Authors

  1. Renner, Alice L. BA, MEd, Reviewer

Article Content

Design and Implementation of Web-Enabled Teaching Tools

 

Mary Hricko, Information Science Publishing, 701 East Chocolate Ave, Hershey, PA 17033, Telephone: 1-800-345-4332, Fax: 717-533-8661, E-mail: cust@idea-group.com, Web: http://www.idea-group.com, Price: $79.95

 

In this informative book, Hricko succeeds in raising awareness of Web accessibility issues specifically related to distance learning and library services in higher education. With over a half million students with disabilities enrolled in North American colleges, accessibility issues affect a significant number of the college population. 1 The book is intended to serve as a resource for anyone interested in learning about the design of accessible Web-enabled teaching tools. The book is divided into 5 sections. Each section focuses on a different topic and includes background information and research, practical suggestions for accessibility implementation, and an extensive list of resources.

 

The first part, "The Legal Implications of Web Accessibility," reviews the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), sections 504 and 508, requirements for electronic and information technology, and the barriers to compliance with their legal requirements. The discussion also includes the Department of Justice's clarification of the ADA mandate for effective communication. "The Internet is an excellent source of information and, of course, people with disabilities should have access to it as effective as people without disabilities." 2 The recent rulings of the US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR), related to the areas of effective communication, response on an ad-hoc basis, and undue burden are further clarified. The OCR's legal opinions are growing in response to complaints from students with disabilities and inaccessible distance learning courses. According to the author, these legal opinions help to build the awareness that "designing an accessible Web is not just the right thing to do, it is the law."

 

Part II, "Understanding Web Accessibility Guidelines," examines the technical requirements in the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative Guidelines. 3 On the basis of these guidelines, the author gives numerous examples of effective design practices in page organization, images and image maps, graphs and charts, tables, multimedia components, scripts, applets and plug-ins, frames, color, and default font settings. The author builds the case that accessible Web sites increase usability and that the strategies for accessible Web pages do not stifle the creativity of the designer. Beginning with accessible Web page design saves both time and money. The option of creating a text-only version of Web pages is considered as well as the W3C Consortium's recommendation to separate structure in Web pages from presentation.

 

The principle of universal design is introduced in Part III, "Implementing Web Accessibility in Distance Education." According to the author, the lack of universal design principles, which would allow universal access, is a major factor in the failure of distance education programs to comply with ADA standards. This failure to comply has resulted in a "second digital divide"-students with disabilities who want to enroll in distance learning courses, but fail, because of access issues. Suggestions for distance learning accessibility planning are provided, which include policy making, development of guidelines and standards, dissemination, and support. Also included in this section is a summary of the results of a study that examined accessibility issues with Web courseware platforms. The qualitative data were particularly informative, as the data detailed the specific problems that the various participants in the study encountered and solutions that the participants tried to overcome the barriers. Following the study, the author discussed the Web Accessibility Initiative Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines. This section would be helpful to educators involved in Web courseware purchasing decisions. With almost all of the focus on students with disabilities, the third chapter of this section, "Web-based Teaching and Learning for Blind and Visually-Impaired Faculty," was thought-provoking. The challenges and strategies reported from a research study with blind and visually impaired instructors reminds the reader that students are not the only stakeholders who would benefit from universal Web accessible design standards.

 

Nowhere on university and college campuses has the digital revolution had more impact than library services. Part IV, "Studies in Application of Web Accessibility," looks at how well university libraries are meeting accessibility mandates. In recent years, a significant number of library resources have shifted to a digitized, Web-based format. Axel Schmetzke's follow-up research to 2 earlier studies at 56 American Library Association (ALA) accredited schools, using Bobby as an evaluation tool, found that his 2002 data revealed that only 51% of library home pages are Bobby approved. He concludes that many libraries have not met accessibility guidelines and attributes this dismal record to a possible lack of awareness, time constraints, and lack of technical expertise to undertake the transition. A second study in Part IV goes beyond library services to encompass accessibility throughout an entire .edu domain. The University of Arizona study warrants serious review by other universities in their struggle with university-wide accessibility implementation. According to the author, "Creating a culture of accessibility is only the first step to a truly accessible Web environment. To be fully accessible, a system of accountability and oversight must be developed and maintained." The universal resource locator for the University of Arizona Web Accessibility Resources Site, which was an outcome of this study, is provided for further examination.

 

Part V, titled "Reference Desk," is a compilation of additional resources that supplement the numerous resources cited at the end of each chapter. Appendix A is a list of organizations with contact information that includes adaptive technology resources, disability research centers, educational and government resources, various associations, regional and federal resource centers, and Web sites. Appendix B is an extensive bibliography for further reading on Web accessibility practices. The author states that this list is a work in progress and encourages readers to add additional resources to the list.

 

Design and Implementation of Web-Enabled Teaching Tools has important information for a variety of readers. University and college administrators, faculty, Web course development staff, librarians, and IT staff will all gain new insights into the barriers and potential solutions to universal access. The challenges revolving around the various accessibility issues that are outlined in the book are complex and require system-wide commitment to meet the legal and ethical mandates. Priced at $79.95, this book is an excellent starting point for understanding the issues; the resources outlined at the end of each chapter and in the appendices provide readers with the next steps toward universal access.

 

IMPLEMENTING WEB-ENABLED TEACHING TOOLS

One year ago, the newly formed Sinclair Community College's Web course development team embraced the concept of fully accessible online courses. Over the year, the team has learned that putting that concept into practice is not an easy task and that making compliant online courses requires a lot of research and resources. This article presents some of the challenges we faced and the solutions that we found.

 

First, our team spent approximately 3 months researching accessibility guidelines and working on an online course template to be used in conjunction with WebCT, the college course management system. The template had to (1) provide a professional look and feel for all of Sinclair's online courses, (2) give students an easy method of navigating through the course content, (3) help faculty with course development, and (4) meet W3C guidelines for Web content accessibility. We developed a Cascading Style Sheet (CSS), a W3C recommendation, that makes it easy for screen readers to parse the content and read faster, gives more control to users with disabilities, maintains a consistent default font type, and makes changes across the course content.

 

Other template considerations included colors, display width parameters, printer-friendly versions of content, and tables. The template colors were chosen from Web safe colors. To accommodate the lowest PC display standards, and at the same time, provide users with high-end monitors an appealing display, percentages were used in the template instead of fixed pixel size. Our staff researched several methods of providing students with printer-friendly versions of the course content for studying offline. After several trials, the staff decided to write a Java script that gives students a text-only version for printing. However, the instructional designers can override this by writing code into the file to display specific images in the printer-friendly version when it would be helpful for the student to see the images for reference.

 

Creating tables that can be read correctly by a text reader requires attention to detail in the creation process. The staff had to be trained on the correct way to develop and display content in table format. Table headers and caption tags need be included. Nested tables are a potential problem with text readers in regard to the linear order of reading of the items. We are currently looking into controlling the information through the style sheet instead.

 

Many of our courses under development this past year were engineering courses that required mathematical equations. Our staff, with the assistance of the staff from the college disability services department, researched software programs that would not only create the math equations for us and change them into images, but would also write the alternate text tags (ALT text) for the text reader. Our staff did not have the mathematical expertise to write out how the screen reader should read a complex equation. We purchased MATH EQ, a software program we found, that would construct the ALT text for us.

 

The same problem was true with chemical formulas. We wrote the code ourselves because we couldn't find an adequate software program to do this for us. The problem was the text reader's inability to read subscripts and superscripts correctly to identify the chemical compounds. For example, H2O would be read "H2O" when it needs to be read "H subscript2 O." The equations and formulas had to be tested using Jaws screen reader software to confirm that they would be read correctly.

 

In addition, our engineering courses have numerous complex drawings. Our ALT text consists of long descriptions that really don't do justice to describing a detailed image to someone who cannot see. For classroom courses, this issue can be taken care of by our disability services department that converts flat images to raised images similar to Braille. However, this is one area we haven't adequately addressed for the online environment.

 

Several of our courses used an extensive amount of video that was provided to the students on CD-ROMs. Making videos compliant requires closed captioning of the audio portion of the video for the deaf student. In addition, a blind student who listens only to the audio track might not understand what is happening without seeing the action. Therefore, audio descriptions that describe actions need to be written and are inserted into quiet spaces in the dialogue. Transcribing the audio portion of a video for closed captioning, writing audio descriptions, and programming all of this for a media player takes both time and resources.

 

Last, but certainly not the least, are the issues with getting assignments back from the students, which most people don't think about when they say they will make courses ADA compliant. It is often much easier to get the course content to the student than to get homework assignments back.

 

The author, Mary Hricko, stated that "designing an accessible Web is not just the right thing to do, it is the law." Although Web course developers will embrace the concept of fully accessible Web courses, one must acknowledge that factors such as technical expertise and resources will continue to impact the attainment of this goal. The Web course development team at Sinclair Community College is committed to continue to address the challenges that the changing technologies and standards present to us.

 

REFERENCES

 

1. Lewis L, Farris E. An Institutional Perspective on Students With Disabilities in Postsecondary Education. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics; 1999. Available at: http:www.nces.ed.gov/pubs99/1999046.pdf. Accessed March 1, 2002. NCES 1999-046. [Context Link]

 

2. Department of Justice (DOJ). Department of Justice (DOJ) Ruling on Accessibility of Web Sites. Washington, DC: DOJ; 1996. Available at: http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/foia/tal712.txt. Accessed August 15, 2001. [Context Link]

 

3. World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative Guidelines. 2002. [Context Link]