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Effective Use of MS Office Products in Creating Usable and Accessible Course Materials


Instructors want their course materials usable by all their students. Unfortunately, they may inadvertently make their materials harder to access and use because of the way in which they utilize development tools such as WORD, PowerPoint, etc. Fortunately, however, there are some straightforward steps that can greatly improve the usability and accessibility of these course materials.

A search on the Internet yields hundreds of guidelines for good screen design and/or for accessibility for all students. Below is a collection of some of these. In some instances, a choice was made between alternative guidelines – generally, by considering their reasonableness, practicality, and simplicity.

By forming habits of following these guidelines in using tools such as WORD and PowerPoint, instructors will not only make their materials more usable, accessible, and consistent in their authoring tool format, but they will also make the result of using standard tools to convert them to a PDF or HTML formatted file more usable and accessible. In that sense, these guidelines are important first steps in making course materials more usable and accessible in any format.


The underlying themes in many of the guidelines mentioned below can be summarized as:

  • Utilize the built-in styling and formatting features of MS Office tools to the extent possible;
  • Provide alternate means to access information contained in the document wherever appropriate – in particular, where the usability of the information is primarily dependent upon the functioning of a single sense, e.g., sight, hearing, etc.

Below I have summarized the guidelines and provided links to further discussion of the individual guidelines. The guidelines are:

General Guidelines for all MS Office Tools

  • Use MS Office 2000 or Office XP . These versions of MS Office tools have great improvements in accessibility features over MS Office 97 tools. Although some students may have older versions of WORD, PowerPoint, etc., you should still do your development in the later versions of these tools as there are relatively simple means to address the issue of students having older versions of WORD and PowerPoint - including conversion to a PDF or HTML format or the use of MS viewers. Versions of Adobe Acrobat 6.0 and greater have some very good accessibility features and avoid some of the difficulties of students with older versions of WORD or PowerPoint.

Return to Summary of Points

  • Use the Built-in Style and Formatting Features to structure your document . Documents should be developed with headings, subheadings, etc. to structure your content for ease in skimming and for the benefit of students using screen readers. Although you may achieve the same visual appearance using bolding, italicizing, and changing the size of text on a item-by-item basis, the underlying formatting done by MS Office tools is vastly different as compared to achieving the result using the “Styles and Formatting” (or “Styles” depending on your version of MS Office) feature. To use this feature, you can perform the following steps:
    • From the top menu bar, select “Format”;
    • From the pull-down menu, select “Styles and Formatting” or “Styles” depending upon the version of MS Office being used;
    • Depending upon the version of MS Office you are using, a pop-up menu will appear or a Styles and Formatting Panel will appear on the right side of the screen. Follow directions to adjust the font style, size, type, etc. as you wish;
    • To apply a style, e.g., to a heading text, select the desired heading style from the “Formatting Toolbar” in the style “box”. If the “Formatting Toolbar” is not displayed, select “View” from the top menu bar, then select “Toolbars”, and then “Formatting” from the subsequent pull-down menus.

Although you may find the use of these “styles and formatting” features awkward at first, it is very important to stick with the approach as it has a significant impact on usability and will become much easier as you become more familiar and adept at their use.

Return to Summary of Points

  • Use a Sans-Serif Font Style for Headings and Text to be viewed on a screen . It is generally accepted that a sans-serif font style, such as, Verdana or Arial, is better for general reading on a screen for all students. This can be done by following points 2a to 2c and then selecting the fonts for the various styles.

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  • Use a font size of 12 Point or greater . Although font size can be modified within the browser and within some other tools, 12 point or greater is a widely accepted guideline. This is done in a manner similar to points 2a to 2c but selecting the font size for the various styles.

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  • Use a line spacing of 1.5 if there is a significant amount of text to be read on a screen . The proximity of lines of text can cause a difficulty for some students in reading from a screen. This can be changed by selecting “Format” from the top menu bar, then selecting “paragraph” from the pull-down menu, and then finding and changing the “Line Spacing” box on the pop-up menu.

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  • Use a high contrast between background color and text color . In general, it is best to go with the default of black text on a white background.
    • In using any background other than white, consider that many students may print a copy to be read offline. A colored background will lead to the unnecessary expenditure of ink.
    • If color is used to highlight a portion of the text for emphasis, you should also emphasize it using some other means for those not able to recognize the color emphasis.

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  • Avoid using clip art unnecessarily, especially, animations in educational material . Generally speaking, unless it really adds to the educational content of the material, such items will:
    • Add to the file size which, in turn, adds to the download time.
    • May distract student from the main educational content.
    • Can cause a significant problem for students with some types of learning disabilities.

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  • Use the built-in MS Office feature for bulleted and numbered lists rather than achieving the look with typing/tabbing . As in point 2 above, although you may be able to achieve the same appearance by typing and tabbing, the underlying formatting done by MS Office is vastly different. These differences will affect students using screen readers as well as any conversion to other file formats, such as, HTML or PDF. The impact upon conversion affects students having older versions of MS Office tools. In using lists, consider the following items:
    • Use punctuation at the end of each item in a list as the punctuation will often be picked up by a screen reader to assist in distinguishing between successive items.
    • Favor numbered lists as they are easier for students using screen readers (to distinguish individual items and the beginning/end of the list).
    • If numbered lists are not used, place some indication in the text of the number of items, e.g., “The following four factors …”, to assist students using screen readers.

Return to Summary of Points

  • Utilize the built-in capability to provide alternate text (referred to as ALT-text) for an embedded graphic . The ALT-text should be used by an author to provide a short description of the graphic. This ALT-text is read by screen readers. Also, this ALT-text is used by browsers if the browser user has selected to “not download graphic files” to avoid the download time associated with graphic files. This ALT-text must be supplied by the author. The steps involved are:
    • Right click on the embedded graphic.
    • Select Properties from the pop-up menu.
    • Click the Web tab.
    • Enter a short description in the box labeled “alternative text”

In embedding graphic files within text, it is best not to wrap text around the image as the result may be confusing to someone using a screen reader. In addition to providing ALT-text, it is good practice to describe the significance of the graphic element within the text of the document.

Since the size of graphic files may be quite large depending upon the particular graphic file format used and other factors, you should discuss the graphic file with a graphics expert if you are not familiar with graphic tools for optimizing size and quality.

Return to Summary of Points

  • Utilize the built-in feature to format tables rather than trying to format them manually using tabbing, etc. Again the basic reason is the same as Point 2 and 8 above, namely, although the appearance may be same, the underlying formatting by MS Office is vastly different. If you use the built-in feature for formatting tables, a screen reader will recognize that portion as a table and translate it as such. On the other hand, if you do it manually, the screen reader will look upon the result as ordinary text (and read line-by-line from left-to right) with a confusing result. Also, if standard tools are used to convert from the authoring format to HTML or PDF, the results will be much better if the built-in table feature table format feature is used. The following steps describe one way to utilize this built-in feature:
    • Select “Table” from the top menu bar.
    • Select “Insert” then “Table” on subsequent pull-down menus.
    • Select the appropriate options from the pop-up menu for table size, etc.

Return to Summary of Points

  • Use the built-in feature for multiple columns rather than trying to format using tabbing, etc . The basic reason is similar to Point 10 above for tables. By using the built-in columns feature part of the Formatting Toolbar, a screen reader will recognize the columns and read a column at a time rather than reading from left-to-right across the entire page. It will also ease the revision of the document if such needs to be done.

Return to Summary of Points

  • Use the “Group” option if you have used the drawing tools supplied with MS Office tools . If you have used the MS Office drawing tools to draw figures, etc. within the document, you should use the “Group” option when you are done editing the figure. This option has Office (and other programs) treat the drawing as a single entity rather than multiple entities. Once you have “grouped” the individual elements in the drawing, you should add the ALT-text described in Point 9. If you have not done this grouping, each portion of the drawing is treated as an individual graphic and the results of a conversion to a HTML format would be unpredictable – at best. The Group option can be found by clicking the “Draw” button on the “Drawing” Toolbar. If the “drawing tool bar is not displayed, you can display it by selecting “View” from the top menu bar, then selecting “Toolbars” and then “Drawing” from the subsequent pull-down menus.

Return to Summary of Points

  • Provide multiple means to transmit the information from embedded multimedia files audio or audio-video . This guideline usually entails providing a transcript for multimedia files which may not be easily usable to all students. Since these multimedia files can quickly become quite large and, hence, have long download times associated with them, these transcripts can be of value in that regard also.

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  • Utilize the built-in design templates, color schemes, and slide layouts in PowerPoint . Again, as mentioned in a number of the above points, it is best to use the built-in style and formatting features of the MS Office tools rather than creating their apparent equivalent using tabs, etc. In the case of PowerPoint, this general guideline is especially true from the standpoint of the document in its authoring format and in a converted format. In particular for PowerPoint the following three items can be selected from provided features:
  • You should select from one of the provided “design templates” and should, in most cases, select the default template or one of the simpler templates (unless you are familiar with how to use and modify the master template).
  • You should select from one of the provided “Slide Layouts” when choosing the layout for a particular slide.
  • You should select from one of the provided Color Schemes for a particular design template.

You can access the above items by executing the following steps:

    • Select “Format” from the top menu bar.
    • Then select “Slide Design” from the pull-down menu to choose a design template or color scheme for you presentation
    • Or, then select “Slide Layout” to choose a layout for your slide.

Return to Summary of Points

  • Take care to have any text associated with hyperlinks and/or bookmarks meaningful and relevant . Since some screen readers have the capability to move from link to link in a document, if you only use “click here” for the links, the screen reader will be reading “click here”, “click here”, etc. which will not be very meaningful to the user of the screen reader. Therefore you should make the text associated with the link more meaningful with, for example, “click here for Web Design Guidelines” or “Web Design Guidelines”.

Return to Summary of Points


Author: John Paul San Giovanni

22 June 2005

VLE: All



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