Media, images, gifs, videos etc, are a great way to break up your text and illustrate your point but they also come with issues so you need to be certain of what the purpose of your media is and who owns it.

There is a phrase ‘things on the internet are forever’, or something similar. What I have taken from this in my personal use of the internet is to never post something I’d be ashamed to show my grandma, in my professional life I have made a conscious effort to make sure I have permission to use what I post. The internet is searchable and you don’t want someone finding out you’ve used their image without their permission.

The rapid changes in the last year mean that, unless it was already publishing on the internet, your institute is unlikely to have access to services such as Getty for images and videos. There are millions of copyright free images available through internet searches so make sure you use them. This can be tricky for more specific items like graphs so you may need to learn how to use Microsoft excel to make them or create a template email for asking permission to use specific images.

If you need to have the image on the page, rather than providing links to where the images are hosted, signing up to services or expanding your own skills, may be necessary. This will be most useful for image heavy subjects.

You’ll also need to make sure that the media piece is as accessible to as many people as possible. You don’t want to be rushing to find alternatives because you are informed halfway through a semester that X number of students can’t access the piece of media you’ve chosen.

So, assuming you have permission to use a piece of media, and that you really want or need to use it, what does it need to do?

Videos

Starting with videos, because that is somewhat easier from an author view point, you’ll need to do a variety of checks to ensure it is accessible to as many students as possible.

Students may have a poor internet connection that prevents the video playing, they may be deaf or hard of hearing, they may be blind or have sight loss, they may not be able to watch videos for medical reasons (either for a short time or a long time), they may be in circumstances that means watching videos is simply impractical or unviable, the list goes on and all are a reason for you to have to make last minute changes when time is at even more of a premium.

Doing the checks up front, as you are making your choices, will reduce or even prevent those last minute adjustments.

You’ll need to check where the video is hosted — many sites like YouTube are banned in some countries, so if you potentially have international students, this is likely to be an issue.

Whereever your students are based, don’t rely on third party videos to teach your content, they are best used as an additional resource for all of the reasons listed above.

You’ll also need to think about the sound quality (is it too loud/too quiet/too variable) and the video quality (is it good quality and clear or poor quality and blurry). Are the picture and sound in sync? Does the video have captions? The other thing to check for videos is the transcript.

For third party videos, copyright will prevent you from creating a transcript unless you have an agreement with the video owner so your choice of video is your choice of transcript.

Different publishers use different tools to create transcripts so the quality isn’t always great. Transcripts are enormously useful for many different people, not just for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. I use them myself to find specific information, especially if I want to quote something, rather than try to find it in the video again.

Though it would also be fantastic to have audio descriptions for videos, this is unlikely because of expense unless you are using a video from big organisations like the BBC and that circles back to the copyright issue.

If in doubt about whether your students will be able to access a video, provide a link to a website that has similar information on it with a generic statement such as ‘If you cannot access the video for any reason, you may find this text-based alternative helpful’. The ‘this text-based alternative’ portion of the text should be a hyperlink to the webpage you’ve found. It may be good practice to do this anyway as an alternative way for your students to access information.

If you are lucky enough to have an in-house media team, your institution will need to make sure it hits the WCAG 2.1 guidelines (though these are shortly to be superseded by WCAG 3.0 guidelines) and if you are thinking of exploring virtual reality, there are updated guidelines in the works to help you ensure those pieces are accessible to everyone.

Images

Images (static or gifs) are, or can be, much more tricky from the author point of view because the author is responsible for ensuring they are accessible either through the choice of image or through explanation and alt text.

The first thing to look at is the reason you are using the image, deciding whether it decorative or informative.

Decorative images should not take over the page but are useful for creating visual interest and breaking up the text. These are also the most common kind of copyright free images, so easily found. I would try to make them vaguely relevant so as not to be jarring but other than that it is what you do with the decorative image which is important.

Visually, you expect your audience to skip these so that is what you should instruct screen readers to do and set up your page accordingly. So, in the alternative text area for each decorative image you should type double quotation marks (“ “) this should instruct the screen reader to skip the image. You don’t then want to interrupt the flow of text by adding a caption or copyright attribution so make a section at the bottom of your page to do this.

As long as you make sure to do these things, decorative images are nothing to panic about, onto informative images.

Informative images are nothing to panic about either but you will need practice to get quicker and better at them. The most important thing to think about is what you want your students to get out of the image.

Images may become inaccessible for some of the same reasons as videos — connection issues may cause the image to ‘break’ or your audience may be blind or have sight loss. The contrast within an image needs to be clear enough for those who see colour differently to discern the information and this isn’t just down to colour choice though this is a factor.

The A11y Colour Blindness Empathy Test plug in (available on both Firefox and Chrome) is really useful for illustrating the issues with choices made in images and whether an image you choose is suitable. Though if you are making your own images, you will want to look at either the WCAG 2.1 guidelines or WCAG 3.0 guidelines to do that in the most accessible way possible.

So far so good right?

So let’s push on to the bit that really makes people panic — alternative text.

Alt text as it is more commonly known, is text your audience won’t know is there unless an image breaks for some reason, or they use a screen reader.

This particular aspect of creating accessible content makes people panic because there is no one way to do it so it is hard to know if you are doing it right.

What I would say to that is something is better than nothing and as long as your image is integrated into your text . Placing an image, having no introduction or explanation, and just expecting students to intuit the meaning doesn’t work for anyone so, assuming the text introduces and begins to explain the image, you’ll be fine.

The key is to focus on the purpose of your image. Take the image of a tortoise below:

The purpose of me including this image of a baby tortoise is purely because, though it isn’t particularly relevant to the text, I like tortoises and so I would use “ “ and not write a caption for the image. The copyright attribution is at the bottom of this page and the text around the image doesn’t need to introduce the image.

I have introduced the image and given an explanation for its use though, essentially telling everyone who can’t see the image that there is one there, so I have added alt text to the image which says: ‘Close up of a Hermann tortoise hatchling on a lawn next to a daisy used to illustrate descriptive points below’.

If this page was talking about the life cycle of this species of tortoise (I think it is a baby Hermann) and the purpose of the image was to illustrate the size of a hatchling, I might write something like the following in the alt text area:

Text: Hermann tortoise hatchlings are approximately 4cm in length and, as the image shows, shorter in height than a daisy in a lawn.

Alt text: Close up of a Hermann tortoise hatchling on a lawn next to a daisy.

Caption: Photo by Sindy Strife on Unsplash

If this page was about photography, the purpose might be to illustrate technical specifications or an example of composition.

So for technical specifications, I might write something like:

Text: Camera set up for an image of a tortoise hatchling taken from X distance and at X height on a sunny day with the sun coming from the right hand side should be X, X, X, X.

Alt text: Close up of the hatching show the tortoise and one daisy in sharp focus while the background with a single daisy and the for ground with grass and another single daisy are out of focus.

Caption: Photo by Sindy Strife on Unsplash

For an image illustrating composition, I might write something like:

Text: Composition is often used to show scale as seen in the following image:

Alt text: The hatching is facing the left of the image and is positioned slightly right of the vertical centre line and slightly down from the horizontal central line. The hatchling is positioned on grass between three daisies — one directly in front of where the tortoise is looking, one behind the tortoise as we look at it and one in front of the tortoise as we look at it. Though the daisies are of normal height, they are taller than the tortoise.

Caption: Photo by Sindy Strife on Unsplash

As you can tell, I know nothing of composition and technical specifications within photography and only slightly more about the life cycle of a Hermann tortoise. Though I hope I have made my two points that something is better than nothing and the purpose of an image will determine the alt-text it needs. I have also exceeded the character/word limits and guidelines and I could perhaps convery the same information in a more succinct way but, and here is the important bit, it does the job.

Admittedly this is a fairly simple image but I have written alt text for technical drawings of construction projects like car parks, hotels and residential houses as they were used in courses I helped develop.

It is possible to write alt text for anything as long as you focus on the purpose of sharing the image and set yourself an order in which to describe the image.

For example in simple images you may just want to focus on what can be seen and how those things are positioned in relation to one another. For more complicated images you may want to divide the image up (into a grid or clock face perhaps) and then describe what can be seen in each section, for a floor plan you may want to start at the front door and work you way round each floor in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. For graphs, remember that they were once tables, so usually the easiest way of describing graphs is to pair the information as it would be in a table.

As I said before, though you will want to be succinct, you do not need to follow suggested word or character limits. The information needed is the information needed and I focus on the purpose of my image and what needs to be conveyed to students rather than fitting a formula and the great thing is that this advice applies to gifs as well as static images.

Finally, if you are having trouble getting started or trouble with a more complicated image, leave it and come back to it. Start with something more simple, even if it doesn’t ultimately end up on your page and build up. The practice is good and it will also help you get in the flow of writing descriptive text in the same way you get into the flow of writing content.

I may revisit alt-text but the two basic points are focus on image purpose and student need.

Still, let’s have another list:

Copyright

Make sure you have permission to use an image

Video

- Check where the video is hosted
- Check sound quality
- Check image quality
- Check sound and image are in sync
- Check captions and transcript is available
- Provide a text-based alternative
- When making your own, follow the WCAG guidelines

Images (static and gifs)

- Check the contrast
- Check the purpose
- If an image is informative;
— Introduce it through the text
— Describe the image based on what a student needs to know
— Something is better than nothing
— Start simple and build up

Photo of a tortoise by Sindy Strife on Unsplash

Online learning designer and accessibility advocate rambling in the hope of making life a little easier for someone.