. Created for research purposes, the application includes a detailed logging capability for recording students’ actions and the ability to turn program features on or off.

Commercial Creation Platforms

A number of commercial platforms offer instructors and course designers a suite of tools for transforming their curriculum materials into dynamic, media-rich, and, in some cases, accessible digital resources. These hybrid solutions, designed to render and deploy OER content within a highly interoperable and enhanced environment, seek to address the OER challenges by providing OER creators with a sophisticated turnkey design and delivery framework. Some of these products have attended to accessibility issues as core foundation elements of their products.

Softchalk Create places its built-in accessibility components at the forefront of its design while also offering a range of functionality—reflowable content structure to make materials usable on desktops, tablets, and mobile devices; built-in search and embedded assessment features; and compatibility with major LMS systems. Softchalk Create adheres to Section 508 accessibility specifications and offers a well-detailed VPAT summarizing its compliance.

Openstax College offers a collection of customizable and curated (via peer review) open-source textbooks in a variety of both digital and print formats. Openstax textbooks are hosted by Connexions, an OER aggregator at Rice University. Connexions (and, by association, Openstax) textbooks can be designed to be accessible, and the Connexions organization provides a detailed overview of its commitment to encouraging its authors to address accessibility in the development of OERs. Connexions also partners with MERLOT’s OER and Accessibility Initiative to provide resources to faculty and institutions to help guide the adoption of accessible OERs.

Flatworld Knowledge offers a range of customizable OERs designed to be used on desktop, tablet, and mobile devices. This OER aggregator offers faculty course analytics (resource access and use data) for any of its OERs that are accessed by students online. While information about Flatworld Knowledge’s accessibility support is not readily discoverable, they did establish a partnership with Bookshare in 2009 to make their content available in accessible formats through the latter’s distribution system for students with print disabilities.

Boundless takes an alternative approach to OER creation by allowing instructors to create custom “textbooks” from open source materials in a variety of subject areas. The Boundless platform then wraps these materials in a feature-rich delivery platform that offers notetaking, highlighting, embedded assessments, class management, and student progress tracking, among other features. Boundless materials can include rich media and are reflowable to make then usable across a variety of devices. Boundless provides no information about the extent to which its products are accessible, however, or the degree to which they offer interoperability with LMS systems or incorporate common or emerging metadata standards.

Learn More

Learn more about creating accessible OERs.

  • The UK-based JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) has posted extensive OER guidance for content creators and is rich in resources on open accessibility.
  • OER and Accessibility website has resources on accessible OER use and creation developed by California State University, MERLOT, Open Education Consortium, and the National Federation of the Blind.
  • The Teach Access initiative has launched a tutorial that provides basic training for developers and designers interested in building inclusive experiences.

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

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.


EPUB (currently version 3) is an open standard maintained by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) as a distribution and interchange format standard for digital publications and documents. It aggregates content components into one file and is intended as a single e-book format.


Video is the recording, reproducing, or broadcasting of moving visual images.

alt text

Alt text (alternative text) is a brief description of a single image designed to be read by a screenreader as an alternative to that image.


Audio, in this context, is a digital form or representation of sound. It is a format that stores, copies, and produces sound according to the data in its file(s).


Captions are words that are displayed on a screen to describe audio content.


A transcript provides a written version of content that has been presented in an audio, visual, or audiovisual format.

scalable vector graphics

SVG is a language for describing two-dimensional graphics and graphical applications in XML, as developed under the W3C process.


MathML (Mathematical Mark-Up Language) is an XML-based language used to display mathematical content.


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.


The International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), formerly known as OeBps, is a trade and standards organization dedicated to the development and promotion of electronic publishing.


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.

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.


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.


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.