The Rapid Elearning Blog

accessible e-learning retrofit

A guest post by Elizabeth Pawlicki, Training Program Manager, Articulate.

Many e-learning designers are challenged because they don’t often build accessible e-learning courses. So, they’re not sure what accessibility means and how it impacts course design.

In a recent webinar, we discussed general ideas around accessible e-learning, common design challenges, and some ways to overcome them. One of the tips was to plan for accessibility from the start because it’s not a good idea to retrofit 508 or WCAG compliance into existing e-learning courses.

An attendee asked, “What’s wrong with retrofitting a course?”

Good question.

Understanding Accessible E-Learning

Imagine a city that already exists full of apartment buildings, skyscrapers, and transit systems. And then the city council implements a law that says there must be a half-acre of park every two square miles.

How will you accomplish that?

You either must tear down what you’ve already built or try to squeeze the bare minimum of acceptable “parkland” into your existing space. Since the parks weren’t an initial consideration, you do what you can to meet minimum guidelines, but you may not meet the aspirational goals of the intent of more parks.

And that’s often the case with e-learning courses that weren’t built with accessibility in mind. The retrofitted courses may appear to meet the minimum requirements but may not offer the best user experience; and they may not actually meet the requirements if all you did after-the-fact was apply accessible features to the original content.  And of course, all of that retrofitting costs a lot of extra time and money.

Challenges Retrofitting Accessible E-Learning

There’s a lot that goes into creating an e-learning course like consulting with subject matter experts, writing scripts, developing prototypes, presenting content to stakeholders, and iterating on the prototypes you have created. In the end, you have a published output that everyone has agreed upon.

When you try to retrofit a completed course, it may seem easy and straightforward. But once you begin to uncover how much needs to be undone, redone, and how many people could and should be involved in that process, you’ll find it’s more costly, time-consuming, and downright difficult. This is especially true when you consider the interactive nature of e-learning and how different users access the content.

Therefore, it’s important to consider accessibility as part of the initial production process so that you understand what’s required and build a course that meets everyone’s needs. If you start with accessibility in mind, you’re considering everyone. Everyone will feel included because they are.

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106 responses to “What’s Wrong with Retrofitting an Accessible E-Learning Course”

September 23rd, 2020

This blog is always insightful and spot-on. The example of going back to add parks to an already developed city is the best one I’ve seen for the true challenges to retro-fitting for accessibility. That will also help explain to others who believe we can just ‘make a few tweaks’ to existing training.


Great article and definitely rings true!

The analogy about tearing down buildings to add parkland summed up my recent experience of retrofitting a complicated drag and drop to be more accessible.

I think there is a wider question here about commonly used interactions – such as drag and drop – which do pose accessibility issues. They’re almost ‘baked in’ unfortunately. Ensuring we are aware of these from the very start of our build is really important.

Elizabeth, love the example that you have used. Makes it easier to understand.

There’s nothing wrong with retrofitting old courses and making them accessible. Would you rather leave them inaccessible?

October 5th, 2020

@andy: Good point. However, the article isn’t about NOT retrofitting a course; instead, it’s about designing courses with accessibility in mind to start. Many developers know they have accessibility requirements, build an interactive course, and then retroactively add accessibility.