This extended abstract is a contribution to the Accessible E-Learning Online Symposium of 16 December 2013. The contents of this paper was not developed by the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) and does not necessarily represent the consensus view of its membership.

MOOC and Accessibility in China

1. Vision of MOOC development in China

MOOC has become a buzzword in the world of higher education in China since the beginning of this year. The initial success of MOOCs in the US, especially the impressive scale of student enrollment in the MOOC courses offered by elite schools such as Stanford and MIT [1], inspired many people in both academia and educational government agencies in China. Although distant learning or online learning has decades of history in China, it is commonly regarded as supplementary education resources to higher education. It is not designed to offer the same quality of courses as regular universities, but to work as continuing education for people who do not have opportunity to access universities. The emergence of MOOC spurred extensive debate and argument on whether it can fundamentally reshape the landscape of higher education in China. MOOC advocators believe that MOOC is a revolutionary approach for sharing high-quality course resources and bridging the chasm between regions with different levels of higher education. Other people doubt that current MOOC in China is merely an extension of conventional distant learning paradigm and its effectiveness has been definitely exaggerated. Thus, many forums and conferences have been held to bring together educators, researchers and administrators from government agencies to discuss the prospect and vision of MOOC in China.

Meanwhile, top universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University have put MOOC into action. They have launched MOOC programs to build MOOC courseware and infrastructure as well as pedagogical research on MOOC. So far, a dozen MOOC courses in Chinese have been developed and published in the MOOC platforms such as Coursera [2] and edX [3]. For example, Peking University has released four courses on edX, including Cultural Geography of the World, Electronic Circuits, Music in the 20th Century and the Study of Folklore. These courses cover a diversity of topics ranging from computer science to art and culture, which attracted tens of thousands learners across the world. In addition to MOOC courseware development, Chinese scientists and researchers also took initiatives to customize their MOOC platforms by enhancing open source MOOC systems such as edX. On the basis of MOOC platforms, regional course federations are also emerging in China to integrate efforts from universities. The mission of such a federation often focuses on aggregating high-quality course resources and promoting wide access to these courses. Students enrolled in a MOOC course offered by a federation can get valid credits that are recognizable among the member institutes in the federation.

2. MOOC and Accessibility

Essentially, a MOOC web site is a rich media portal that contains many online courses with dynamic HTML pages and visual contents. According to the statistics [4], MOOC learners are quite diversified with the age ranging from 20 to 80. We can imagine that with more and more MOOC courses for lifelong learning available, more elder people will become MOOC learners. Besides, MOOC can also be beneficial for some students with certain types of disabilities. It also has uses for foreign students, who are non-native speakers and have difficulty in language comprehension. Preliminary assessments of MOOC accessibility on current MOOC courses shows that majority of MOOC courses do not provide sufficient accessibility. There are 3 big problems about MOOC accessibility in China.

2.1 Infrastructure accessibility

Every MOOC course has a lot of Web content including quizes, assignments, examinations, and wikis. Some Web pages in MOOCs were not fully developed following the W3C/WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) [5] nor with consideration for the W3C/WAI Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG).

2.2 Audio and Video Resources accessibility

Many online courses contain video and audio content that lack sufficient captions and audio descriptions. This makes them not usable by students who are deaf and hard of hearing. This includes older people with hearing limitations and makes it difficult for non-native speakers to follow the courses.

Speech recognition technology can be used to add caption for video and audio content, even in the real-time courses. However, this technology has limitations, such as when it is used with mathematical formulas, physics, and chemical element symbols. These are difficult to be recognized by the speech recognition technology. Some online video courses also provide subtitles via remote captioning. But also this approach has limitations for courses with particular domain terminology as opposed to general subtitles. Currently, a systematic process and tools for providing captions and audio description for MOOC course that contain audio and video content has not been put in place.

2.3 Image Resources

Image and animation is a kind of teaching resources frequently used nowadays. This helps students, including students with disabilities to better understand the information. However, to make these resources accessible for other students, these resources need to be developed and used with appropriate consideration.

Complying with the W3C/WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) will help resolve most of these problems but it needs to be complemented with other aspects. For example, sometimes a simple animation can be a good explanation of a very complex issue, such as to illustrate and explain the trajectory of an object. In contrast, the alternative text for such an illustration alone would not easily achieve this effect. In other words, not only the content, but also the context and the tools need to be considered in developing images on MOOCs. SVG accessibility API is expected to provide additional mechanisms to address this problem.

3. Conclusion

Despite the fast growth of MOOC resources and infrastructure, accessibility of MOOC has not yet gained enough attention in China. This is because major MOOC providers, including universities and online platform vendors, are still busy with infrastructure development and MOOC course building, and have put accessibility aside.

Improvement of MOOC accessibility should be a collaborative task for both platform operators and course instructors, because the majority of contents are contributed by instructors. Infrastructure developers need to consider good web layout and simple navigation structure in the MOOC portal. MOOC course instructors and developers need to consider a design for MOOC accessibility that addresses both the web architecture and the web content. Current MOOC video players often provide subtitles to enable students to understand course contents. But there is not systematic approach to evaluate the accessibility of course content in terms of perceptivity, operability and understanding. Moreover, in the context of education, special pedagogy must be adopted for the same course to learners with disabilities. The same principle can be applied in the case of MOOC teaching. Instructors should prepare multiple versions, such as automatic adaptations, of MOOC courses based on the profile of their learners [6]. It is necessary to make a comprehensive assessment of MOOC course building practices and design a guideline for instructors to develop course contents with good accessibility.


  1. Books: In the year of disruptive education, Communications of the ACM, Volume 55 Issue 12, December 2012, Pages 20-22
  2. Website: Coursera,
  3. Website: edX,
  4. Journal: Lori Breslow, David E. Pritchard, et al, Studying Learning in the Worldwide Classroom Research into edX's First MOOC,
  5. Website: W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines,
  6. Proceedings: David Sloan, Andy Heath, Fraser Hamilton, et al, Contextual Web Accessibility -Maximizing the Benefit of Accessibility Guidelines, Proceedings of the 2006 international cross-disciplinary workshop on Web accessibility (W4A): Building the mobile web: rediscovering accessibility?
  7. Report: United Nations, Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Accessible ICTs and Personalized Learning for Students with Disabilities, .pdf