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Word, PDF, or Web Page?

File Type Accessibility and Change Considerations for Faculty Prepared Classroom Materials

Executive Summary

  • When information is to be presented electronically the first choice is as a web page, second is the native document type (such as Word), and third is remediated PDF.
  • In general PDFs are not to be created for class material; create accessible HTML documents in D2L, and only create class documents in accessible Word, PowerPoint, or other native, form when HTML is not appropriate.
  • When Word, etc., documents must be used, clean them of Change Tracking, Comments, etc. as appropriate and, optionally, "Mark as Final" or lock "Change Tracking" on.
  • Only make class documents available to students (generally via D2L) when the pages/documents are final, i.e., after editing and completing draft versions or hidden modules.
  • Include a Course Policy on provided class materials noting that the official versions of the material are behind your login on D2L and view-only to students; probably in your syllabus.

Page Contents

D2L Web Pages are the Preferred Course File Type

Creating lessons and teaching materials directly in D2L creates HTML/CSS documents. For broad accessibility and inclusion, the most useable file type across all assistive technologies (such as screen readers) is a standard HTML page accessed online through a browser program (such as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, or Firefox). The main reason such documents are most accessible is that the HTML, when done correctly, is designed for computer reading and processing as meaningful parts.

Since an improperly tagged HTML document can be styled to look just like a properly tagged one it is incumbent on HTML document authors (and D2L lesson creators) to provide proper tagging such as heading tags for headings (rather than simply font sizing and styling), list tags for lists rather than numbering/bulleting paragraphs, etc. In D2L you can make many of these tagging choices directly from the text editor menu without seeing the HTML code behind the screen (see Brightspace Learning Environment – Making Use of the HTML Editor - Instructor to get started.). More D2L training, including accessibility, is available through the other Tutorials on this website (webaccess.msu.edu/) and the D2L (Brightspace) Help site.

Native Word and PowerPoint Formats are acceptable if Built Accessibly

When a document, rather than a web page, is appropriate MSU guidelines call for documents created in native Microsoft Office programs (such as Word, PowerPoint, and Excel) to be made accessible in those programs and kept in their native file form (with the option of marking them as "final") when the documents are for internal MSU use, such as class instruction. All MSU Faculty, Staff, and Students have free access to Spartan 365 (AKA Microsoft Office 365 or Online MS Office) for creating and viewing documents on computers and mobile devices. Documents for external to MSU use, particularly by the general public, (where an HTML web page is impractical or inappropriate) should be made available in both PDF and their native file format. The document should first be made accessible in its native format, then converted to PDF, and the PDF remediated for accessibility. Instructions for doing these things can be found in the Tutorial pages.

PDFs Are Less Accessible and Are Editable

When it comes to accessibility PDF documents (even if accessibly remediated) are generally less accessible than HTML Web pages and Word/PowerPoint documents. They also have the disadvantage that when created from Word/PowerPoint files they will need to be accessibly remediated each time a change is made to the native document and output to PDF again. Programs and even free websites are readily available that allow anyone to edit a PDF almost as easily as a Microsoft Word document. [1]

Preparing a Final Word, PowerPoint, or Excel Document

When preparing a final Microsoft document for upload to a D2L course, open the document with its standalone (not online) editing program, check accessibility, accept all changes, delete all comments, check the Info Title and Author, save, and then post wherever appropriate. Optionally you can, for Microsoft files, "Mark as Final" as described below. The Final Microsoft Documents tutorial has more explicit instructions for these procedures.

Class materials should be made available for class use only when they are in final form. Non-final versions can be kept hidden from students in D2L in hidden modules or as draft versions. This ensures that students getting the information from a "published document" have reliable knowledge of the document contents. In the event that "final" posted documents must be edited for correction or updates (and probably reprepared as final as above) it is important that the fact of a change is announced in a way that is guaranteed to reach all students, just putting the changed document back among the class material is not sufficient.

Preventing Unauthorized Changes to Your Digital Content

Keeping your digital content from being changed is important in many situations. PDF's are not foolproof and often cause more issues with accessibility and equity than they solve.

Below are two recommendations that you can use to safeguard yourself, and your digital content. Be aware that without your authorization students cannot replace your course files in D2L.

Mark as Final

The "Mark as Final" feature in Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel makes your document read-only while it is enabled. Microsoft makes clear that this is not a security feature, and notes that users can turn editing back on by disabling "Mark as Final." Step-by-step instructions for making your documents read-only are on the Microsoft Office support website. Marking a document as final or read only does not prevent editing but it also does not break accessibility (in contrast to using the more restrictive document protection choices, such as Encryption or Restrict Editing).

An alternative method to keep Word documents accessible and discourage user changes is Review > Track Changes > "Lock tracking" and put in a password. You can use a password that you will easily remember and use the same one for all documents. Having track changes locked on makes it obvious when any insertion or deletion occurs but has no effect on accessibility. Aside from accessibility this method has the advantages that it is invisible to all users until they try to make changes and there are no popup questions all users must dismiss.

Beyond the D2L edit restrictions to you and your TAs that should already be in place we recommend taking one additional step to safeguard yourself:

Include Course Policy on Editing Digital Content

Since most (downloaded) digital content can be edited by students, we recommend that you include a brief policy on editing digital content in your course that clearly states your expectations on:

  • Whether editing your course content is acceptable.
  • What your students should consider "final" or "master" course documents.
  • How digital content will be perceived by faculty and administration if it is found outside of the learning management system (D2L).

For example:

"Course Syllabi, Assignments, Assessments and other digital content provided in the course by the faculty are to be considered master, final course documents by students. Edits to digital content of any kind are prohibited unless otherwise noted. Any digital content outside of the learning management system will not be considered master, final course documents provided by the course faculty."

Note: If you update master, final course documents we recommend that you provide an announcement to your students to clearly notify them of any changes to your content. Changes can happen, and this will ensure that you are providing clear guidance to all of your students in an inclusive way.

[1] As D2L is configured at MSU, end users of documents can only edit their downloaded copy of documents, they cannot edit and then replace the original document for a class D2L lesson or on a website.