What is accessible online training?

Pamela S. Hogle
Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
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All too often, organizations struggle to get learners to engage with and complete their online training. For some learners, this might be because the eLearning is not accessible to them!

A learner who struggles to use or understand online training content is likely to give up or skip through the content quickly, without learning much and retaining almost nothing. That defeats the purpose of training and sets the learner up to fail at their job.

Envision a diverse learner population … 

Colorful wooden figures representing people standing on a keyboard, sandwiched between the keys.

Some designers ensure that their content is accessible to learners with impaired vision or hearing. Many also know to make adjustments for learners with some mobility disabilities. But those learners are not the only ones who need and use clear, accessible digital content.

Learners have varied abilities, experiences, and knowledge

Accessible content benefits all learners, not only those with identifiable disabilities. An aging workforce includes millions of worker-learners whose eyesight and hearing are less sharp than they used to be, for example, even if the workers are not “disabled” under any official (or unofficial) designation. And a global organization likely includes many employees whose native language is different from the training language. Other learners may struggle to use technology or be new to a topic and unfamiliar with industry jargon.

Creating accessible online training avoids misunderstandings, cognitive overload, and other barriers to effective training and improved training outcomes. It uses plain language that learners can understand even if they are new to the topic.

Start with standards: WCAG & POUR

WCAG, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, is a set of standards, best practices, and, yes, guidelines for creating accessible digital content by addressing a wide range of potential barriers.

WCAG includes three “levels” of accessibility conformance. Many nations and industries have adopted some level of WCAG conformance as a standard that is required for public-facing content, for online shops and services, for educational materials, for government websites and online publications, and more.

The acronym “POUR” captures four principles that are the foundation of WCAG and of accessible content. Content must be:


Available to the senses. In practice, this often means presenting content in more than one media format. For example, visual content such as an image, chart, or video might also be provided as text content or include alt text or audio descriptions. Audio content would also be provided as written text, using transcripts or closed captioning for video soundtracks, for example.


Learners must be able to interact with content using standard or adaptive input devices and technologies. At minimum, text must be keyboard accessible, which requires that controls and interactive elements also have keyboard equivalents.


Online training content must be clear and unambiguous. Content is written using plain English (or other language) and avoids or explains industry-specific jargon. It also avoids idioms and cultural references that a non-native user of the language would struggle to understand. Text content is accompanied by visual and/or audio content that aids in understanding.


Learners of varied backgrounds and abilities can access and use the online training content using a wide variety of technologies and devices.

These guidelines go beyond creating content that accommodates specific disabilities and focuses on making content broadly usable.

All learners benefit

Wooden figures representing people are scattered, forming a ragged circle around a wooden red box with a wooden red checkmark in it.

Best practices for creating accessible online learning content result in eLearning that is more usable and more useful to all learners. Clear, easy-to-use content in multiple media formats provides the opportunity for each learner to engage with online training in a way that works for them. Rather than spending time and energy trying to figure out how to navigate unwieldy or poorly designed screens full of content, learners can focus on mastering the material. Rather than struggle with complex vocabulary, they can grapple with the concepts and problems that form the substance of the learning material.

Accessible content is learner-centered and considers how humans learn, the environment where they will learn, and the tools they will use to learn. Accessible content often follows principles of Universal Design for Learning, which examines the why, what, and how of learning.

Accessible design best practices

Accessible content also follows these design best practices:

  • Avoid timed elements or enable learners to turn them off or extend the time.
  • Avoid flashing, bouncing, or auto-scrolling content or enable learners to turn off the movement.
  • Provide learners with ways to adjust color, contrast, text size and either use a plain, clear font or enable learners to change the font as well.
  • Even better — create your website using high-contrast color combinations. Use a contrast checking tool to vet your choices.
  • Use HTML markup to create an obvious content hierarchy, including tagging headings and sub-headings correctly.
  • Include alt text to describe images.
  • Create input forms using proper tagging and ensure that they are easy to use.
  • Provide keyboard alternatives to any navigation or interactivity that uses a mouse or other input device.
  • Create navigation aids, like site maps, and ensure that icons and buttons are large, clear, and easy to find and use.
  • Anticipate and be “forgiving” of user error; build in confirmation before important actions are executed, such as having learners click OK before deleting content or data.
  • Always provide clear, easy-to-find instructions and help.
  • Write clear, concise content that is logically organized, uses short, active sentences, and presents concepts in short, focused chunks.

Studies show that the vast majority of people who use closed captions and transcripts do not have a hearing impairment; they simply find that the captions help them focus on and understand the content. Other “accessibility” features help learners overcome technology barriers, like low internet bandwidth that hinders access, and cultural barriers that hinder understanding. If your ultimate goal is reaching as many learners as possible, that means reducing friction — a key goal of accessible content.

Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
Pamela S. Hogle

An experienced writer, editor, tech writer, and blogger, Pam helps you make sense of learning science and eLearning technology. She provides information you can use to drive improvements in your training effectiveness and ROI.

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