Supporting Open Textbook Creation

16 Universal Design, Accessibility, and Usability for OER

Stefanie Buck

As a project or program manager, you must consider the accessibility and usability of the works that are being created. In addition, you may want to perform some usability testing to make sure your OER meets institutional and national guidelines or standards.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

You should take UDL principles into account when designing OER. UDL differs from accessibility (see below) in that there are no standards and no legal requirements, such as with accessibility, but rather that it is “performance-based.” A well-designed resource using UDL principles will address many of the accessibility issues that commonly arise in the design of OER and can create barriers to learning. The idea behind UDL is to design something that works for everyone. UDL should not be an afterthought but a basic set of principles on which to build your OER content.

UDL means there are:

  • Multiple means of representation—to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge
  • Multiple means of action and expression—to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know
  • Multiple means of engagement—to increase motivation by giving learners choices on how they want to engage in their learning (CAST 2018)

UDL means thinking of all the users and potential users of the OER. Then ask yourself, does this OER meet UDL principles? Who might be excluded from your OER? The benefit of UDL principles is that they improve the usability and accessibility of your OER even for learners who do not fall into the category of “disabled.” For example, having closed-captioning or a transcript of the video benefits not only people with hearing issues but also students whose native language is not English or students with certain learning disabilities. Under the principles of UDL, you design with all your users in mind from the very beginning and thus you greatly improve both the accessibility and usability of your end product without a significant increase in cost. It also helps to reduce the need for design modifications if you have a situation where you need to make an OER accessible (e.g. for a particular student). Retroactively turning an OER into something that meets accessibility guidelines is expensive and time-consuming. Applying UDL principles will make your OER available to as many people as possible, regardless of their circumstances.


Accessibility is one of the primary—but not the only—benefits of using UDL principles from the beginning. An OER that is created correctly from the beginning will significantly reduce the barriers to anyone using the OER. There is, moreover, also both a legal and moral impetus for creating accessible resources. Both accessibility and usability need to be built into your development process and should not be an afterthought, as is often the case (Navarrete and Luján-Mora 2018).

According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C):

Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them. More specifically, people can:

  • perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web
  • contribute to the Web

Web accessibility encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web, including:

  • auditory
  • cognitive
  • neurological
  • physical
  • speech
  • visual (W3C, n.d.)

Another useful definition comes from the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC):

The IDRC reframes disability within the design context. Rather than a personal characteristic or a binary state (disabled vs. non-disabled), disability is framed as: a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the design of the product, system or service. With this framing, disability can be experienced by anyone excluded by the design….Accessibility is therefore the ability of the design or system to match the requirements of the individual. It is not possible to determine whether something is accessible unless you know the user, the context and the goal. (IDRC, n.d.).

Best Practices Checklists

In this section, we will summarize some of the tools available to you to test for accessibility. It should be noted, however, that a checklist isn’t the only way/standard to gauge if something is accessible. Since accessibility is about an overall intentional approach and design, a best practice checklist can be a useful place to start, but there will be other techniques you can use to test for accessibility. According to the W3C (2021), accessibility is organized into four success criteria: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Any guidelines and best practice checklists you use should address these four principles.

As a starting point, you will want to acquaint yourself and your authors with the basics of web accessibility and Universal Design. Fortunately there are many lists and guides that can help you do that. Some basic guides include the W3C Content Accessibility Guidelines. These guidelines contain the full spectrum of accessibility standards but they can be a little overwhelming at first. Some pared-down guidelines include the Checklist for Accessibility (Coolidge et al. 2018), the Top 10 Tips for Making Your Website Accessible (University of California, Berkeley, n.d.), and the Campus IT Accessibility & Usability. (University of Wisconsin, 2020), which is especially helpful when learning about accessibility in the Pressbooks platform. In addition, your university may also have web accessibility guidelines for you to use.

Like UDL, having a basic accessibility checklist or guide will make it easier for your authors to build accessibility into the work right from the beginning. It can be difficult and cost time and resources to retrofit a work. See “Improving the Digital Accessibility of OER: A Reflective Guide” (Anastasi 2020) for a readable story about retrofitting OER works for accessibility.

When you conduct your accessibility review will depend on your program type, the support you can offer, and how much control you have over the content. You will need to consider who is responsible for the accessibility review and how it will be documented. The best thing to do is to run an accessibility check on the content delivered by your authors early on in the process, but that may depend on your staffing levels and capacity. One suggestion is to have your authors deliver a chapter or module to you at the beginning of the project. This way you can run an accessibility check and head off any problems that may be appearing, such as improper use of headings or a lack of alternative (alt) text for an image.

Tools to Review Accessibility

Because much of our OER content is viewable on a web page, using a tool to review it can be very helpful to catch any error that may have crept into the work. Fortunately, there are a number of free tools that you can use to check. These tools include:

Keep in mind that these tools are not perfect. Some tools check only for certain aspects of accessibility (e.g., color contrast or font size). However, they are an excellent place to start when assessing technical accessibility. The W3C maintains a complete list of web accessibility evaluation tools.

Also keep in mind that once the errors or problems have been identified, someone will have to address them. Will that be you, your unit, or the faculty author? You should be clear about this up front and even include it in the MOU. This will introduce the concepts of accessibility and UDL to your authors early on.

Accessibility Statements

While all OER authors should strive to make OER accessible, not all OER can be made 100% accessible, even with the best efforts. It is important to acknowledge this with an accessibility statement in the OER. In open textbooks, this usually appears in the front or back matter and includes a checklist of accessibility features. In other types of OER, this information might be included in the description. This information will be useful to anyone using special software to navigate the OER; they will know immediately what issues they might encounter. This makes the process a little less frustrating for the user.

What Is an Accessibility Statement?

An accessibility statement lets your users know the work has gone through a review process and that issues with accessibility are documented so readers know what to expect. A good accessibility statement includes a way to contact the authors if there are issues.

Accessibility review is for everyone, not just readers with special needs. Just like closed-captioning benefits those with hearing loss and those with certain types of learning difficulties, integrating accessibility into your workflow will benefit all your users/readers.

Writing an Accessibility Statement

Here are tips for writing a useful accessibility statement from the Open Education Accessibility Toolkit by Coolidge et al. (2018):

  1. Use clear and simple language, avoiding jargon and technical terms
  2. Include information about how people can personalize their experience. This might include information about:
    1. features of the platform used for the resource (e.g., if a book is in Pressbooks, mention the ability of users to increase the font size in the web book)
    2. the ability to change browser settings
    3. a link to each available file format
    4. assistive technologies
  3. Outline specific accessibility features and how to use them when relevant
  4. Do not make false claims or ignore known accessibility issues. Be as transparent and open about accessibility barriers as possible. This means:
    1. describing what is being done to fix the problem and a timeline
    2. providing any temporary workarounds
  5. Include information about who is responsible for the accessibility of the content and their contact information so people can submit issues, suggestions, or complaints related to accessibility.
  6. Describe the organization’s accessibility policy, and the work that has been done to make the resource accessible. Here, you can provide information like:
    1. accessibility guidelines you are following (e.g., WCAG 2.0)
    2. any federal, provincial, or state legislation you are conforming to
    3. any user testing you performed (Gray, 2018)

It is important to keep your accessibility statement page up to date as you make updates to the content, or if the software itself is updated to be more accessible. Conduct an annual review if possible.

Here are some sample accessibility statements that you can adapt for your own purposes:

Your accessibility statement should also include contact information in case there are any issues that need addressing.

Accessibility and Audio-Visual Materials

One area that is easily overlooked when creating an OER is the accessibility of videos, images, or other media either embedded in the OER or as the OER itself.Media is an important component of UDL because it offers the content in another format for users to engage with but only if they can hear or read the media. For videos to be accessible, they need to at the very least be closed-captioned and/or have a transcript available. Doi, Lucky and Rubin (2022) point out that one of the easiest and most impactful ways to improve the accessibility of your OER is to include closed-captioning. Not only does it help learners with a hearing loss, but it allows users to watch the video content in a noisy environmentImages need at a minimum to include alt text, which is a brief description of the image a screen reader can read aloud to the user. Questions about appropriate font sizes and contrasting colors/patterns in graphs and charts, like all accessibility, need to be built in from the beginning of the content creation process. It is important to clarify these expectations up front. For example, if the OER includes a video, who is responsible for the closed-captioning? Will you accept media that is not accessible? How will you document this in your Accessibility Statement?

Collaboration Across Campus

If your campus has a department or unit that serves students with specific needs (e.g., the unit that supports students with disabilities or an academic learning center), these may be good partners to engage with and ask for support when determining the accessibility of a text. They will also, most likely, have guidelines already established for making web, Word, PDF, and other document formats accessible that you can share with your faculty authors.


Usability is a way to measure how easily and well a user can navigate a specific site to complete a task. You have probably heard of usability testing on websites or may have participated in a usability test yourself. According to Nielsen, a leader in usability studies,

“Usability” is defined by five quality components:

  1. Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  2. Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  3. Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  4. Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  5. Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

There are many other important quality attributes. A key one is utility, which refers to the design’s functionality: Does it do what users need?” (Nielsen 2012)

There are many resources available to help you understand the importance of usability, such as the What is Usability website that explains how to design for optimum usability (Interaction Design Foundation, n.d.). It is a good basic overview of the concepts and principles for creating usable websites, and many of the concepts can be applied to OER.

There are also some rubrics you can use to validate the usability of your OER. For example, the Washington State University web communication page (Wood 2015) includes a 25-point list for how to design for optimum usability and a printable rubric for reviewing your website.

Tools for Usability Testing

Usability testing does not require any fancy equipment, although some is available. Primarily you need a tester, notetaker, your subject, and most likely a computer. However, if you want to try and automate your process and capture more detail, you can screen record the test using Camtasia, Screencast-O-Matic, or something similar so that you can review it later. There is also a host of software out there to assist you in your usability testing, although most is not free. Options include recording capability and built-in analysis tools. Keep in mind that usability testing is one tool in your toolbox and one way of getting feedback on your OER. It’s not a definitive process and takes some practice.

Usability of OER

Optimizing the usability of OER is still a challenge. OER usability covers everything from content to user interface to navigation. A key factor is knowing your audience. As Whitfield and Robinson (2012) point out:

“One of the first questions that should be asked when repurposing resources for open access is, ‘who are the resources meant for?’ When producing OERs, the audience/users of the resources are inevitably unknown and there may be multiple potential end-users, ranging from students, to self-learners, to educators of different levels and disciplines. A distinction can be made between a teaching resource (of use to a teacher in disseminating information, e.g. lecture outlines) and a learning resource (used directly by students and acting as a surrogate for a classroom teacher) with different instructional design and content requirements.”

Doing a usability review or audit, if not an actual usability study or audit, can help you identify the pain points in the OER. You may not have control over some things, such as the hosting platform not being completely accessible or you cannot integrate certain functionality. In other cases, you may be able to catch problems early and correct them before the development process goes any further. Keep in mind that a usability review is not a definitive process but one tool that you can use to make the OER as user-friendly as possible. For more guidance on doing a usability review, see A Quick Guide to Conducting a Usability Review (Interaction Design Foundation 2016).

Beta testing is one way to determine the usability of your product (Dennen and Bagdy 2019). Rather than publishing the OER or releasing the module to the public and then using it in the classroom, do some beta testing by using the text in the classroom before actually publishing it. Instructors can use the text in a PDF or Word format in the classroom and get feedback from students about the content, layout, and design before creating the work on its final platform, where it might be more challenging to edit the content later. Another option is to have colleagues review the content before rollout (a peer review of sorts) or engage the students and authors in focus groups about the text to make improvements. All of this information will help in the creation of a usable final product. Once published, you will still want to be open to additional feedback from students and other users, but the majority of the feedback from your students should happen pre-publication.

Usability may also refer to the usability of the repository in which your OER resides. If you are using an institutional repository or something locally created, you will want to ensure the usability of the discovery tool. This is where good metadata comes into play. (See Chapter 19: Hosting and Sharing OER for more on metadata) How easily and quickly can your users find what they are looking for in the repository? Usability for people with special needs is often overlooked and should be part of your review when deciding where to host or represent the content (Navarrete and Luján-Mora 2020).


OER that follows accessibility guidelines and Universal Design principles will help all of your users, not just the ones with a disability. If you follow Universal Design principles from the beginning, you will already go a long way toward meeting those needs. Taking the time to include an accessibility statement somewhere on your OER will also alert your users to any issues or special software they might need to access your resource. It will save a lot of time and frustration. If you are able, conducting regular usability testing of your OER is also highly beneficial to make sure it meets the accessibility needs of your users.

Recommended Resources

Key Takeaways
  1. Think about UDL, usability, and accessibility early on in your process.
  2. Determine who will be responsible for the usability and accessibility of the OER and how this will be done.
  3. Let authors know what the standards or guidelines are that you expect them to follow early on. That way they can build accessibility and useability into their product rather than having to “retrofit.”
  4. Consider asking each author for a chapter sample early on so you can review it for accessibility and catch any issues early in the process.
  5. Include an accessibility statement in your final product and in the project MOU.


Anastasi, Katy. 2020. “Improving the Digital Accessibility of OER: A Reflective Guide.” Open Oregon Educational Resources (blog). June 11, 2020.

CAST. 2018. “The UDL Guidelines.”

Coolidge, Amanda, Sue Doner, Tara Robertson, and Josie Gray. 2018. Open Education Accessibility Toolkit—2nd Edition. BCcampus.

Davis, Galen. 2018. “How to Ensure Accessibility for Educational Videos.” Wiley Education Services.

Dennen, Vanessa P., and Lauren M. Bagdy. 2019. “From Proprietary Textbook to Custom OER Solution: Using Learner Feedback to Guide Design and Development.” Online Learning 23 (3): 4–20.

Doi, Carolyn, Shannon Lucky, and Joseph E. Rubin. 2022. “Open Educational Resources in the Time of COVID-19: Two Case Studies of Open Video Design in the Remote Learning Environment” KULA: Knowledge Creation DIssemination and Preservation Studies, 6(1)

Gray, Josie. 2018. “11 Accessibility Statements.” In Open Education Accessibility Toolkit—2nd Edition, by Amanda Coolidge, Sue Doner, Tara Robertson and Josie Gray. BCcampus.

Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC). n.d. “What Is Inclusive Design?” Accessed June 24, 2021.

Interaction Design Foundation. 2016. “A Quick Guide to Conducting a Usability Review.” Accessed July 9, 2021.

Navarrete, Rosa, and Sergio Luján-Mora. 2018. “Bridging the Accessibility Gap in Open Educational Resources.” Universal Access in the Information Society 17, 755–74.

Nielsen, Jakob. 2012, January 3. “Usability 101: Introduction to Usability.” Nielsen Norman Group.

OpenStax. n.d. “OpenStax Accessibility Statement.” Accessed January 25, 2022.

Sheppard .n.d. “Accessibility Statement” in Research Methods for the Social Sciences: An Introduction. Accessed January 25, 2022.

University of California, Berkeley. (n.d.) “Top 10 Tips for Making Your Website Accessible.” Accessed July 23, 2021.

University of Wisconsin Campus IT Accessibility & Usability. 2020. Pressbooks–Accessibility & Usability information. Last modified November 18, 2021.

Watson, Léonie. n.d. “How to Write an Accessibility Statement.” (blog) Nomensa. Accessed January 25, 2022.

Whitfield, Stephen, and Zoe Robinson. 2012. “Open Educational Resources: The Challenges of ‘Usability’ and Copyright Clearance.” Planet 25 (1), 51–54.

Wood, Nicole. 2015. “25-Point Website Usability Checklist.” Washington State University web communication page. Accessed July 23, 2021.

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). 2021. “Introduction to Web Accessibility.“ Last modified 6 October 2021.


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The OER Starter Kit for Program Managers Copyright © 2022 by Stefanie Buck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.