Teaching Accessibly with Canvas

Author: Laura Cira

College is a transformative time for many students, but it can also present unique challenges for those with disabilities. These challenges - some seen, some unseen - can impact a student's academic performance and personal well-being. Both faculty and staff can be proactive stewards of student inclusion by knowing universal design strategies and implementing technologies that can help better meet learners' needs– without having to wait for students to self-report a disability, or any accommodation requests that follow. 


As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that all students have equal opportunities to learn and succeed. Holding true to Notre Dame’s goal to “consciously create an environment … in which none are strangers and all may flourish," we have been tasked to cultivate an inclusive environment that supports these students in achieving their full potential.  This article will explain some identified areas where students struggle, and introduce ways that faculty can improve their learning outcomes through concepts and tools available to utilize through Canvas. 


Sara Bea: ND’s Center for Student Support and Care

The team at the Sara Bea Center for Student Support and Care see hundreds of students each semester who are dealing with challenges that keep them from thriving in the classroom. While many types of disabilities that Sara Bea assists with are physical and medical, a large number include mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety. This year alone they have worked on accommodations for over 1750 students. 


Brent Fragnoli, assistant director of Accessibility Education and Outreach, believes that applying principles of universal design in your classroom and to your course site will reduce barriers that many students struggle with. Embracing these concepts will create a supportive, inclusive experience and increase student success no matter what the issue. 


Instructors should not feel that making these choices will compromise the academic rigor and expectations that Notre Dame is known for. “When we talk about universal design or any form of accessibility, the goal is to modify the logistical rigor of our classrooms, as opposed to modifying the intellectual rigor of the curriculum,” Fragnoli explains. This principle does not come at the expense of a high-quality and challenging academic experience; it simply makes learning resources and evaluations more effective for a broader range of abilities. “Universal design learning maximizes the inclusivity of course curriculum for all students, not just for groups or individual students as seen through the accommodations process.”


While students with visual and cognitive barriers may be the most frequently considered for accommodations, Fragnoli stresses that everyone will benefit from universal design. Adding captions to videos, increasing font size and color contrast on slides, and being intentional with your Canvas course site design are just a few examples of universal design in action. “These modifications can address [a specific set of student] needs, as well as decreasing barriers for students with dyslexia, or attention related concerns, or even our students who are better visual learners as opposed to auditory.”


So what Canvas tools are available now that you can use to get started? 

Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Canvas

As part of OIT’s alignment with Notre Dame’s (ND) Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative, the University Council of Academic Technologies (UCAT) recommended additional accessibility tools for use in the Canvas LMS. After research, testing, and analysis, the Teaching and Learning Technologies group recommended Namecoach and Yuja’s Panorama as proactive accessibility tools to integrate into Canvas. 


Panorama automatically improves the accessibility of your files and course content by making course documents available in a variety of formats to support different learning needs (such as Semantic HTML, Audio, ePub, Electronic Braille), as well as having additional functionality that allows students to adjust their Canvas screen settings (increase font size, change color contrast, and so much more). It provides an institution-wide course content accessibility report that delivers deep insight into the institution’s accessibility performance. You can learn more about Panorama by reading here or watching this video.


Namecoach is another new tool integrated into Canvas which allows students and instructors to personally and quickly record the pronunciation of their name. Users voice-record their names within their Canvas account profile, and the recording will be visible when the tool is added to a Canvas course site. Namecoach enables instructors and students to be more respectful and inclusive in every interaction through the simple act of learning and pronouncing a person’s name correctly. This can build a sense of belonging and community across the campus and demonstrate a commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion beginning in the classroom. Read more about Nameacoact here.


Both Panorama and Namecoach are add-ons to a strong foundation already available in Canvas. Canvas’ Accessibility Checker, for example, assists instructors and designers as they enter text and information into the Rich Content Editor. Accessibility checker will catch and help mitigate common formatting challenges such as clear page organization, table navigation and alternate text for important images. Canvas also has a couple of features that facilitate different testing windows and extra time on exams without the need for duplicate tests for each exception. See Additional Resources at the end of this article for more information.


While many of the challenges cannot be fixed solely through technology, how we use platforms like Canvas can bridge some of the gaps of inclusion some students feel in our classes. Accessibility is important in higher education because it ensures that all students, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, have equal opportunities to access education and succeed academically. Higher education institutions that prioritize accessibility are better able to serve a diverse student population and provide an inclusive learning environment. When students have equal access to education, they are more likely to improve learning outcomes and achieve academic success.


Additional Resources

If you have any questions regarding any of the accessibility tools identified in this article, please reach out to the Teaching and Learning Technologies team for a consultation. In addition, here is some of the documentation we are writing to support accessibility in Canvas:

What does it mean to have accessible course content?

Overview of Panorama

How does Panorama help students use Canvas?
Canvas Accessibility Checker

Adjusting Canvas Due Dates by Student (Assignments and Quizzes)

Assigning Extra Time on Canvas Exams