Design your teaching for mobile accessibility

At the centre of good communication is to consider the medium in which this communication takes place. It would be foolish to ignore that the medium is easily changeable these days. 

Many of our students will be accessing content and learning through mobile devices, not just laptops nor desktop computers. For this reason it is very important to consider good practice and to design for mobile access to content.

Mobile learning can be defined as "the processes (both personal and public) of coming to know through exploration and conversation across multiple contexts amongst people and interactive technologies" (Sharples, M. et al, 2007 quoted by Jisc, 2011)

This means that the learners' experience of continuity in their learning processes will occur across a variety of devices and settings, and across different environments.

The great thing about having a modern mobile device is that it is a compendium of tools -an electronic Swiss Army knife (camera, sound recorder, video recorder, multimedia messaging, etc.), plus many applications. It can augment reality with virtual information and it can help to create new material and share it with others, supporting collaborative learning.

The ownership of personal mobile devices helps the learners to personalise their own learning. So if we start with the very right assumption that a number of our students will be using smartphones and tablets to access learning, we need to develop content that adapts well to those devices, to support a good student experience.

One of the ways to achieve this is by using responsive design. One example of a responsive mobile technology is Bootstrap, which provides unique website templates. These could be applied to a learning management system (LMS) to make it possible to be viewed optimally across a variety of mobile devices. But this costs some money.

An alternative? To design for apps, as your students will be accessing your online classroom that way. Most brands of learning management system have an app to support BYOD/mobile learning. The Blackboard app is an example.

We should develop a mobile-first mentality when producing our content. This will generate a better experience for mobile, but also for other devices. They all are being used for a wide range of online learning activity.

(Farley, 2015)

Some points to consider as best practice when designing your content: 

Structure: on a mobile device there is less screen space. Bear this in mind and assess your course structure to make adjustments as necessary. The objective is to avoid making learners to scroll frequently when using a mobile device. Think about organizing your content into chunks, as this will make each of the learning items more manageable in a small screen. 

Layout: Avoid wide images that pan across the screen, tables, and the "float" attribute for image layout. For good display, consider removing the "height" and "width" attributes. 

Video player: Choose a mobile-friendly player and be consistent. Use the same player throughout the course. If in doubt, use .mp4 format. 

HTML 5: There are many e-learning tools that produce HTML 5 formatted code, allowing you to easily integrate mobile-friendly content into your courses.

There are different types of content and formats, so let's get more specific and go one by one:
Text Documents and Presentations
  • Use a larger font size. This will eliminate the amount of zooming required on a mobile device. It's often easier for users to zoom out on a desktop than having to zoom in on a mobile device.
  • Use simple formatting. Use sans-serif fonts which are easy to read, choose colors sensibly (contrasting, for example), and keep titles short and succinct.
  • Keep images to a minimum. Large images will increase the file size of the document, and can sometimes affect the display of a document on a mobile device. If you need to supply images, attach them to your course as a separate file (see further information below).
  • Use common file types. Acceptable formats are .doc/.docx or .pdf for text files and .ppt, .jpg, .gif, and .png for images.
Menus and Titles
  • Build a course menu that is easy to navigate.
  • Use descriptive titles for interacting with content, assignments and assessments within a course.
  • Keep the course name as short as possible.
  • Create short titles to avoid wrapping.
  • Don't use symbols in titles: they won't appear on a mobile device.
When attaching audio and video items to your course, you must bear in mind that not all mobile devices can play all types of media files. What's more, the quality and length of an audio or video file will greatly affect the download time required. It is recommended that you embed video when possible to allow for streaming and increased optimization. Videos should be kept short in length (5 minutes maximum).
  • For audio format, use .mp3 with no more than 128kbps.
  • For uploaded video, use the .mp4 format with dimensions of 480x320.

Mobile apps (e.g., Blackboard, Blackboard Instructor and Blackboard Open LMS) allow learners to take tests if certain question types are utilized. Some commonly supported mobile question types are listed below; tests that contain other question types may not function correctly when taken via a mobile device.

  •     True/false
  •     Multiple choice
  •     Short answer
  •     Hot spot
  •     Fill-in-multiple-blanks
  •     File response (images only)
  •     Calculated numeric

With all the above information in mind, you should be in a good position to cater for the mobile learner. The chances are that at one point or another all your students will try to access your content from a mobile device. If their experience is negative, it will effectively decrease their opportunities for learning and limit their engagement with your module or course. We do not want that to happen. The way you cater for accessibility in a much wider sense will also play a big part on the inclusivity of your content.

(Farley, 2015)

Farley, H, Murphy, A, Johnson, C, Carter, B, Lane, M, Midgley, W, Hafeez-Baig, A, Dekeyser, S and Koronios, A (2015) How Do Students Use Their Mobile Devices to Support Learning? A Case Study from an Australian Regional University. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2015(1): 14, pp. 1–13, DOI:

Sharples, M., et al. (2007) ‘Mobile Learning: Small devices, Big issues’ (in Sharples, M., et al. (eds.) Technology-Enhanced Learning, 2009, Part IV)


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