Millions of computer users in the United States have some sort of disability that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to use the web. Many web pages contain features that inhibit these users from accessing some or all of the web's content. Disabilities that keep people from being able to access pages range from color blindness and Attention Deficit Disorder through blindness and lack of fine motor control. Whatever the reason for the disability, it is very important to ensure that those with a disability are able to view the materials on the web. The need for accessible web pages becomes even greater in an educational setting. How can a student learn course content presented in formats she cannot access?
Two federal laws may apply to educational web sites. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that all persons be given equal access to education and public buildings. The ADA also applies to educational materials placed on the web. In 1998, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended with the Workforce Reinvestment Act. Section 508 of this law mandates that federal government web sites and the sites of those who do business with the federal government be compliant with a set of requirements. Some institutions of higher education believe that they must comply with Section 508, although at least one state university system decided otherwise (select cancel when prompted for username and password).
How do we know if web pages are accessible? The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) sets technical specifications and standards for the web. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) developed 14 guidelines for making web content accessible to people with disabilities. Each guideline is linked to one or more checkpoints, which describe how to apply that guideline to specific web page features. Each checkpoint is assigned a priority level based on its impact on accessibility. Priority 1 checkpoints must be satisfied, otherwise some groups of people will be unable to access information on the site. Priority 2 should be satisfied, or it will be very difficult to access information. Priority 3 may be satisfied, or some will find it difficult to access information. Section 508 has 16 requirements, incorporating some of the W3C/WAI Priority 1 guidelines plus five additional accessibility requirements.
During fall 2000, the University of Wisconsin (UW) System determined that all System web pages should meet the W3C/WAI Priority 1 accessibility checkpoints. Many other universities and colleges throughout the US are giving similar mandates or suggesting similar compliance. For example, Brown University, Oregon State University, California State University San Marcos, Washington State University, Wright State University, and Yale University, to name just a few, have established accessibility guidelines. These guidelines have a range of mandated or suggested actions, and vary as to which laws they quote. (For additional such guidelines, we suggest a web search on "web accessibility and university." We are also complining a list of campus web accessibility statements.)
It is relatively straightforward to convert existing web pages or to create accessible web pages from scratch, using HTML and web page editors (see, for example the UW Oshkosh accessibility site). It may be more difficult to create accessible web pages within other programs that deliver content to the web. Learning management systems (LMSs) such as Blackboard, WebCT, Learning Space, and others are becoming a major means of delivering web-based content in higher education. Instructors without web design skills or the time to build entire sites from scratch can use an LMS to quickly and easily place materials online. Over 1400 institutions worldwide use Blackboard and WebCT reports licensing 2200 institutions in 76 countries. Some universities have or are working on having online content available for every class taught, such as California State University Dominguez Hills. The trend towards delivering instruction online through LMSs is also seen throughout the UW System. All 26 System universities and colleges members use one or more LMSs. UW Oshkosh, for example, has over 200 instructors using Blackboard.
Involved in the campus administration of Blackboard and in the accessibility compliance effort at UW Oshkosh, we (AnnMarie Johnson and Sean Ruppert) realized that the system-wide mandate for accessible web pages should be addressed in our LMS's web pages as well. When using these programs, the ability of the instructor to create an accessible website is limited by the accessibility provided by the LMS engineers. Instructors who depend on an LMS for dissemination of course content may not always be able to make materials accessible under the W3C/WAI guidelines or Section 508. We wanted to find out just how compliant our LMS was to these standards. We began by evaluating the accessibility of Blackboard 4 (the then-current package in our university system). Because the UW System supports other LMSs, we added three additional programs to our review.
The four LMSs considered are Blackboard 4, Blackboard 5, Prometheus 4, and WebCT 3.0. Courses created in each program were assessed with a series of W3C/WAI guideline-related items to get a numerical statistic of accessibility of program features and of the instructor's entry of course material. The practical accessibility of LMS products was tested by accessing the programs with the text browser Lynx, the text-to-speech browser IBM Homepage Reader (HPR), and the screen reader Job Access With Speech (JAWS). Validation was performed with accessibility checker A-Prompt. Representative course pages were checked for HTML coding violations that may not have been apparent by other means. Last, but not least, the W3C/WAI guidelines checklist was manually applied.
We recognize that newly updated versions of the programs are certainly going
to be in use by the time of publication. Other LMSs exist and surely even more
will become available. We cover the evaluation process in depth so that the
reader can apply the same process to her campus's own and any future LMSs. A
review of the results for each program is also discussed. We are presently working
on an updated review (Fall 2001). This data will be available as soon as possible.
Content authored by AnnMarie Johnson
and Sean Ruppert. ©2001
last updated November 20, 2001 by AnnMarie Johnson.