Article: Evaluating the accessibility of online university education

Citation: Pendergast, M.O. (2017) “Evaluating the accessibility of online university education.” International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design, 7(1). (link)

This article presents a relatively recent study of University websites, comparing them to WAI’s WCAG 2.0 at the AA level.

The first 6 pages of the article is taken up with an overview of web accessibility, including: its history; relevant laws and guidelines in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States; a quick summary of the WCAG 2.0 guidelines and tools to check accessibility; and brief commentary on implementation in universities.

The author pulled home pages from 24 accredited universities, a mix of public, private, large, and small, and tested them with AChecker to determine how many problems each was likely to have with passing WCAG 2.0 at the AA level. Although several universities had no known or likely problems that were detected by the tool, most had between five and thirty known problems, with a few that had significantly more.

The author then tested a demo course set up at Florida Gulf University (his home institution), starting at the university’s home page and going through the school’s learning management system’s login page. Here, as well, there were known errors on most of the pages, and the author notes finding it “particularly disconcerting” that the login page would have been totally inaccessible to anyone with a visual impairment.

The author’s conclusion is that webmasters, administrators, faculty and staff all need to work harder to make sure course content is accessible. Recommendations include checking each HTML page for compliance before it’s uploaded, checking it routinely, training faculty to use web authoring tools with built-in compliance checkers, making sure that all off-site content from textbook publishers or other vendors is accessible, and being wary of devices and apps (11).

While this conclusion has its heart in the right place, it is a little simplistic, especially given the lack of specific, detailed advice on solving the complex problems that are likely to come up in planning for, implementing, and maintaining accessible web pages.

Overall, the study is too basic to be of broad, practical use. The information it describes may be useful to newcomers, but anyone familiar with web accessibility likely knows all this already. The author also seems to conflate disability with visual disability, although that may just be an artefact of the specific problems found by AChecker, which deal with lack of contrast and other screen-reader-centric errors.

Regardless, given the problems of the article and the simplicity of the study, this article hardly presents the evaluation of “online university education” its title proclaims.