Usability and Accessibility - Everyone Learning

David M. Peter

Texas Engineering Extension Service


Often it is the case where a content developer and application developer develop web-based instruction. This paradigm, though effective in developing quality educational models, may not fully develop usable and accessible education for everyone. Understanding the basic principles of usability testing and accessibility testing can greatly enhance the course design process, and at the same time, create a course that will be much easier to maintain. This paper will provide you with definitions for accessibility and usability, an explanation of both accessibility and usability in terms of web-delivered content, and a checklist that can be used not only to develop accessible and usable web sites, but also evaluate web sites in terms of accessibility and usability.

With the increasing use of technology-based education (Dobbs, 2000; Zenger & Uehlein, 2001), and more particularly web-based training, many of the content and application developers are being forced into roles that they may or may not have the proper training to perform. Where many web-based training applications were developed with the notion of easy, and WYSWIG (What You See Is What You Get) editors, the changes in technology have not been able to address many of the issues associated with teaching those with disabilities.

Even though mainstream thought years ago would have developed separate but equal educational programs, the advent of technology changes now will permit equal and equal educational programs (Sizer, 1999). Technologically designed, developed and delivered instruction can provide just what the learner needs, tailored to the individual differences. Sound development and design principles are potentially transparent to the fully capable student, and at the same time, allowing those students with disabilities to experience the same educational experience (Abernathy, 2001). Alessi and Trollip (1991) have identified particular instances where use of computer-based instruction would, if properly designed, be effective. And it is this notion that the computer can be the panacea for many of the institutionally induced educational woes that should cause much concern when addressing accessibility and usability. One desires any educational experience to be fulfilling to the learner. One also desires to make maximum use of technology to provide for a greater learning experience (Dobbs, 2000; Dooling, 2000). This is the dilemma that faces any individual contemplating the use of technology. How can technology be used to deliver the same content to a wide variety of learners?

The purpose of this paper is to provide you with a definition of accessibility, and usability, explain accessibility and usability in terms of web-delivered content, and illustrate these principles through a checklist that may be used to develop both accessible and usable web-sites.

Though the process of designing accessible and usable training may seem unattainable, it is possible. It should be the ends, rather than simply the goal, of web-based training to be fully accessible to all learners (Schmetzke, 2001; Simonson, Smaldino, Albright and Zvacek, 2000). Using many of the existing tools, and having the requisite knowledge, training can be both accessible and usable for all students. There is, however, some basic knowledge that must be gained in order to understand both the elements and the process of web training.

Key definitions

Within the field of both educational and instructional technology, there has yet to be a unified and universally acceptable definition for both accessibility and usability. A standard dictionary may provide a definition, yet the definitions are without context. Both accessibility and usability will be defined within the context of web-based learning.

And, when discussing what makes a web page or web-learning unit accessible and usable, it is important that a universally accepted definition be used. The background on both accessibility and usability can be traced, in part, to the human computer interface area of computer science as well as software engineering. For both of these areas of study, there is a great desire that any product designed, developed, and distributed meet a minimum user standard. Hence, the terms accessibility and usability have their roots not in education, but in computer science.

Then along comes education, and more specifically, distance education, and the need to employ both terms grew even greater with the use of the World Wide Web (WWW) as a content delivery medium. And so, while these terms originated in a scientific realm, they both now have a broader and deeper contextual meaning for web-based learning.

Define accessibility

If we are to speak of accessible web sites, it becomes evident that we do not mean access to technology. There is an understood assumption that learners will have access to technology, even though the quality and level of access can be somewhat varied. The assumption herein is that each person or learner will have access to a computer.

One key element in determining accessibility is discerning the perceptive abilities of the learner. While some may identify elements as accessible, this degree of accessibility is, in part, based on the perception of the learner (Winn, 1993).

While some would tend to limit the definition of accessibility only to those constraints of the learner, there are also accessibility issues that can be caused by technology (Salopek, 2001). And the technological limitations are extremely important, and should be considered within the scope of any web-based training. However, for the purposes of this presentation, accessibility will be limited to learner disabilities.

Define usability

While usability is more often thought of as user-related interface design, it is indeed this and much more. Usability is, in essence, the ability of the user to navigate through the site. It is the ability of a user, or in this case a learner, to concentrate more on the content that is presented, than on navigating through the site.

Nielsen's (1993) definition of usability, although originated in computer software design, illustrates the basic tenets that are included within web-based education: "Usability has multiple components and is traditionally associated with these five usability attributes: learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, and satisfaction" (p. 26). A much more simplistic definition of usability is that "usability is not just a matter of whether or not it is possible for a user to perform a task. It is also a matter of how easy and fast it is for them to do so" (Nielsen, 2001).

In layman's terms, a usable web-based educational unit leads the learner; it does not push the learner through the experience. The elements of navigation are intuitive, and do not require a considerable amount of thought to use them the way the designer intended (Smulders, 2001). Many of the conventions that are associated with usability are somewhat intuitive, if the designer/developer can think more of the context in which the content will be presented.

Overview of Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act

While it may have been considered not to apply to the use of technology, the Americans with Disabilities Act received a greater deal of attention with the inclusion of Section 508 (Workforce Investment Act, 1998). Section 508 covered electronic and information technology, and more specifically, outlined the requirements for uninhibited access to information conveyed by such technological means.

Further examination of the Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards will yield a wealth of information to be considered in any web-based educational program (Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, 2000). Section 508 "requires that individuals with disabilities, who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal agency, have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to that provided to the public who are not individuals with disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency" (Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards, 2000). It is important to note that the access must be the same regardless of the existence of a disability or not. And while the access should not cause a burden, if sound design and development principles are employed, there will be little or no burden on the content provider or designer and developer.

Though the new restrictions placed by Section 508 might seem to be constricting, and limiting the abilities of designers, and developers, the language of Section 508 follows more the idea of industry best practices (Salopek, 2001). It is somewhat overstated to imply that the new accessibility laws are merely for those with disabilities. It is more likely that the accessibility laws will now cause all designers and developers to use standard HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) practices.

Within the State of Texas, guidelines for developing accessible web sites have been prepared by the Department of Information Resources (DIR). These guidelines apply to state web sites, however, the principles enumerated therein can also be used within the design, development, and deployment of web-based training (State Web Sites, 2001).

Issues of accessibility and usability for distance education

Currently, there are as many definitions of the forms of distance education as there are of individual learning styles. While this may appear to cause problems, this paper will merely address the importance and roles of accessibility and usability within the context of web-delivered distance education. And, this paper will not attempt to unify these definitions into a singular, operative definition.

Yet, there are some basic concepts that must be considered with regards to distance education, accessibility and usability. It goes without saying that distance education can provide the same, or equivalent, educational content to many learners, separated by time and distance. One element that should be considered when designing and developing accessible and usable distance education modules should be the perceptive abilities of the learner (Schmetzke, 2001; Stewart, 1999; Winn, 1993).

Even though this may seem simplistic, there is yet another problem. Many distance educational modules make use of multimedia, (audio clips, and motion pictures) and if done correctly, all learners can view these elements. And yet, there are more discrete elements to accessibility and usability than merely making the multimedia elements accessible.

It is perhaps the graphical arts that have pushed, or the designers who have pulled more graphical elements into the web-based training arena. There are as many books on graphical user design, some extremely good (Mullet & Sano, 1995), as there are graphics programs. And while there may be some validity to making graphical considerations in the design and development of web-based educational units, there are few references within the graphical user design books on the topics of accessibility and usability (Kruse, 2000). Perhaps this will change in the near future.

While the relative ease of using a WYSWIG editor allows almost anyone to create a web-based learning experience, many of the editors do not fully address or even acknowledge the codified HTML and relevant accessibility issues addressed by the Web Accessible Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The HTML elements involved in accessibility are clearly identified within a document prepared by the WAI (World Wide Web Consortium, 1999). These documents have been accepted as standard throughout the HTML and Web communities, due in part to the need of the community at large to have standard, universally accepted terms and elements.

Many developers are competent with the use of a WYSWIG editor to create HTML (HyperText Markup Language) web pages. And through the use of the GUI (Graphical User Interfaces) interfaces, many of the elements of both accessibility and usability are not considered when using the WYSWIG editors. It becomes incumbent upon the designer/developer to have an understanding, and not merely a surface understanding, or sound HTML coding practices.

The goal of the WAI is to "promote accessibility. However, [they] will also make Web content more available to all users, whatever user agent they are using (e.g., desktop browser, voice browser, mobile phone, automobile-based personal computer, etc.) " (World Wide Web Consortium, 1999). And this should be the goal of all training. There should be no true distinction between those who are able, and those who are disabled. This difference, although potentially significantly impacting the delivery of standard classroom training, has no true role or place in the delivery of web-based training.

The W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is the primary body responsible for codifying the HTML mark-up language. Though the W3C is an internationally recognized body, and their Web Accessible Initiative (WAI) has been in place for several years, there is still some apprehension, and possibly ignorance, when designers speak of the role of accessibility. Many of the WYSIWYG editors, although attempting to produce W3C standard HTML, do not sufficiently address the accessibility issues. And, although there is now a legal basis for providing accessible training, many designers and developers do not have any sort of awareness or understanding of the laws (Salopek, 2001).

The easiest method to use to develop a fully accessible and usable web site is to follow the guidelines of the W3C and the WAI. While this may seem to be a rather simplistic solution to solving the accessible and usable issues, it is a standard HTML that can create the desired site. There are many resources available for the designer/developer to ensure compliance with the new accessibility guidelines. Many are available only by asking, and should be seen as an attempt to codify what has already been done by the W3C.

Recommended solutions

The easiest solution to follow may be the most difficult for some designers. While the increase of WYSWIG editors has increased, and there is a greater interoperability between HTML editors and other graphical packages, these editors have, as of yet, not fully implemented the accessibility standards.

Learning the standard HTML tags and elements is a relatively easy task. Using the HTML editors to build a page speeds up development. Yet, a thorough review of the HTML code produced by the editors is key to ensuring accessibility. One can use the variety of tools that are readily available to validate the HTML, and then simply correct or attend to any issues that the validators identify.

Fully accessible and usable web site

Many educators, and more especially distance educators will always strive to ensure that the educational experience is equally fulfilling for all students, regardless of disability. And, by following the guidelines from the WAI, this goal can be reached.

Nielsen (2000) simplifies the issues of accessibility and usability by stating that "(m)aking the Web more accessible for users with various disabilities is to a great extent a simple matter of using HTML the way it was intended: to encode meaning rather than appearance" (p. 298).

And while this simple assertion wreaks havoc on a designer's intention to have a visually appealing web site or web page, it is the heart of the solution, rather than the heart of the problem. While we strive to include more multimedia, colors, and elements that we think will help the learner, these elements may, in fact, be distracting the learner from the primary purpose of learning.

One simple solution to designing and developing accessible web sites is to follow the guidelines of the WAI (Nielsen, 1999; World Wide Web Consortium, 1999). Though the WAI guidelines are extremely thorough, they lack examples, and would cause the designer/developer to not only understand, but synthesis and apply these principles within the design and development of a web-site (Nielsen, 1999; World Wide Web Consortium, 1999).

Implications for future design and development

Though the continuing discussion of the role of the media in web-based training has been with us for over a decade, there is some relevance in the discussion (Clark, 1983; Clark 1994; Kozma, 1991; Kozma, 1994; Ross, 1994).

For some, who have been classroom teachers, there is a perceived threat to that role. The use of technology will not eliminate the role of the classroom teacher, but expand it in ways that have been unimaginable until this point in time (Dooling, 2000). And, it is the ability to reach more students, those who are gifted, as well as those who are disabled, that should cause the teacher to embrace technology as providing individualized instruction to a much wider classroom than ever before (Barron, 1998). Just as the printing of books was hailed as a monumental breakthrough for the dissemination of knowledge, the use of the Internet is also the latest revolution. The use of technology should not be a barrier, but perhaps because of the lack of training and understanding of designers and developers, the web is becoming a barrier. Through the use of sound accessible and usable design principles, these barriers will fall (Kiser, 2001; Schmetzke, 2001).

For agencies within the State of Texas, guidelines prepared by the Department of Information Resources will assist in the preparation of accessible web-sites (State Web Sites, 2001). And though the guidelines apply directly to state agencies, the principles that are listed are in accordance with guidelines from the WAI (World Wide Web Consortium, 1999). It would appear that many of the guidelines have been both developed and codified by state legislative bodies for their respective agencies. Many of the principles, even though they apply directly to governmental bodies, should be considered common practice for all web sites, regardless of the owner or developer.

Advances in technology can now allow those with disabilities the opportunity to "view" web pages. Yet, with the advances in technology, there still lies the basic problem of pages not being designed to be rendered by the assistive technology (Berry, 1999). It is still the responsibility of the designer/developer to produce a web-based learning event that is capable not only of being rendered by such assistive or enabling technologies, but also by standard technologies.


Sheryl Burgstahler (1998) has developed a list of general guidelines that may be used when designing or developing a web site. There are many "tools" available that will allow a designer/developer to validate their particular web site to ensure it is indeed accessible (Smulders, 2001). One such tool that is commonly used through the academic arena is "Bobby". Bobby is a tool that can be used either from the web, or as an executable program from a computer workstation. The major premise behind Bobby is that it will examine a web page, or entire web site, against standard HTML, and against guidelines from the WAI. Elements that are not in compliance are immediately flagged, and corrective action is outlined.

A checklist is available for the experienced HTML designer (World Wide Web Consortium, 1999) that outlines specific elements to attend to in order to develop an accessible and usable web page. Making use of one of the many accessibility tools can also help the designer and developer.

Ideally, all web sites should be accessible. If this is not possible then there should be an alternate delivery, possibly a fully text-based web page. While a full text page may not be the most visually appealing, it will be accessible. And yet, to avoid this possibility, by simply following standard HTML guidelines, the page can be accessible.


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