The Need and Significance of the Project

The Context for the Problem

The Web has transformed society and education (1). It is ubiquitous in education: It is used in registration, financial aid, and employment; to deliver or augment courses; and in assignments, and testing. Nearly all schools reported the Internet for instruction by 2003(2). Online learning users have grown by a factor of 10 in the past 3 years and the number of online course offerings has quintupled (3). The trend is clear, there is increasing reliance on the Web in education (4)

The Problem and Magnitude

Unfortunately, Internet-based courses and applications have created a digital divide for many students, faculty, and staff with disabilities (5). They are often unable to access content or functions on the Internet, even with assistive technologies that allow them to do so. Barriers to Internet access are generally the result of the design of Web pages and applications (6). However, these design barriers can be prevented (7). High-end designs, even those with embedded media (e.g., Flash simulations or motion video), can be made accessible (8) without substantial changes to look or feel (9). For example, to access class content, a student who is blind and using a screen reader (assistive technology that "reads" the content of the screen to the user and provides audio output) needs to have text equivalents for all non-text elements (e.g., descriptions of graphs, pictures). A student who is Deaf requires that audio content have captions (or a link to a transcript) for their full participation. A faculty member who has quadriplegia and uses a voice recognition program requires that all elements of the Web be keyboard accessible for the software to function property; unfortunately, developers often require the use of the mouse as they rely on "mouse-only" functions in their development practices.

There are two mechanisms for the delivery of accessible content for individuals with disabilities. The first is to create content that can be accessed as soon as it is developed; this is termed "native accessibility", or "universal design". The second is to provide an accommodation to a qualified student or employee after they request such accommodation. When students must use this "accommodation" process for Web-based information, it requires reliance on others (e.g., reliance on faculty or staff), often results in untimely delivery of content (e.g., a course website, readings, or assignments aren't ready until the third week of the class), or unacceptable delivery (e.g., an individual is hired to "read" the contents of the site to the student). When this happens it often has a negative effect on student outcomes. Moreover, it has become a recent focus of legal complaints for both students (under Section 504) and faculty and staff (under the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act) (10). It can result in costly accommodation processes for institutions and sometimes substantial costs in legal fees and court awards if challenged. Providing a technology environment that is natively accessible eliminates or severely reduces the need to provide accommodations for electronically-mediated content after the fact and is in line with the principles of "just in time" learning and "student-centered" processes; both are hallmarks of effectiveness in educational services and student outcomes. Ultimately, native accessibility will reduce dependence on faculty accommodations and can save institutional costs in line with Invitational Priority #1.

The Magnitude and Scope of the Problem

The 2000 Census data speak to the magnitude of this problem: Roughly one in five (49.7 million) Americans has a disability. Approximately 8.5% of the population has at least one disability that impacts computer and Internet use (e.g., severe vision, hearing, mobility, and manual dexterity problems) (11). Data on incoming freshman who register as having a disability are fairly stable at 9% (12). Taken together this translates into millions of individuals in our postsecondary education system.

The scope of inaccessible Web content in U.S. education is widespread. National data on accessibility of individual homepages in postsecondary education reveal many with disabilities could access only1/4 of these homepages. (13) The data is much worse (i.e. dropping below 3% of pages) once you leave the institution's "front door" which receives institutional attention.

Prior Attempts to Solve the Problem

This is an unfortunate problem as several national initiatives have already addressed issues of Web accessibility for individuals with disabilities in education over the past 8 years; some were funded by FIPSE. For example, the WebAIM Project delivered training and technical assistance on accessible Web design to Web developers in education (see www.webaim.org). Since this project began in 1999, there have been over 10 million views of online content. There are close to 80 education entities that sought training and technical assistance from WebAIM. Moreover, the WebAIM model of accessibility coordination and reform is used nationwide in select institutions. Also, the FIPSE-funded SALT Project (14) from the National Center for Accessible Media worked successfully with IMS, an international standards-setting body, to incorporate accessibility into their IMS 1.0 specifications. This project had widespread impact in education. For example, IMS was absorbed into Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) guidelines that are used throughout education. Beyond FIPSE-sponsored projects there are numerous groups (15) that have worked in education to improve Web accessibility for those with disabilities.

Summary of the problem

Despite significant federal initiatives and numerous existing resources, pervasive barriers to Web access for individuals with disabilities in education continue. Resources exist so that developers can create accessible content without altering visual presentation or site functionality (16). Processes for system reform in Web accessibility exist (17). Well over a hundred educational institutions have created institutional policy with good outcomes and act as models for others (18). Despite available resources, processes, and models, the problem continues at such high levels that it is a national disgrace. Solving this problem may be complicated by the rapid expansion of the Web in education, a lack of awareness or knowledge about accessibility, a lack of motivation, or competing needs. While trends toward accessibility are good, change must accelerate.

The Power of Accreditation to Offer a New Solution

Resources, processes, and models are available to improve Web accessibility in education. The question remains, "What will motivate institutions to take the steps necessary to assure Web access?" (19) Despite possible legal sanctions, (e.g., Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, State laws, and court rulings ( 20)) many institutions tolerate or ignore barriers to equal access until legal action is taken, sometimes at a high cost to the institution in legal fees and damages. Institutions may support Web accessibility in principle but not in practice or priority. Raising the priority to a solution-oriented level requires institutional motivation. Often the process of accreditation is a chief motivator of institutional initiatives since accreditation is conferred only when an institution is found to meet or exceed the criteria of the accrediting body. It may be possible to pair dissemination of existing web accessibility know-how with accreditation motivation to do the work. This pairing could result in widespread adoption of accessibility practice and a reduction of educational disparity.

Leaders in the field validate the need for this type of national strategy. The National Center on Disability and Access to Education (21), hosted a Summit in 2004 in Washington DC. Representatives from postsecondary education, technology industry, and policy-makers identified Summit actions(22). One was to influence accrediting bodies to address accessibility in their guidelines(23).

Although hundreds of educational accrediting entities exist, the Council on Higher Education Accreditation identifies 6 regional accreditation associations(24). They provide the "gold standard" of accreditation in educational quality today(25). These groups accredit grades K-20 in all 50 states and territories--across educational institutions (e.g., community and 4 year colleges and universities, tribal colleges, vocational and professional schools) -- both public and private. Many institutions focus campus-wide initiatives on accreditation requirements. Capitalizing on this existing mechanism to provide institutional reflection and self-focus along with an existing motivational dynamic could offer a means to address the endemic problem of barriers to educational access of the Web.

To determine how accreditors address Web accessibility in their criteria, proposal authors conducted an online search of 6 regional accrediting bodies(26). They used the terms "disability", "accessibility", "technology" and "handicap" in the search and also viewed close to 50 PDF's and other documents used by accrediting bodies. While physical accessibility and the need to make "reasonable accommodations" to programs and services were mentioned, no entity incorporated institutional criteria, guidelines, institutional process, or assistance regarding electronic access for individuals with disabilities. This materials and process gap is the first logical step in shifting accessibility "up the food chain" within education. Filling this gap could begin a nationwide system change in access and equity to education for students with disabilities.

The Proposed Project

This Project is an innovative approach to solving a persistent problem in education by building on existing strategies, knowledge, and motivation. Accreditors regularly create opportunities for institutions to engage in self-study as a way to look at overall quality, outcomes, and mission alignment. Accreditors do not have materials available to help institutions view the extent to which their web content is accessible to students and faculty with disabilities. If such materials were available, accreditors could be encouraged to incorporate them into their processes. Moreover, postsecondary institutions might select to use them on their own even if they were not tied to accreditation. (e.g., 26 states now have web accessibility in either policy or statute yet no materials exist to help institutions assess their status or progress.) If accreditors incorporate accessibility into their own guidelines and procedures, significant resources must be developed. Model documents and processes could translate this concept into implementation steps(27). The Project proposes to develop, evaluate, and disseminate a body of materials and processes on Web accessibility ready for those in education to use and accrediting bodies to incorporate into standards, guidelines, and accreditation processes. If used in accreditation processes, these materials could motivate institutions to establish and implement accessibility policies and initiatives. This would improve actual accessibility and mitigate an enormous problem felt nationwide in education.

In order to accomplish this goal, a consortium of highly visible and respected partners will be formed. This five-member Consortium includes individuals representing a regional accrediting body, an affiliate of a regional education collaborative, a statewide postsecondary commission, and disability and accessibility concerns. The Consortium leader is the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) with 635 affiliates representing education, industry, and policy-making. The other 4 Consortium members are: (a) Lisa McLaughlin representing K-20 through Western Heights School District in Oklahoma City, and AdvancED --a unified organization of the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA CASI), the Southern Association of Colleges and School Council on Accreditation (SACS CASI), and the National Study of School Evaluation (NSSE). This organization is the world's largest education community, representing 23,000 public and private schools and districts in 30 states, serving 15 million students; (b) Pat Shea, from the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) with 285 member organizations; (c) Jevonda Keith, from Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education (KCP), with oversight responsibilities for publicly-funded colleges and universities in Kentucky; (d) and staff from Project WebAIM; a partner with NCDAE at Utah State University. These five members have the expertise to create high-quality materials and procedures for those in higher education and accrediting bodies. Nationally respected, the Consortium will promote the Project's national dissemination efforts with an economy of scale that no member could garner alone. Their influence will help translate dissemination into implementation nationwide.

The Consortium members identified materials and processes that are critical to solving this problem and also those that will result in wide scale adoption and use. The Consortium will develop, evaluate, and disseminate the following deliverables:

  1. A Whitepaper to outline the rationale for, and research to support, accessibility in accrediting guidelines
  2. A document of institutional "indicators" of accessibility to provide a comprehensive outline and description of required, recommended, and best practices in electronic-accessibility in education
  3. An institutional self-study packet to offer accessibility checklists and a process for institutional assessment
  4. A process for conducting an accessibility audit trail to aid institutions or accrediting bodies as they measure continuous improvement
  5. A compendium of accessibility support materials and resources for institutional or accreditation site-teams
  6. A document for site-teams to recommend how they might capture and properly report on institutional accessibility findings

Significance of the project deliverables

The development and dissemination of high-quality materials and processes are intended for widespread replication. They will be immediately helpful for two groups. The first are postsecondary education institutions, as deliverables would provide a vehicle to engage in self-study and assist in the beginnings of change or in continuous program improvement. The second are the accrediting bodies themselves. Of course they are the gatekeepers for this process and are the only ones who can decide if adopting these materials strengthens what they do, as they assist educational entities with excellence in education. The long-term benefits of the project are at least twofold. First, institutions that adopt project materials will broaden access to learning opportunities and limited student services for individuals with disabilities; you cannot broaden access to high-quality education when you have limited access to begin with. Second, institutions will be able to make this transition in a cost-effective manner, as the project will produce processes that optimize cost-effective procedures already known in the field.

This proposal offers an innovative solution to a widespread problem that has potential for large-scale adoption and implementation. The size of adoption by those in postsecondary education should be impressive. Both individual institutions and accrediting bodies will be targets for dissemination and implementation. It is expected that postsecondary institutions will adopt project materials during the period of federal funding. Part of this is built into the plan of operation. For example, during field-testing, a minimum of 25 postsecondary institutions will use the materials. Those that engage in field-testing will be offered a complete set of project materials if they choose to adopt. Regional accrediting entities and institutions of higher education will be targets of dissemination throughout the 3 years of the project. Thus it is likely that at least 25 institutions will adopt project deliverables by the end of the project. Moreover, if a single accreditor were to adopt, it would affect dozens of schools. If our own Consortium representative (Dr. McLaughlin) were to influence adoption within AdvancED, the result could be use in over 1600 postsecondary institutions across 30 states. This project represents a major attempt to reform persistent problems in postsecondary education using known strategies of motivation and system change in the higher education system itself. Since the results will be immediately useable throughout the county, it is expected that adoption and implementation rates will be significant; thereby assisting FIPSE in GPRA reporting to Congress.

Bibliography

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(6) Rowland, C. (2000). Accessibility of the Internet in Postsecondary Education: Meeting the Challenge (Chapter 4). In French, Baker, & Johnson (Eds.) Universal Web Accessibility. San Marcos, TX: Texas Longterm Care Institute Publishers, Southwest Texas State University.

(9) See http://webaim.org/articles/archives/boring
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(10) Rowland, C. (January, 2006). Online learning with students, staff, and faculty with disabilities: Knowing the legal landscape. Invited Webcast for Academic Impressions. Available through http://www.academicimpressions.com/

(11) Waldrop, J., Stern, S. (2003) Disability Status: 2000. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved June 12, 2007, from http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-17.pdf

(12) Waldrop, J., Stern, S. (2003) Disability Status: 2000. U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved June 12, 2007, from http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-17.pdf

(13) Judd, D., & Walden, B. (2004). Summative Evaluation of Project WebAIM: Four years of project operation. Unpublished manuscript, Utah State University; Logan UT.

(16) See http://www.webaim.org/articles/
See http://joeclark.org/book/sashay/serialization/AccessManifesto.html
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(18) Anderson, T. (2006). College and University Guidelines, Policies, Proceses, and Resources on Web Accessibility. Available [Online] http://webaccessibility.jhu.edu/cofhe.html

Bohman, P. (2004) University Web Accessibility Policies: A Bridge not quite far enough. WebAIM OnTarget (January 2004). Available [Online] http://www.webaim.org/articles/policies/policies_pilot/

See http://cita.rehab.uiuc.edu/collaborate/cic/2006/#agn

(19) Bohman, P. (2004). University Web Accessibility Policies: A bridge not quite far enough. Retrieved June 12, 2007, from http://www.webaim.org/coordination/articles/policies-pilot

(20) Rowland, C., & Virgin, J. (2003). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Retrieved June 12, 2007, from http://www.webaim.org/articles/laws/usa/.

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(24) See http://www.chea.org/Directories/regional.asp for a listing of the regional accreditation associations.

(26) Middle States Commission on Higher Education; New England Association of Schools and Colleges; North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; Western Association of Schools and Colleges