Skip to main content

Extended Reality and Accessibility

A person holds a 360 degree camera in their hand

Introducing Extended Reality (XR)

Extended Reality (XR) allows learners to reach beyond the classroom into another setting through 360 videos and other simulations that can be used on different platforms whether that is headsets, web browsers, or mobile devices. Creating these learning activities in XR allows learners to practice needed skills in a simulated environment.  These low-stakes practices enable students to try and fail, get feedback, and try again without the usual costs of in-person scenarios. Courses such as First Aid, electric wiring, and public speaking could be augmented with opportunities to practice the necessary skills and behaviors in a low-stakes environment. All courses could integrate XR whether in a classroom with headsets or online with mobile devices or web-based browsing. Digital accessibility considerations are not always at the forefront in design such as the visual, auditory, cognitive, and motor needs of learners. Yet they are necessary requirements to make sure all learners can participate in learning and not be left out as new technology is integrated into online classrooms. Thus questions such as these can arise amidst excitement – What are the accessibility considerations in the XR space? How accessible is XR?

There are research groups and associations such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and XR Access that focus their work on XR and accessibility to build collective knowledge and practice. Here at the University of Michigan, the Center of Academic Innovation has experts in XR and accessibility such as Pamela Saca, the learning experience designer for accessibility. She will provide insights into these questions along with the resources to dig into to make sure as innovation expands, so does access for all.

How XR makes learning experiences more accessible

While many immediately think of the accessibility limitations inherent in XR technology, there are accessibility benefits as well. XR promises great potential for communicating and engaging more effectively in a remote, immersive environment for many learners who may not have had the opportunity before the integration of XR. The aspects of XR allow for engagement in both technical and humanistic fields of study and in allowing practice for skills such as wiring. It is poised to impact any discipline where objects of study are spatially relevant, allow students to gain confidence in analytic skills, and increase access to things that would cost time, money, or safety (Cook and Lischer-Katz).

There are also specific tools that increase accessibility. When thinking about the 1 in 4 people in the United States with a disability (CDC), these benefits can allow students to be more active participants in the classroom while also enhancing the learning experience of content. XR features can increase accessibility by enhancing surround sound from one side of the body over the other, using a technology that allows a virtual reality headset to dynamically highlight sharp contrasts of picture quality in peripheral vision for visually impaired users and enabling walkability for those confined in a wheelchair through movements similar to walking around a boardroom table. XR tools support students to engage and change the tools so that they fit their needs and fulfill the vision of building the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors for their course.

Accessibility challenges with the use of XR

However, there are accessibility challenges with the use of XR, that can affect all learners, even without disabilities. Students working in noisy spaces may also have challenges hearing. Some students struggle with new technologies or have motion sickness when using a headset. Some XR tools like 360 degree videos or first person perspective movement depend heavily on motion controls. The technology requires the user to manipulate their body to control their movements and placements which forces the challenges in accessibility when there are learners who have difficulties with motion controls.

Planning for Accessibility

Although Pamela Saca, the Learning Experience Designer for Accessibility at the Center for Academic Innovation, believes that extended reality could support many people in their learning, she knows nothing can be 100% accessible because one thing that “works for one person will be in direct conflict for what might work for another person.” In her work in design teams, a change made to help one type of learner and their specific accessibility needs may make it more difficult for another. Therefore, she suggests the following considerations that can help design teams and instructors make more inclusive choices.

  1. Consider accessibility from the beginning. The XR collaborative recommends planning XR experiences explicitly considering accessibility at the start of your project. It’s more efficient and less expensive than having to remediate. Think about the types of learners you may have in your course and what kind of needs they may have. This could include captioning audio or providing alternatives for physical movements. There are resources for testing accessibility whether that be through user testing before launch, XR Guidelines, or the W3C amongst others that need to be implemented throughout the design process from ideation to implementation. 
  2. Build with an audience in mind that is as inclusive as possible, or better yet, involve people with disabilities as members of the course design, managers, and testers. You may find challenges you hadn’t anticipated due to your own design bias.
  3. Test the learning activity with a diverse group of people to ensure ample feedback and to be able to build in alternative activities if it is not 100% accessible. During one set of user testing, what designers thought to be a great design instead had a lot of challenges. The XR experience had to be changed to accommodate the broad population that would be using it, even if it didn’t align with the originally planned experience.

Extended reality is a tool that can be used to enhance learning through low-stakes practice, continuous feedback, and real-life situations. It, like many other learning technologies, has limitations and introduces the possibilities for exclusion whether that be because of technological difficulties, inaccessibility, or other issues unknown to the designer. Extended reality, like many technological innovations, is exciting but should also be used for expanding learning for all.    

References

CDC: 1 in 4 US adults live with a disability | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC. (2019, April 10). https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0816-disability.html

Cook, M., & Lischer-Katz, Z. (2020). Practical steps for an effective virtual reality course integration. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 27(2–4), 210–226. https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2021.1923603

Additional Resources

XR Access: A community committed to making virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (XR) accessible to people with disabilities

World Wide Web Consortium: The W3C mission is to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing protocols and guidelines that ensure the long-term growth of the We

NameCoach for Canvas – a tool for building community in the classroom.

NameCoach is a new tool introduced in Canvas in Fall 2021. It allows students and instructors to record their preferred way to audibly speak their name, as well as provide a phonetic pronunciation.

In Canvas, NameCoach is automatically enabled on the left-hand navigation bar. Selecting it will bring up the list of students’ names and preferred pronunciations.

Being able to call students by their name, with the correct pronunciation is a powerful tool in both the online and face-to-face classroom. Research supports that even small measures, like calling students by name, builds rapport, may increase participation, and increases students’ feelings of engagement with the class.

For more information about NameCoach, see the ITS Teaching and Learning page.

Learn more about NameCoach and all the Canvas tools offered through ITS Teaching & Learning.

How this will help:

Identify ways that you might encourage active participation in web conferencing sessions.
Know where to find resources related to creating participatory environments.

The basics

When groups including classes meet in real-time online via a video conferencing tool, it’s tempting to just use the time for a presentation or a question and answer session. However, there are ways that you can deliberately use technology in these sessions to enable meaningful participation, deeper learning, and stronger connections.

There are two basic ways to encourage participation in this environment: 

  1. Utilize activities that can be completed by everyone at the same time. For example, you could post a question or prompt in the chat feature of your videoconference tool and then ask everyone to respond at the same time (called a “chatterfall” or “chatstream” or “backchannel”). Another easy technique is asking everyone to contribute simultaneously through an annotation feature or shared workspace such as a Google doc.
  2. Break the whole group up into smaller groups. In classes larger than 5, it helps to create pairs or smaller groups using breakout rooms. Depending on the size of your class, you can also easily scaffold a series of small group conversations (e.g. first as pairs, then as groups of four, etc) by combining breakout rooms.

When planning participatory synchronous sessions, feel free to keep the technology simple: we recommend using Zoom and a tool from the Google suite (such as docs or slides). Think about activities that you’ve run in-person and then work to adapt them in order to optimize the opportunities afforded in a remote environment. Consider the essence of that activity and build out from there rather than trying to translate it directly. Although technology can often help, sometimes activities just don’t work as well in a remote environment, and that’s okay. In this way, you’ll be using technology deliberately in the service of your goals rather than using technology for its own sake. 

Accessibility is another major consideration when running participatory virtual classes or meetings. Before meeting remotely, you’ll want to get a sense of any accommodations that your students may have and work to make sure that all shared materials are accessible and easy to use. In understanding the needs of your students before a meeting, you can choose the activities and/or the technologies that will work best for that particular group. Additionally, it’s important to combine synchronous meetings with robust asynchronous tools in order to maximize the accessibility of your course. 

For specific ideas and activities that you might try, check out our Facilitation Guide: Participatory Sessions in a Virtual Environment. This guide is designed for those new to teaching or facilitating remotely and is built around using Zoom and the Google suite to encourage participation. It includes sections covering general recommendations (such as those found below in the Practical Tips), ideas leveraging specific tech features such as chat and breakout rooms, and an appendix that walks you through how to use Zoom if you need help with the technology. 

The guide also includes full instructions for a number of activities. These activities are largely centered on Liberating Structures, a suite of activities designed to encourage better collaboration and full participation by all group members. However, these activities will feel very familiar for a teaching environment. For example, 1-2-4-All is a kind of think-pair-share, Carousel Brainstorm is a series of brainstorms that build upon one another, and Shift and Share is a set of rotations for small group presentations.

Practical Tips

If you’re looking to encourage more active participation in a remote class or meeting, here are a few of the general recommendations taken from the facilitation guide to get you started: 

  • Build an agenda with ample time for activities and breaks.  

Because there is so much to process when meeting remotely, you should be prepared for activities to take longer, and Zoom fatigue is real. You’ll want to create an agenda that includes plenty of time for all activities as well as breaks for classes longer than 60 minutes. 

  • Create separate, shared workspaces for small groups that include all activity instructions. 

If you have small groups working in breakout rooms, create a dedicated workspace for each small group that includes all of the activity instructions and space for them to record notes (called a “harvest”). This workspace helps to keep small groups on track, allows you to monitor progress, and leaves documentation for everyone in the class to use—not just that small group. See the Template Slides and Template Text Collaboration Document in the Resources section below for examples of harvest spaces.  

  • Set clear expectations at the beginning. 

It helps to give students some expectations and guidelines so that you are creating a comfortable environment for participation. Some ideas include:  

  • Ask students to mute themselves unless speaking. Be clear that you’ll mute anyone who doesn’t abide by this expectation. 
  • Recommend that students configure their screens so that they can keep the chat window open during the entire class, rather than flipping back and forth. 
  • Encourage students to keep a piece of paper and writing utensil nearby.  
  • Let everyone know that video conference tools such as Zoom are strict facilitators; for instance, they will probably be whisked away from a breakout room while in the midst of a sentence. 
  • Acknowledge that a remote class will feel different than a face-to-face class, and that’s okay.
  • Enlist students to help with facilitation. 

There will be some additional responsibilities and considerations when meeting in a videoconference session, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. To help with this, consider having 1-2 students act as “backchannel” moderators for the class. These students could be responsible for keeping track of questions, making sure all activity instructions are posted in the chat, and/or possibly summarizing the session at the end.

Resources

University of Michigan

Other resources

How this will help:

Describe the key features of an accessible course.
Identify ways to ensure a course you are teaching, is accessible for all learners.
Know where to find resources on accessible teaching at the University.

The basics

Although accessibility needs to be at the forefront of an instructor’s mind when designing a course, it is also important for instructors who are teaching a course. Even if it has not been designed to be intentional about making the learning experience accessible to all students, there are important checks and decisions an instructor should make before the first day of class as well as actions an instructor can take during a term to maximize the accessibility of a course. 

Some of these strategies will only be applicable if the instructor has autonomy to make changes to the curriculum, while others are generally applicable.

Prior to the first day

When preparing to teach an online course, creating a syllabus that demonstrates your teaching philosophy and values is one of the first steps you can make to build a connection between you and your students. Make sure that your syllabus includes language about 

  • How to obtain accommodations for disabilities (sample text available from the Services for Students with Disabilities),
  • Your willingness to hear students’ concerns about the accessibility of course content and the technology used in the course, and 
  • Clear descriptions of the kinds of assignments and assessments in the course so that students can anticipate what kinds of accommodations they may need.

Ideally, the accessibility of the course content was established by the team that designed the course, but you should review the content to make sure all readings/documents are screen reader accessible, all videos are captioned, and all visuals have audio descriptions or alt text. If you have flexibility in what readings/content to use in the curriculum, consider switching out content that is behind a paywall to open access/Creative Commons licensed resources. 

Similarly, if the technologies students are expected to use have a cost associated with them or are not accessible, identify alternative tools to use. Note that sometimes using a tool that has a cost is better than using a free application, especially when the company that owns the tools uses or sells student data in ways that students cannot opt out of.

If there is not one currently in your syllabus, adding a statement informing students that you are willing to accommodate their accessibility needs is a great first step to take. You can find a template to adapt for your course on the CRLT website. Besides the syllabus, you can also consider verbally telling your students about accommodation in the first class. Although students remain the right to not disclose their disabilities, please do remind students that the earlier they get in contact with the Services for Students with Disabilities, the earlier the accommodation can be put in place once requested. If students declare in advance of the start of the course that they will need accommodations to equitably participate in the course, make sure to connect with Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) to identify specific steps you need to take to make your course accessible. This might include setting your synchronous sessions up to be captioned or recording your synchronous sessions so students can access them later.

On the first day

The first day of an online course may or may not include a synchronous interaction; either way it is important to reinforce the messages around accessibility you put into your syllabus. If you aren’t meeting with students in the first week of the term, this might take the form of an email to students on the first day of the term or an audio or video recording of what you would say during a synchronous meeting.

Set norms, but be flexible. Create a plan that will likely need to iterate and evolve as you understand the needs of your learners better. 

  • One idea for making synchronous sessions more accessible, both to students with disabilities and to learners who aren’t using video to connect to the class session is to ask students to say their name every time they speak. For example, getting into the habit of saying “X speaking” helps everyone orient to a new voice in a videoconference call.
  • Instructors should also develop a clear plan for how students will ask questions and interact with one another, which needs to include considerations for students with hearing and/or visual impairments, who lack of access to broadband internet access, eliminating their ability to use video, and students who can’t or choose not to use video connections to synchronous sessions. 

Throughout the term

Much of what you need to do during the term is remain consistent with the values and practices you set up at the beginning of the course – enforce best practices for introducing oneself before speaking, monitoring the channels set up for discussion to make sure they are accessible to all, and being responsive when a student needs an accommodation. Other things you can try to include:

  • Using explicit verbal cues as to how to use tools to orient learners who may not be looking at a video demonstration
  • Using descriptive language to describe visuals you might be using in a presentation
  • Provide guidelines to any guest speakers about maximizing their audience’s engagement with their  lecture(s)
  • When possible, provide lecture slides and course materials in advance of a synchronous session.  This practice allows learners to adapt and process materials in a way that meets their needs, as well as providing an opportunity for learners to surface needs.
  • After synchronous sessions, post both the text transcript and recording, if possible.

Practical tips

  • First day – inform students about SSD and requesting accommodations
  • Be responsive to accommodation requests; students may encounter changes in their circumstances that impact what they need to fully participate, and their requests may not all appear at the start of the term
  • Add captions and/or transcripts to existing videos and audio from the course
  • If possible, replace scanned copies of documents with online versions of the text (library resources, online journals, etc) or versions that have been appropriately OCRed 
  • Make sure the smallest font size in your documents is at least larger than 10 pt. 12+ is preferred. 
  • Ensure high color contrast between text and the background color 
  • Offering additional office hours/student visiting hours can provide space for students to discuss accessibility issues and difficulties navigating the online learning environment

Resources

University of Michigan

Accessibility- Resources & guides

  –Access to remote instruction

ITS- Adaptive technologies

       – Instructional accessibility tips

Library- Describing visual resources toolkit

Other Resources

Center for Applied Special Technology – Information on universal design for learning (UDL)

Microsoft Office- Making word documents accessible

How this will help

Proactively incorporate accessibility into your course design and development processes.

The basics

Designing an accessible course is an achievable goal if you spend time sorting out potential barriers during the design process. Yes, designing an accessible course is not something you do after finishing the design of a course. Instead, you should proactively integrate accessibility considerations into major components of your course: content, materials, activities, assessments, and most importantly, the human beings in your course: your students and you. 

While there are widely adopted accessibility guidelines where you can learn about technical tips such as creating accessible PDFs, here in this document we would like to focus more on the big picture of course design by presenting 7 questions that instructors can ask themselves during the design process. These 7 questions cover essential aspects, i.e., content, materials, activities, assessments, and accommodations, that instructors need to pay attention to. We hope that these 7 questions could help instructors reflect on their efforts towards the design of an accessible course.


7 questions that instructors should ask themselves

1. Have you let students know that you are willing to accommodate their accessibility needs?

Please consider including a statement on your syllabus to inform students that you are willing to accommodate their accessibility needs. Such template language can be found on the CRLT website. Besides the syllabus, you can also consider verbally telling your students about accommodation in the first class. Although students remain the right to not disclose their disabilities, please do remind students that the earlier they get in contact with the Services for Students with Disabilities, the earlier the accommodation can be put in place once requested. 

2. What are the technologies that students are expected to use in your course? Are they accessible, reliable, and free?

Examples of technologies include Learning Management Systems (e.g., Canvas), video conferencing tools (e.g., Zoom, BlueJeans), engagement tools (e.g., Flipgrid). List all the technologies that students are going to use in your course and confirm the following questions: 

  • Are they accessible? Are students with disabilities able to use them? 
  • Are they reliable? Are they approved for use by the university? 
  • Are they free? If not, are there free education versions offered by the company or the university? 

Your answer to the three questions above should be Yes. Otherwise, make sure you come up with alternatives. 

3. Are there interactive activities in your course? If so, would any of those interactive activities exclude someone with a disability?

Examples of interactive activities include verbal presentations, show & tell, and field trips. When you design interactive activities, do ask yourself the following questions and modify the activities based on your answers:

  • Would I understand the activity if I could not hear or see it? 
  • Could I still participate fully in the activity If I had a mobility impairment?
  • Would I fail the course if I missed part of the activity because of my disability

4. Are there alternatives to visual content (e.g., charts, pictures) in your course materials such as slides?

Keep in mind that students with visual impairment would have difficulty read visual content such as charts and pictures. To make sure everyone has equal access to the information, especially students who use assistive technologies such as screen readers, please accompany visual information with textual alternatives such as alternative text, long description, or a detailed caption underneath the visuals. Besides textual format alternatives, please also be verbally descriptive in your lectures if you are going to explain those visuals. Not only students with visual impairment, students who have learning disabilities or anyone who has difficulty understanding complex visuals will also benefit from your description. 

5. Have you run any auto accessibility checkers as you create Word Docs, PDFs, PowerPoints and correct the errors and warnings as you work?

Word Doc, Adobe Acrobat PDF, and PowerPoints have built-in auto accessibility checkers that can help you identify the majority of accessibility issues. Please run the auto checker (simply click the button) as you create documents and follow the instructions to fix identified issues. If there are remaining issues that can not be addressed by auto-check, please reach out to professionals to ask for help.  

6. Have you created a welcoming environment for students to give you feedback? 

Please always keep an open mind to students’ feedback and create a welcoming environment for students to share their honest feedback with you. Allow students to share with you their thoughts through different channels, e.g., email, office hour, video/audio chat. Provide guidance for students on how to make the best use of various channels to communicate with you. 

7. Are you aware of the institutional resources that can support your efforts in designing an accessible course?

You are not alone in designing an accessible course. Please keep yourself informed of campus resources about accessibility. Who can help you with brainstorming about improving the accessibility of an interactive activity? Who can help you with converting your documents into accessible versions? Please do reach out when you encounter accessibility-related questions that you do have answers to. 


UDL learning guidelines


Practical tips

  • Select videos that have captions to use in your course. 
  • Select audios that have transcripts to use in your course. 
  • When it’s possible, avoid using scanned copies. If you have to, make sure they are appropriately OCRed. (OCR, Optical Character Recognition, it is a technique to recognize text inside images, such as scanned documents and photos)
  • Keep your materials (such as slides) clean and formatted by using consistent heading structures. 
  • Apply built-in layout when creating slides and word docs.
  • Make sure the smallest font size in your document is at least larger than 10 pt. 12+ is preferred. 
  • Ensure high color contrast between text and the background color.

Resources

University of Michigan

CAI – Home Recording Accessibility Considerations

Other resources

Research

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org