Blackboard Accessibility Tips: Designing Courses for Students Using Screen Readers

Blackboard hosts an annual conference known as BbWorld. In July I attended my first BbWorld with Rachel Kleinsorge (LMS Applications Specialist) and Kari Slettemoen (Application Engineer). The conference was held at the Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. More than 2,000 professionals in K-12, Higher Ed, and Professional Ed attended.

Today’s Learner and the New Learning Experience

This year’s conference focused on today’s learner and the new learning experience. According to Blackboard, the new learning experience is a “transformative way to create better engagement, interaction and quality learning through integrated technology services and data capabilities.” Blackboard hosted several panels that discussed the need for change in education to better support today’s learners. The company also demoed the new “Ultra” experience – a modern interface and workflow to Blackboard Learn with the promise to evolve as quickly as today’s learners.

A variety of sessions were offered, with different focus areas making it possible for Rachel, Kari, and I to attend sessions specific to our individual roles at W&M. I attended eleven sessions with the goal of learning more about accessibility, approaches to online course design within Blackboard, and the ways other institutions prepare and support faculty who teach online. My expectations were met, making for a worthwhile experience, and I would like to share tips I learned about designing accessible courses from my favorite session at the conference.

Accessible Course Design

Accessibility was a hot topic at BbWorld 2015. There were at least three sessions about making your courses and materials accessible, both in and out of Blackboard. My favorite session was “Increasing Student Engagement: Best Practices for Accessible Course Design” presented by a team from the University of Montana. Instructional Designer Marlene Zentz and Student Accessibility Specialist Aaron Page displayed two screens, one showing the default view of a Blackboard course and another showing the same Blackboard course from the perspective of a student using accessibility software.

They discussed how to design a course that will work with high contrast settings, a magnifier, and a screen reader — settings and software typically used by students who are blind or visually impaired (abbreviated BVI). Zentz covered heading structure, text formatting, self-describing links, alt text for images and graphics, lists, and tables. Page is blind, and demonstrated how he navigates through a Blackboard course using a screen reader and explained how the modifications Zentz made to the course improved his access to information.

Heading Structure

Heading structure is important because it helps students using screen readers quickly navigate to a section on a website. Simply bolding, underling, or enlarging a piece of text does not make it recognizable as a header to a screen reader. You must change the text to a heading within the text formatting tool bar. There are six levels of headers used internationally: H1-H6. Blackboard automatically creates these header levels for you as you build a course, except for when you create a body of text that contains multiple sections.

For example, I may want to type a syllabus directly into Blackboard by creating an ‘Item’ in a content area. I should make the text of each section of my syllabus a ‘Heading’ so that a student using a screen reader can quickly navigate to a specific section rather than having to listen to the entire syllabus each time they visit that page.

To format text as a heading in Blackboard:

  1. When creating or editing an item, highlight the text you want to convert into a heading
  2. Using the content editor, select ‘Heading’ from the ‘Format’ drop-down menu
  3. Click on the ‘Submit’ button to save your changes

    Highlight text and select ‘Heading’ from the ‘Format’ drop-down menu in the content editor

    Making a heading in Blackboard.

Text Formatting

Using bold, italics, or different colored text is meaningless to a screen reader. Avoid using text formatting as the only way to communicate information. Page suggested using an asterisk to convey meaning, and defining the meaning of the asterisk at the top of a page rather than the bottom so the student knows what it means from the start. The screen reader will say “asterisk” as it reads the page ensuring all of your students receive the same information.

Example: *Indicates take-home test; class does not meet

Self-Describing Links

When inserting a hyperlink into a body of text, be sure it describes the website. Students who use a screen reader often tab from link to link. The student may miss important information if the links says “click here” or is a long URL.

To create a self-describing link in Blackboard:

  1. When creating or editing an item, highlight the text you want to convert into a hyperlink (make sure it describes the website)
  2. Select the ‘Insert/Edit Link’ icon in the content editor
  3. Browse to a file or paste a link into the ‘Link Path’ field
  4. Select a ‘Target’ from the drop-down menu
  5. Click on the ‘Insert’ button
  6. Click on the ‘Submit’ button to save your changes
Highlight text and select the ‘Insert/Edit Link’ icon in the content editor

Creating a self-describing link in Blackboard, step 1.

Browse to a file or paste a link into ‘Link Path’ field and select a ‘Target’

Creating a self-describing link in Blackboard step 3.

In regards to choosing a link ‘Target’ in step 4, I usually select ‘Open in New Window’ for files and external websites so students don’t have to navigate back to Blackboard when they close the file or external website (the course will remain open in another window after they click on the link). If the link takes the student to another section in the same Blackboard course then I usually select ‘Open in This Window/Frame.’ Zentz suggested stating how you insert external links into Blackboard in your syllabus so students know what to expect when navigating your course. This will help students who are using screen readers.

Alt Text for Images and Graphics

Images and graphics are meaningless to a screen reader unless you include alt text. If you embed an image into an item or test question in Blackboard, be sure to include alt text. Alt text is a description of the image or graphic. The description should provide equivalent information to students who cannot see it. I learned from Zentz that alt text isn’t necessary for visual styling, such as header images or icons that are not content related.

Alt text isn't necessary for visual styling graphics

Alt text isn’t necessary for visual styling graphics

To insert an image with alt text in Blackboard:

  1. When creating or editing an item, select the ‘Insert/Edit Image’ icon in the content editor
  2. Locate an image by browsing your computer or content collection
  3. Enter an image description in the ‘Image Description’ field (this is your alt text)
  4. Click on the ‘Insert’ button
  5. Click on the ‘Submit’ button to save your changes
Select the ‘Insert/Edit Image’ icon in the content editor

Inserting an image with alt text in Blackboard, step 1.

Browse to image and enter an image description

Inserting an image with alt text in Blackboard, step 3.

Lists and Tables

Avoid pasting lists directly into a Blackboard text box. Instead, create bullet, numbered, or lettered lists using the ‘Bullet List’ or ‘Numbered List’ icons in the content editor. The screen reader will say the number, letter, or “bullet” and then read the corresponding text.

Tables are difficult to navigate using a screen reader. Be sure to label the table and include a description below the table.

Inserting lists and tables in Blackboard using the list and table icons in the text formatting tool bar

Inserting lists and tables in Blackboard using the content editor.

More Information

These simple tricks increase the accessibility of your course ensuring all students receive equivalent information and can navigate your course with ease. For more information on Blackboard’s accessibility features, check out Rachel Kleinsorge’s post on Accommodating Different Needs in Blackboard. You can also visit the Accessibility Features section of Blackboard Help for tips on accessible course design. Please contact for Blackboard assistance.

Student Accessibility Services at W&M provides a variety of services to students with disabilities. Please contact them if you have any questions about accessibility.