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Overcoming accessibility challenges of Live Virtual Classrooms


Live Virtual Classrooms (LVC) enable trainers to deliver instructor-led online training course content in any combination of audio, video, Web content and/or documentation (PPT, PDF, and so on) to teach a course to a distributed class online. While efforts have led to better inclusion in education, there is still a ways to go, particularly in the area of accessible virtual classrooms, to ensure that people with disabilities are full and equal participants. Several software companies offer a measure of accessibility in their virtual classroom solutions; however each of the solutions that the authors reviewed has shortcomings that prevent the applications from being completely accessible to people with disabilities. The IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center and CAL’s Accessibility Center of Excellence have invested time and resources to tackle this problem. This article documents best practices that instructors can follow to deliver the most accessible online course despite the limitations of the virtual classroom tools.

Accessibility challenges by audience

Understanding accessibility requires an awareness of the special needs of multiple user groups, including people with disabilities and users with age-related disabilities. A person with a disability may encounter one or more barriers in a virtual classroom setting.

People who are blind and those with low vision face several challenges in the live virtual classroom environment. Blind participants have no access to the whiteboard content, simulations, or demos presented in live virtual classes. In addition, the course delivery interface itself must be keyboard accessible to enable screen-reader users and keyboard-only users to navigate the virtual classroom and access the presented material. Low-vision users are constrained by the font sizes and contrast settings that the facilitator uses for the presentation. Color-blind users are often unable to distinguish the differences between colors that a presenter uses to convey meaning, such as a project status or achieved goals.

People who are deaf or who have limited hearing face challenges when live captions are not provided. If utilizing the Voice-over IP (VoIP) features commonly found in virtual classroom applications that replace a regular phone, hearing-impaired participants face difficulty when using accommodating technologies, such as TTY or IP Relay.

People with motor disabilities or limitations face challenges because of the lack of consistent, reliable keyboard accessibility of live virtual classrooms. Though some features can be navigated with a keyboard, many critical features often cannot be accessed without the use of a mouse.

Lastly, individuals with cognitive disabilities face difficulties understanding all of the information a virtual classroom can present simultaneously- such as chat rooms, slide presentations, participant lists, audio and animations - which can limit their ability to focus on the instructor’s content.

Prior to live virtual session

As we understand the needs of our users, we can make efforts to overcome the accessibility challenges of the live virtual classrooms.

Before you deliver a live session, we highly recommend that you become well-versed in accessibility and gain a better understanding of the disability types and potential audience members’ needs.

Foremost, the course content must be available in an accessible format. Use the IBM Documentation guidelines to ensure your content is accessible Because some users may prefer to follow the session using a local copy of the material, you should send accessible course materials prior to the session. Creating two versions of a presentation is perfectly acceptable. In a version of the presentation intended only for presenting in the live session, instructors may prefer to create transition text that flows through several slides. The instructor sends the second version, which must be an accessible version, to participants prior to the session.

In addition, ensure that the course invitation is accessible, also using the IBM Documentation guidelines. In the invitation, you may ask if participants need special accommodations. As an example, for courses offered through Learning@IBM, participants can add their accommodation needs.

Figure 1: Learning@IBM accommodation request

Learning@IBM accommodation request

Based on accommodation needs, you may need to arrange for a transcriber or a transcription service to provide captions for the audio portion of the meeting. With regard to transcription services, an alternate telephonic system must be provided when using VoIP. Providing an alternative to VoIP enables an interpreter to listen to the audio for interpretation. Additionally, an alternative to VoIP enables a blind or a keyboard-only participant to participate when certain features, such as signing into the live virtual session and joining the voice conference, are not accessible. The instructor should offer the ability for participants on the phone to ask questions during the presentation, including the ability to un-mute the line and determine if questions are asked through interactive features, such as text chat. By following these guidelines prior to the session, you enable all students to enroll and participate in the live virtual session. The next section discusses how to create an inclusive delivery of the course materials in the live virtual classroom.

Delivery of the live virtual session

Understand the course delivery system’s interface and accessibility limitations

You have many options when considering Live Virtual Classroom (LVC) applications. A few LVC applications that IBM uses include: LotusLive, Centra, Elluminate, and Connect. Most offer a feature-rich experience involving the sharing of multimedia in the session, the launching of Web tours to guide learners through a Web site, and the streaming of live video of the instructor to the students. At a minimum, a live virtual classroom application offers application and presentation sharing, text chat between learners and instructors, and interactivity, such as polling or surveys.

Recently, several popular LVC applications have improved the level of accessibility for many of these features. While each application has its positives and negatives in terms of accessibility, none currently offer a fully accessible experience. As a result, you should become familiar with your delivery system's interface (and output formats if available) and understand its accessibility limitations. For example, does the LVC share slides on a whiteboard that is accessible to blind users? A few applications can translate whiteboard content into HTML that, in turn, enables a screen-reader user’s access. Can all users access the chat windows to interact with instructors and other participants? Surprisingly, the limited keyboard navigation in several of these applications prevents users who are blind or who have mobility issues from accessing the chat. Delivering the most accessible classroom experience is dependent on your understanding of the limitations of the application and how to deliver your course in the environment despite those limitations.

Classroom orientation

Often, one of the first tasks for an instructor in a regular classroom is to provide a short introduction of class members and to offer a quick orientation of the room and building, such as emergency exits and restrooms. The same should be true for your virtual classrooms. While you may not explain where to find the nearest pot of coffee, you can orientate participants to the virtual classroom application that they are using. Describe how to access features such as text chat, body language icons (agreement, laughter, raising of hands), caption windows and so on, and indicate locations on the screen, in the menu system, and how to access the menu items with keyboard shortcuts.

At the start of the LVC session, the instructor should introduce him or herself and any assistants. The instructor should also announce the number of participants, and for smaller classes the instructor may read a roll-call of the attendees. This detail is often overlooked in the LVC environment because the application typically displays the names in a participants list. However, the participant lists are not always accessible to screen reader and keyboard-only users. By announcing those in attendance, or enabling each participant to give a brief introduction, the attendees gain insight into their fellow students, which can create an environment that is more conducive to participation.

To help keep all learners "on the same page," announce page numbers as you present your material. It is not uncommon in the regular classroom for an instructor to ask the learners to "turn to page x" of the material. However, in the live virtual classroom setting this action is often overlooked as the instructor displays the material on the whiteboard or via an application share. Keep in mind that some learners in attendance may have downloaded the materials beforehand and are viewing these outside of the virtual classroom application. By announcing the page or slide number as you proceed through the materials, all learners are kept in sync.

Whiteboard, demos, and simulations

Perhaps the most predominate features of virtual classroom applications are the whiteboard and the ability to share one's applications. While these are the most widely-used features, these are also, unfortunately, the most inaccessible. Although a couple of the current LVC applications can import presentation slides onto the whiteboard and convert the slide text into HTML text that can be read by screen readers, these applications do not always relay the message of the slide. None of the current applications, at the time of this writing, import and convert alternative text associated with images, charts, and graphs. As a result, it is incumbent upon the instructor to describe in detail the material shared on the whiteboard.

This guidance applies to demonstrations or simulations, as well. If you are sharing an application, your verbal instructions must express the equivalent information as the visual content on the screen. For example, an instructor demonstrating how to open a file in Symphony might say:

“First, I go to the Start button, then All Programs, and Select Lotus Notes. When Notes finishes loading, I go to File > Open > and a dialog box appears. In the filename input box, I type in “file1.odt,” and then press Open to open the file.”

This ensures all learners equal access to the actions the instructor is demonstrating.

Interaction - Question and Answer / text chat

A primary benefit of instructor-led online training over other methods of e-learning is the interaction between instructors and students. Most virtual classroom applications offer features to enable or enhance these interactions, such as text chat, question and answer modules, and user-activated icons to express body language such as agreement/disagreement, hand raising, laughter and more. Unfortunately, like many of the other LVC features discussed, these interactive features are often lacking in the area of accessibility. Because of this, the instructor must fill those accessibility gaps and keeps the interaction flowing.

Text chat is arguably the most widely used feature for interaction between instructors and students, but screen readers do not always automatically announce or read when new text is entered into the chat window. Therefore, the instructor should periodically pause and summarize or read all relevant or important text in the chat window. Content that has been sent only to the instructor or in a separate private message should be screened before reading to the attendees. Keep in mind that text chat may not be keyboard accessible, so instructors should ensure that learners have an alternative method to ask questions or communicate, such as with the phone.

For the interactive components, such as Q&A, surveys and polls, the facilitator should verbally repeat questions displayed in the interface and, in turn, accept verbal answers from those on the phone. The answers and results should be handled in the same manner and read aloud.

Finally, the instructor should describe any use of body language during the session. For example, you could say "John Smith has his hand raised. Go ahead John," or acknowledge other actions such as a show of applause or laughter. Following these guidelines keeps the communication open between instructors and learners and promotes a more interactive virtual classroom.

Follow-up of the live virtual session

After preparing and delivering an accessible training session, you should verify that the follow-up correspondence and deliverables are accessible. For recorded sessions, provide real-time text streaming or captioning in the course transcript that is available for download. Verify that the video recording is accessible and provide synchronized captioning to ensure people who are deaf or hard of hearing can access the audio portion of the session. If the session involved text chat, it should be saved and included with the recorded session and transcript. If the session displayed simulations, demonstrations, or multimedia, the transcript must contain a full text alternative of the simulation/demonstration, including a full description of the simulation/demonstration. Verifying the follow-up correspondence and deliverables are accessible is the last step for ensuring inclusion of everyone.


Because of the many challenges for people with disabilities who attend instructor-led online training, guidance is needed to ensure the inclusion of all audience members. This article serves as an aid to help instructors provide an accessible learning environment and overcome the limitations of the live virtual classroom tools. Our goal: to ensure the level of quality and consistency in instructor-led online training offerings. While this article provides guidance for overcoming challenges in live virtual classrooms, all course materials should meet accessibility requirements. Review the IBM developer guidelines and ensure that your course content is accessible, for both session materials and materials intended to be sent to your audience in advance.

About the authors

Marc Johlic has been a member of the Human Ability & Accessibility Centers' CI 162 Consulting team since June 2008. His focus is on the accessibility of Web applications throughout IBM, with a primary concentration in providing guidance to the HR, Learning, Research and TAP teams. He is the primary CI 162 expert assisting Heather Hasner with the assessment of Learning's development tools for accessibility compliance. Marc brings a strong technical background to the assessment of tools and is passionate about compliance issues.

Susann Keohane has been a member of the IBM Human Ability and Accessibility Center's CI 162 technical team since November 2006. Her focus is on the accessibility of documentation and software applications throughout IBM, with a primary role of providing guidance to the Learning, STG and SWG Information Management teams. She holds a Master of Software Engineering degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

Special thanks

Our appreciation to Heather Hasner, the Global Accessibility Lead for Learning Design & Development, and Andrew Lahart, CI 162 consultant, for their contributions to this article.