Edutechie - the adventures of a learning technologist

Eli Appleby-Donald's views of educational technology

Month: July 2016


Accessible documentation: why and how


It’s that time of year where those of us working in education are preparing for the coming academic year and one of these jobs is creating the new administration and learning material needed. This is a good time to have a review of the materials you have and update or replace things, especially if they have been created in a hurry to fill a gap and maybe haven’t had time taken to ensure the are “accessible”. I am so guilty of this hurried approach and it usually means more work in the long run as I have to revisit things and essentially redo them.

The Student Support Team here are currently working on one of their new students tomes and had contacted me for advice on how to make this mammoth document more accessible for our students. I thought it might be a good move to share some of this info. Also though, to show that things don’t have to be overly complicated.

What does accessible mean and why do it?

Accessible really just means easier to use, particularly for someone who has difficulties, but generally, for everyone.

Many people find electronic documents better than printed material. They may just find it more convenient or it may actually be easier for them to use a keyboard or other device to navigate through pages on a screen rather than turning paper pages, they may even use a computer to read documents or magnify them. Making your documents accessible means a little bit of extra time and attention but it could make a huge difference, not just for users with specific difficulties though, making your documents more accessible also makes them more usable for everyone so it’s good practice.

Hints & tips on making a document accessible

Ok then here are a few simple things that you can do when you create a document which will make it easier everyone. I am specifically talking about using MS Word but the same principles can be transferred to the other two main accessible formats: HTML pages or PDF files. And… even your blog pages.

My most important guidelines are:

  • Use styles and headings instead of direct formatting
  • Construct tables correctly
  • treat text appropriately
  • white space is your friend

Styles & Formatting

Appropriate layout and formatting help any user to understand the structure of a long document.  Headings are a great indicator of each section, for people and screen readers, and subsections and bullet lists help emphasise important points. I mentioned screen readers, well following some basic rules about headers makes it a much better experience for folk using screen readers too. It helps to make navigation consistent.

You can use direct formatting to achieve the same visual result, for example making a line of text bold and increasing its size. This would make it look like a heading, but it wouldn’t appear in a document map and a screen reader wouldn’t interpret it as a useful navigation item. So it’s good to remember that visually, you are sometimes interpreting what’s there rather than seeing what is actually there.


  • Use title style for the document title
  • Use headings for major sections such as chapters
  • Start with heading 1 for the most important headings
  • Continue with heading 2 and heading 3 etc.
  • Don’t skip from heading 1 to heading 3 or 4 if you can possibly avoid it


If you want to display an ordered item, use the appropriate list formatting rather than manually typing it yourself. Screen reader programs can announce the beginning and end of a list that is styled in this way. Some will also announce the number of items in the list.


  • apples
  • oranges
  • strawberries
  1. Cars
  2. trucks
  3. buses


Another important thing to think about is tables and how you use them.

Please don’t use tables to display lists. Remember that it may make the document look pretty, but it won’t behave as expected when someone is using a screen reader. Tables should only be used to display tabular information. This goes for using tables to layout a document. A screen reader will read out the tables of the cell in order from top left to right and then downwards, regardless of how you want the document to be read.

Be careful using tables to show text, make sure that all the text which should be read together is in one cell.

Do it like this

Don’t create a table this way

Otherwise, a screen reader will read the text as:

Jack and Jill Old King Cole
Went up the hill Was a merry old soul
To fetch a pail of water. And a merry old soul was he.
Jack fell down He called for his pipe
And broke his crown And he called for his bowl
And Jill came tumbling after. And he called for his fiddlers three.


It’s a good idea to keep fonts to around a size 14 but definitely no smaller than 12. This will help users with visual impairments.  It is also good to avoid what’s called a non-serif font like Times New Roman. The little tails on the letters make it harder for some people to read. Think of it as the more ornate the font, the more people will find it harder to read.

I tend to stick to:

  • Arial
  • Verdana
  • Calibri
  • Tahoma
  • Helvetica

Use dark text against a pale background, this is best for users with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, but it’s good to know that a dark grey works better for most people than black. Black text on a white background is a very dramatic contrast and can cause blurriness for some people. However, just to contradict myself, some users with visual impairments may find a pale font on a dark background easier to read. The importance is that there is sufficient contrast between the text colour and the background colour. For example, black font on a cream or buff background is a good contrast and is usually popular amongst those with difficulties s is dark grey text on white. I use purple paper with black text.

Backgrounds should always be plain.

Some individuals may require printed documents on different coloured paper as this can assist those with Irlen Syndrome (Scotopic Sensitivity Disorder), Dyslexia, and other specific learning difficulties. See my aforementioned need for purple paper.

When aligning font, don’t justify text as this makes the spaces between the words uneven and difficult to read. The spacing it creates is called rivers and can pull the readers’ focus away from the text.

Always align left.

This was a very brief tour of some accessibility hints for your documents, but you could go investigate if you’d like to get into this in more detail. Speak to your disability officer and ask for their advice for your particular workplace or institution.


Shared under Creative Commons:

Wikipedia – for teaching and learning


Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.

That is the vision statement of the world’s largest open educational resource Wikipedia. Just in case there is anyone out there who hasn’t heard of Wikipedia, it’s a massive free online encyclopedia which is written and edited by internet users.  It has long had a reputation of not being reliable, of being a repository of information that is neither credible nor peer-reviewed simple because it is written and edited by internet users, but is this still the case? Should we continue to discourage students from using Wikipedia to access information?

I have to hold my hand up and admit that I have long discouraged the use of Wikipedia, citing it as unreliable but I will now admit my mistake and retract that statement. I’ve learned just how much work and collaboration and peer review goes into every article on Wikipedia. How an article will not be accepted if it does not have academically acceptable sources to support its information and I’ve learned all this because this past year has seen me in a fantastic journey of discovery.

The University has taken on a Wikipedian in Residence, meaning we now have an expert in using Wikipedia for teaching available to all of us who’d like to learn more or start using this fantastic OER.  He has helped to run some outstanding events around the use of Wikipedia and more importantly about making sure the information on Wikipedia is top-notch and he’s also pushing to correct the gender balance which exists amongst both editors. Only 15% of people who edit Wiki articles are female meaning there is a slant towards biographies and articles about men and those about women are woefully under represented.

So far this year there have been loads of events or editathons where students and staff have come together to update or create new articles, just a few to mention are;

and there are still a lot more to come.

But the purpose of these has not just been about updating the Open Educational Resource of Wikipedia, it’s been about teaching the people involved digital skills, research skills, how to use citations and collaboration skills.

The process engages students, and in some cases engages with students who had perhaps been less confident when working on traditional assignments, in researching the topic and applying the digital literacy skills required to achieve the creation of an article. The end result is not an essay that could potentially be filed away and forgotten but instead something that adds to “the sum of human knowledge” and is discoverable by other readers and editors all over the world so that they, in turn, can add more to it.

This is a massive topic and I’m conscious of not producing a huge and unwieldy blog post so if you are interested in learning more about the use of Wikipedia in teaching, here are some starter for ten links to get your research groove on.

And watch out for an update when New College hosts its very own editathon in November where I’ll be joining in and putting my newly learned wikipedian skills to the test.

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