25 Mar 2022

Improving the Learning Experience: Accessibility in the HBS Online Classroom


by Dorian Salinas

What does it take to create courses that are accessible for all? In mid 2019, four months before the introduction of the University-wide Digital Accessibility Policy, HBS Online set out to do just that. Since its inception, HBS Online and its leadership have been committed to supporting learners wherever they are—geographically, in their careers, or most importantly, how they learn. This commitment inspired the HBS Online team to create an accessibility program that would improve the experience for participants with disabilities. Led by Thomas Starbranch, the HBS Online digital accessibility program director, the team aimed to make all of their courses accessible—both those in development and their 13 existing courses.

HBS Online was launched in 2014 with a goal of reaching students all over the globe, continuing the Harvard Business School (HBS) mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world. HBS Online’s digital learning platform now reaches over 150,000 learners in more than 186 countries.

HBS Online course content before and after the accessibility program changes.

Although the program was formalized in 2019, HBS Online already had elements of accessibility in their early offerings. “Our vision was to extend accessibility to every functional area within HBS Online,” Starbranch said. To bring this vision to life, each course was analyzed to determine what aspects needed to be altered. Over the course of two years, the team audited and edited over 1,500 pages, 1,250 videos, 500 images, 350 tables, and 80 teaching elements. “Due to the vast amount of content we looked through, completing the change in two years far exceeded anyone’s expectations,” Starbranch said, noting that three new courses were being developed while this work was underway.

The accessibility standards followed by HBS Online and the University are the Worldwide Web Consortiums Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.1, Level AA Conformance (WCAG 2.1 Level AA), which includes recommendations such as standards for text descriptions for visual content, minimums for color contrast, specifics for colors used, and keyboard navigations.

Caption creation tool.

The new accessibility program also introduced a set of all-new tools to the HBS Online platform. One of those tools was developed for the Leadership Principles course, in which students create and post an introductory video. Although the videos were instantly available on the platform, any participant requiring captions had to wait for them to be processed and added later, which created an inequitable learning environment. To remedy this, the team added a caption creation tool that requires students to caption their own videos when they create them, ensuring that all participants can access the course materials simultaneously.

HBS Online currently has 19 courses and five more in the pipeline. Looking ahead, they aim to continue creating content that can reach all users. “Early on we made the decision to instill accessibility into the DNA of HBS Online,” Starbranch said. “Our staff asks not just, ‘Does this conform to the standards?’ but, ‘Does this improve the user experience for all participants?’”

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