Online collaborative tools can be very useful and engaging, when everyone can access them. Collaborative tools are almost an essential inclusion to a ‘post-COVID’ flexible learning classroom, and can be used by students both on and off campus.
In this post, I’ll share some tips to make your collaborative activities more accessible for everyone. While following these practices will benefit most of your students, some may be excluded from participating due to different access requirements, in which case you will need to offer alternatives to ensure equal access and participation (find out more in our Reasonable adjustments and alternative assessments collection).
Let’s explore with four common online collaboration tools: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Whiteboard, Google Jamboard and Miro (all free to use).
Choosing an accessible online collaboration tool that works for you
Collaborative tools, while rarely used as an end-product, are typically utilised for brainstorming and idea generating, and so it is assumed students with accessibility requirements don’t miss out on much. However, this is untrue as the idea generation process is an essential stage of learning, helping students understand trains of thought, drawing conclusions, and igniting creativity.
This stage is also important in fostering belonging for students, getting a better understanding of the content being taught, and learning essential work and study skills. The inability to participate in that excludes students from an essential part of the university experience.
Considerations in choosing an online collaborative tool
Choosing the right online collaboration tool for your class can depend on a few factors. For example:
- The size of your classroom
- If the software is supported by UTS
- Having students with accessibility needs and requirementsCost
After considering all these factors, you can decide which tool will suit your purpose while still allowing all of your students to participate.
Microsoft Word (online version) is a very effective collaborative tool when it comes to accessibility. Office Online supports the use of assistive technologies such as screen readers or speech recognition software. Microsoft Word is also a supported software by UTS.
- Easy to use interface.
- Web Accessibility Initiative-Accessible Rich Internet Applications (WAI-ARIA) support for assistive technologies.
- Immersive reader setting.
- Includes an accessibility checker that allows you to add alt text to all the image elements.
- Pre-set headings hierarchy.
Microsoft Whiteboard is a virtual whiteboard collaborative tool. It is also supported by UTS.
- Easy to use interface.
- Includes an accessibility checker that allows you to add alt text to all image elements.
- Image descriptions are readable by screen readers (although MS Whiteboard cannot be navigated using a keyboard only which is essential for screen reader users).
- Background colours and patterns can be customised.
- Microsoft Whiteboard allows you to start with a predefined template. Most of the templates look much like a collection of sticky notes. These are the most useful templates for a virtual classroom.
- Whiteboard can be used to visualise ideas. Cognitive presence is a key part of all learning and is about constructing meaning through sustained communication. The visual element of Whiteboard helps sustain this communication, and mitigate short attention spans.
Google Jamboard is a virtual whiteboard collaborative tool, however, it is not supported by UTS.
- Allows up to 50 users at one time to add images, text, draw and erase, content on the frames.
- Jamboard allows up to 20 frames/slides only.
- For those with minimal accessibility requirements, Jamboard is simple to use and has an intuitive interface.
- The content on screen can be zoomed in up to 200%.
- For screen reader users or keyboard users, Jamboard is inaccessible as most features need to be accessed with a mouse or mousepad.
Miro is a virtual whiteboard collaborative tool. It is not supported by UTS, however, a lot of UTS Staff and Students have registered accounts with Miro.
Miro’s accessibility is limited to user profiles and settings. Miro’s interface and collaborative space cannot be navigated using a keyboard only, which means it is inaccessible for screen reader and keyboard users. If you have students with these access requirements in your class, it is best to avoid using Miro as it would exclude them from participating in the class.
Accessibility tips for all platforms
The following advice is applicable to all of the platforms mentioned in this post, and across most online spaces generally!
- Make sure there is a high level of contrast between text and background colours. MS Whiteboard offers light shades of colour for backgrounds, so it would be best to select darker text.
- Use the templates provided or create your own to add structure to the collaborative activity.
- Add examples for each category to make it easier for students to follow the structure.
- Dividing students into groups can help minimise repetition and avoid making the end product look messy and crowded.
- Asking students to work in groups and recommending that they delegate one notetaker/scribe might allow students with different access needs to participate. This will also encourage students to narrate what they see on screen. For this to be done effectively, groups would need to be placed in breakout rooms to minimise noise or people talking over each other.
- Add alternative text to any images you place. Of the four collaborative tools on this page, this can only be done effectively on Microsoft Whiteboard and Microsoft Word Online.
- Consider a triage or health check with an anonymous survey at the start of semester with software/tools you will be using where students can disclose disadvantage.
Accessibility on LX Resources
Take a look at our resource collections for more information on how to make all aspects of your subject accessible.
Feature image by Christina @ wocintechchat.com.