Teaching Web Accessibility at an Australian University

For the Web Accessibility Forum 2007, Canberra, 11 April 2007


  1. Introduction
  2. About the speaker
  3. Accessible Web Design
  4. Practical Content
  5. Online Tools
  6. Motivation

    See Also

  7. Other Information Technology
  8. Home


On in August 2000 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that the web site for the Sydney Olympics was to a significant extent inaccessible to the blind and $20,000 damages were awarded. The following semester, Tom Worthington, one of the expert witnesses in the case, commenced teaching accessible web design to IT and e-commerce undergraduate and postgraduate students at the Australian National University.

Tom will outline the challenges to teaching accessible design to students over the last six years. He will talk about the use of online accessibility test tools and innovative projects in teaching, including wireless and mobile web sites.

About the speaker

Tom Worthington

Tom Worthington is an independent computer consultant, a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University and the Director of Professional Development at the Australian Computer Society. He is a past president and Honorary Life Member of the Australian Computer Society, and was elected a Fellow in 1999 for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy.

Tom was the first web master of the Australian Department of Defence. He was an expert witnesses on web accessibility in the SOCOG 2000 Olympics case. Tom was invited to China in 2003 to advise on design of the Beijing 2008 Olympics web site and will be speaking on web accessibility for the Olympics at the China Media Centre Conference and on Making money from Web Publishing at the ACS National Young IT Professional Conference, April 2007.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The most respected guidelines are those from the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI):

... consider that many users may be operating in contexts very different from your own:

From: Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0, W3C Recommendation, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), 5-May-1999

Teaching Accessible Web Design at a University

ANU Course COMP2410/6340

The Australian National University (ANU) has included accessible web design in its course "Networked Information Systems" ( COMP2410/6340) since inception in 2001.

The course is for those specializing in ICT (computer science, software engineering and information systems) as well as students doing ICT as part of a course in arts, law or science. The details of how the Internet and web operate are covered in more detail than needed for a course for web designers or writers. The assumption is that the students will be involved in writing web software, rather than just creating web pages.

Courses are undertaken in the first semester each year, with a complementary unit on "Information Technology in Electronic Commerce" (COMP3410/COMP6341). Postgraduate students (COMP6000 series) attend the same lectures and tutorials, but undertake more advanced exercises. There are five lectures devoted to web design. Lectures are by industry practitioners. One lecture this year is by an Australian Government public servant who has undertaken an analysis of government web sites. The other lectures are by Tom Worthington.

Practical Content

Accessibility and the Olympics

Rather than extensive lectures on accessibility standards, the students are given examples of the use of standards, such as in the Sydney Olympics HREOC Case and an analysis of the redesign of the Sahana disaster management system. Students then have to carry out similar analysis and redesign of web pages in lab exercises and assignments.

Sahana Disaster Management System
  1. A web standards audit of 105 Australian Government web sites, Gavin Dispain, Department of the Environment and Heritage, December 2006
  2. Website design, Tom Worthington, 2001 - 2006
  3. Web Browsers & Web Site Usability, Laboratory Exercise Week 8, COMP2410/6340, ANU, 2005 (archived version)
  4. User Attention Spans and Wireless Web Design, Laboratory Exercise Week 10, COMP2410/6340, ANU, 2005 (archived version)
  5. Website Design, Assignment 2, COMP2410/6340, ANU, 2005 (archived version)

Online Tools

TAW - Web Accessibility Test

To prevent students falling into bad habits by using tools which generate poor quality code, they are required to generate XHTML Basic. This dialect of XHTML leaves out many of the features which can cause problems. This code can't be generated by commonly used web tools, forcing the students to hand code, or at least hand modify their code, requiring an intimate understanding of XHTML. Students use web validation and accessibility tools both in labs and as part of assignments.

To supplement the text, "Effective Website Development: Tools and Techniques (Keith Darlington 2005), links are made directly to the W3C standards. What has also proved effective is the use of web online tools. The W3C Markup Validation Service proved useful in providing feedback to the students on what to do to fix their XHTML code.

Watchfire's Bobby tool was used initially for testing examples of real web pages as well as the student's own pages. This proved very useful in not only identifying problems with web pages through automated tests, but also prompting manual tests and referring the students to specific sections of the relevant standards.

When Bobby was superceded by WebXACT, a decision was made to use TAW (Web Accessibility Test), from the CTIC Foundation, instead. TAW is not as complete in its analysis as WebXACT, but is free open source and so easier to run on the University's system.

Motivation is the Issue

Australian Defence Amphibious Ships Project

Teaching accessible web design is relatively simple. There are good clear standards available, books and online tools. The problem is one of motivation: Why learn this? Why burden my web design with accessibility limitations? When teaching university students, the motivation is simple: it is an assessable part of the web course.

As an example, recently I was contacted by one of the consortia bidding for the multi billion dollar Australian Defence Amphibious Ships Project. Apparently my web page about the project is very popular and so they suggested some updates. The web page consists of a few excerpts collected from other pages. It probably rates well as it is mostly plain text, without complex formatting getting in the way.

Showing what the average web site looks like with no graphics (as a person with no vision perceives it), gives the students a good understanding of the problems. Using a talking web browser in class is fun. But what students are better able to relate to are spin offs from accessibility: such as use of mobile devices, language translation and better web search ratings.

The average web designer, and more so their client, has difficulty understanding why they should limit their design because a few disabled people will have difficulty with the site. Even where it is required by law, there are few court cases over web accessibility and it is likely to be more cost effective to pay any fines than do the accessible design.

What excites students is being able to adapt web pages for mobile phones and to increase the ranking of their web pages with web search engines through accessible design. It could be argued that this is a cynical exercise and people should do the right thing because it is ethical and the law requires it. But if access for the disabled happens as a spin off from less idealistic motivations, does it matter?

Accessibility for Future Web Technology

Teaching accessible web design (or any web design) is not viable in the long term. Most web sites will be created by people with no formal training in web design. Accessibility, and other design techniques, need to be built into the software they use. The software can then implement some parts of accessibility automatically, without the user noticing and prompt the content creator for other parts which cannot be automated. An example of where this is happening is with content creation tools such as Course Management Systems for education.

Technologies such as the Semantic Web can allow content creators to structure their information in a way which adds more meaning and also allows better accessibility. The use of this technology can have strong commercial impretives. As well as allowing better indexing of information, it may allow better web advertising to be automatically placed.

Semantic Web example by Yin Chen

The Semantic Web is an evolving extension of the World Wide Web in which web content can be expressed not only in natural language, but also in a form that can be understood.

Wikipedia is a very successful implementation of semantic web technology. It is the world's largest collaboratively edited source of encyclopedic knowledge. Enable even casual users to participate in the creation of an open semantic knowledge base. ...

From: Commercial Semantic Web of Digital Library, Yin Chen, ANU, 16 March 2007

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