February 2007

Evaulating the Web Accessibility of World’s Top Ten Universities’ Home Page

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While last numbers of colleges Universities and business organisations around the world are adopting e-learning for learners, the website accessibility is becoming of critical importance.  This article is the result of evaluating the web accessibility of the World's Top Ten Universities' home pages with the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0. The analysia of the source code of the individual home page of each selected university was conducted using “Bobby,” a Web-based analysis tool designed to help determine page features that may be inaccessible for students with disabilities. Based on these evaluations, half of the 2006 World's Top Ten Universities' Home Page or five universities of the 2006 Top Ten Universities did not meet all WCAG 1.0, Conformance criteria. There are three universities of the 2006 World's Top Ten Universities' Home Page that meet WCAG 1.0.

The importance of web accessibility for e-learning is an issue that is gaining incresing attention. There are two main reasons supporting the need of evaluating the 2006 World's Top Ten Universities' Home Page. First is, there is no clear database or collection of e-learning web sites in the global rank. However, the Times Higher Education Supplement has published World University Rankings annually from 2004 to 2006. The third edition was published in October, 2006. The World University Rankings report came from a survey, which focused on many aspects such as research, teaching and international expectations of universities around the world. The second reason is the 2006 World's Top Ten Universities are in countries that declared legislation related to web accessibility. Seven of the 2006 World's Top Ten Universities are in the United State (U.S.) and three universities are in United Kingdom (U.K.). Currently both U.S. and U.K. have policies involving web accessibility.

Using 'Bobby' to evaluate web accessibility

This study focuses on evaluating conformance to accessibility standards based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0 by the automated tools, Bobby. The reason for selecting “Bobby” as the only evaluation tool for this study is because Bobby is a free web accessibility testing tool designed to generate reports of accessibility and encourage compliance with existing accessibility guidelines, including Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act and the WCAG 1.0. The usefulness of Bobby confirmed that it reduced time for automatic testing of 14 guidelines, which include 65 checkpoints of WCAG 1.0. In addition, Bobby is free from CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology. Bobby has been recommended for web developers as a first step to ensure accessible Web page design. Bobby might be used only as a tool for checking completion of three levels of conformance, Priority 1 or “A”, Priority 2 or “AA” and Priority 3 “AAA”.

The evaluation has focussed on determining the strong inaccessible features of the selected web sites of World's Top Ten Universities.

Ranking the web accessibility of university websites

The results discussed in this report are based on an evaluation conducted on October 30, 2006.The home pages of selected universities may have changed since that time. The results of the evaluation can be categorised into four groups as is explained in the figure below.

Cambridge University is the only university whose home page reached the Conformance Level “AAA”. Oxford University is the only university whose home page reached the Conformance Level “AA”. There are three universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University and Stanford University, whose home pages reached the Conformance Level “A”

The first group is the home page that reached the Conformance Level “AAA”: all Priority 1, 2, and 3 checkpoints were satisfied. Cambridge University is the only university in the first group. The second group was the home page that reached the Conformance Level “AA”: all Priority 1 and 2 checkpoints were satisfied. Oxford University is also the only university in the second group. The third group is the home page that reached the Conformance Level “A”: all Priority 1 checkpoints are satisfied. There are three universities in the third group, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University and Stanford University. The fourth group is the home page that did not reached the Conformance criteria. There are five universities in the fourth group, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley, Imperial College London and Princeton University.

Common obstacles to web accessibility

Based on the levels of conformance of WCAG 1.0: Priority 1 (A), 2 (AA), and 3 (AAA), the top three mistakes that occurred at each level are discussed below.

The most common mistake for Conformance Level “A” is '1.1 lack of alternative text for all images' on the home pages of both Harvard University and California Institute of Technology. The home page of Princeton University also had similar errors – '12.4: lack of alternative text for all image-type buttons in forms'. The home page of Imperial College London has different points of mistakes regarding the frames: '6.2: each FRAME must reference an HTML file and 12.1: give each frame a title'.

The most common mistake for Conformance Level “AA” includes two checkpoints that are '3.4: use relative sizing and positioning' and '9.3: make sure that event handlers do not require use of a mouse' on the home pages of six universities. The error 3.4: occurred on home pages of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley and Imperial College London. The error 9.3: occurred on home pages of Yale University, Stanford University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University.

The second common mistake for Conformance Level “AA” include two checkpoints that were '12.4: explicitly associated with controls and their labels with the LABEL element using relative sizing and positioning' and '13.1: Do not use the same link phrase more than once when the links point to different URLs.' on the home pages of five universities. The mistake of 13.1 occurred on home pages of five universities: Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley and Imperial College London. The mistake of '12.4: explicitly associate form controls and their labels with the LABEL element used relative sizing and positioning' occurred on home pages of five universities: Yale University, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley and Princeton University.

The third common mistake for Conformance Level “AA” include two checkpoints that were '3.2: Use a public text identifier in a DOCTYPE statement' and '3.5: Nest headings properly'.

The most common mistake for Conformance Level “AAA” are '10.5: Separate adjacent links with more than white space' on the home pages of eight universities. The error 10.5: occurred on home pages of Oxford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley, Imperial College London and Princeton University.

The second common mistake for Conformance Level “AAA” was '10.4: include default, place-holding characters in edit boxes and text areas' on the home pages of six universities. The error 10.4: occurred on home pages of Oxford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Stanford University, California Institute of Technology and University of California, Berkeley.

The third common mistake for Conformance Level “AAA” is '5.5: provide a summary for tables' on the home pages of five universities. The error 5.5: occurred on home pages of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology and Imperial College London.

In this new 21st century, large number of college's universities and business organisation around the world are to adopting e-learning for all learners which included students with disabilities. Thus, the standard for e-learning must consider web accessibility issues. This experimental study assumed that the visitors to all universities web sites are primarily the students including the students with disabilities. It also assumes that the home page of universities should be the representative of the universities' web sites. The results from this study validates that the World's Top Ten Universities' Home Pages analysed by Bobby show that the universities from U.K., the Cambridge University easily earned Conformance “AAA”, Oxford University earned Conformance “AA”. Cambridge University is the only university in 2006 that is ranked at the top in the world by peer review score of 100% (O'Leary, 2006). The other three universities from U.S., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University and Stanford University earned Conformance “A” from the validation.

For future studies, the researcher would like to recommend that the evaluation might gather better result quality by combination of the automatic testing of source codes such as Bobby and conducting usability testing by students with disabilities. The combination of testing approach may bring about a clearer understanding of how people with disabilities interact with the web pages, using assistive technologies. The results of this study indicate that any websites that satisfied check points of Priority 1, 2, and 3 might not be very meaningful or significant. The websites have to become more accessible for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Suggested resources

For up-to-date information on web accessibility – Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at http://www.w3.org/WAI/. For universities' web developers interested in employ techniques of design accessible web content can learn from the Quick Tips to Make Accessible Web Sites by Henry & Popolizio (2006). The Quick Tips on a vinyl business-card-sized reference card, in large print, and in Braille are available at no charge, up to 500 cards.  

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