2003 Conference Proceedings

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RESEARCH ON WEB ACCESSIBILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Presenter
Terry Thompson
Senior Computer Specialist
Box 355670
University of Washington
Phone: 206 221-4168
Email: tft@u.washington.edu

Sheryl Burgstahler
Director, DO-IT
Box 355670
University of Washington
Phone: 206 543-0622
Email: sherylb@u.washington.edu

Dan Comden
Access Technology Consultant
Box 352830
University of Washington
Phone: 206 685-4144
Email: danc@washington.edu

Abstract

A growing number of postsecondary institutions are becoming aware of their legal obligations to provide access to programs and services and are, therefore, increasing their efforts to address their Web accessibility problems. Various studies have evaluated the success of this movement by comparing Web accessibility across institutions, but most if not all of these studies have used an automated tool (Bobby?) to conduct their evaluation. With the present study, the researchers manually evaluated critical Web sites of 101 public research universities using a rating scale that specifically focuses on each site's functionality. Using these evaluations, the researchers were able to identify a distinct cluster of "promising practices" in Web accessibility, and through follow-up interviews were able to identify key characteristics of these institutions. The final outcome is a proposed model for implementing Web accessibility in higher education.

Introduction

Information technology, particularly the World Wide Web, is playing an increasingly integral role in higher education for delivery of academic, administrative and student services. Many of these services are delivered in a way that is inaccessible to people with disabilities. The inaccessibility of campus Web pages is especially significant because increasing numbers of young people with disabilities are attending postsecondary institutions (Henderson, 2001). Also, federal legislation requires that an institution's programs and services be accessible to qualified individuals.

At least in part due to the passage of Section 508, postsecondary institutions are becoming increasingly aware of their legal obligations to provide access to programs and services. This in turn has led to an increased effort among higher education entities to address their Web accessibility problems. In doing so, postsecondary institutions are taking a variety of approaches. Some campuses are developing strict Web accessibility policies, which reside at varying levels within the institutional policy structure. Others have thinly-described standards, or none at all. Others fall somewhere in the middle.

Many published studies have compared the accessibility of select Web pages at institutions of higher education. Schmetzke of the University of Wisconsin -Stevens Point has completed eight Web accessibility studies (Schmetzke, 2002a), the three most recent being evaluations of the University of Wisconsin's thirteen (24?) campuses (Schmetzke, 2002b), the 56 North American colleges that offer ALA-accredited programs in library and information science (Schmetzke, 2002c), and the home pages of 1051 community colleges (Schmetzke, 2001). Jackson-Sandborn and Odess-Harnish (2001) evaluated the home pages of the 100 most visited sites in several categories, including colleges. Rowland and Smith (1999) evaluated a random sample of 400 U.S. prominent colleges, universities, and online learning institutions. A follow-up study by Walden , Rowland, & Bohman (2000) evaluated a similar sample of 518 U.S. institutions. Rowland (1999) also evaluated 47 University Affiliated Program (UAP) Web sites. The National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research (1998) evaluated the Web sites from 213 programs that received funding from the agency, most of which were postsecondary educational institutions. Flowers, Bray, & Algozzine (1999) evaluated departmental Web sites from 89 departments of Special Education. Jackson (1999) evaluated three genres of Web sites, including education, on a variety of design elements, including accessibility.

Each of these studies used the Web accessibility evaluation tool Bobby, developed originally by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and now owned by Watchfire. Bobby automatically evaluates the accessibility of Web pages on a number of objectively measurable variables. However, many of the above authors freely note the shortcomings of this tool, and of automated evaluation tools in general. As the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) points out, "Some of the web-content accessibility checkpoints cannot be checked successfully by software algorithms alone. There will still be a dependence on the user's ability to exercise human judgment to determine conformance to the guidelines." Additionally, current automated tools were originally developed for HTML, and are unable to handle the increasing variety of scripting languages and techniques used to develop Web pages. Pages may receive false positive or false negative ratings simply because the automated tool has ignored or misinterpreted the code. Another shortcoming of automated tools is their inability to take into account the "severity" of an error. For example, if Site A is missing ALT tags on its spacer images, and Site B is missing ALT tags on its menu buttons, both sites are rated identically, when in fact Site B clearly has the more serious accessibility problem.

As Brajnik (2001) points out, "Determining what to measure is a difficult decision: often we focus on attributes that are convenient or easy to measure rather than those that are needed." Since those Web features that are measurable by Bobby are easy and convenient, the current body of Web Accessibility research has focused primarily if not exclusively on these variables.

The Web Accessibility Research Project (WARP) at the University of Washington has been established with the following goals:

At the 2003 CSUN Conference, WARP will describe their method for measuring Web accessibility by function, including their rating scale and specific evaluation procedures. They will also share the results of this study, and its practical applications. WARP anticipates that the research outcomes will be helpful to postsecondary institutions as they develop effective methods for determining the accessibility of their Web pages.

References

Brajnik, Giorgio (2001). Toward valid quality models for websites. [paper presented at: 7th Conference on Human Factors and theWeb, Madison, Wisconsin. June 2001. ] Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://www.dimi.uniud.it/~giorgio/papers/hfweb01.html

Carnegie Foundation (2002). Doctoral/Research Universities - Extensive. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/Classification/CIHE2000/PartIfiles/DRU-ext.htm

Henderson, C. (2001). College freshmen with disabilities: A biennial statistical profile. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (1998, amended). 29 U.S.C. 794(d). Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://www.access-board.gov/sec508/guide/act.htm

Flowers, C.P., Bray, M., & Algozzine, R.F. (1999). Accessibility of Special Education Program Home Pages, Journal of Special Education Technology, 14(2), 21-26.

Jackson, Andrew (1999). Web Page Design: A Study of Three Genres. Master's paper, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Jackson-Sandborn, Emily and Kerri Odess-Harnish (2001). Web Site Accessibility: A Study of ADA Compliance. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://ils.unc.edu/ils/research/reports/accessibility.pdf

National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research (1998). New Review of NIDRR Grantees Web Sites. The Research Exchange, 3(3), 12-14.

Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration. (2000, December 21). Electronic and information technology accessibility standards. The Federal Register, 65(246), 80499-80528.

Patrick, D.L. (correspondence to Senator Tom Harkin, September 9, 1996). Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/foia/cltr204.txt

Rowland, C. (1999). University-Affiliated Programs Face Web Site Accessibility Issues. CPD News, 22(3), 1-5. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://www.cpd.usu.edu/newsletters

Rowland, C., & Smith, T. (1999). Web Site Accessibility. The Power of Independence (Summer Edition), 1-2. Outreach Division, Center for Persons with Disabilities: Utah State University.

Schmetzke, Axel (2002a). Web Accessibility Survey Home Page. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://library.uwsp.edu/aschmetz/Accessible/websurveys.htm

Schmetzke, Axel (2002b). Web Page Accessibility on University of Wisconsin Campuses: 2002 Survey Data. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://library.uwsp.edu/aschmetz/Accessible/UW-Campuses/Survey2002/contents2002.htm

Schmetzke, Axel (2002c). Web Site Accessibility at 56 North American Universities: 2002 Survey Data on Libraries and Library Schools. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://library.uwsp.edu/aschmetz/Accessible/nationwide/Survey2002/contents2002.htm

Schmetzke, Axel (2001). Accessibility of the homepages of the nation's community colleges. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://library.uwsp.edu/aschmetz/Accessible/nationwide/CC_Survey2001/summary_CCC.htm

Walden, B., Rowland, C., & Bohman, P. (2000). Year One Report, Learning Anytime Anywhere for Anyone. Unpublished report to the U.S. Department of Education, FIPSE/LAAP.

Watchfire. Bobby Worldwide. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp [NOT SURE HOW TO REFERENCE THIS, OR IF IT'S NECESSARY]

World Wide Web Consortium. Techniques for Accessibility Evaluation and Repair Tools. Retrieved September 19, 2002 from http://www.w3.org/TR/AERT 


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