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Case Study - Arizona State University

ATHEN E-Journal Issue #2 (2007)

Arizona State University

Sandra Sutton Andrews


Arizona State University's first website, in 1994, was created by programmer Vince Salvato and graphic artist Rob Kubasko. Vince used a Mac LCIII, a tiny pizza box of a server, capable only of a black and white display. Vince set as well an example of rigorous adherence to standards, including accessibility guidelines, a challenge taken up by Jeni-Li Shoecraft: Jeni-Li took Vince's place when Vince left the university for the world of entrepreneurship during the dot com years.

Under Jeni-Li, the ASU website won an award from EASI for combining accessibility with universal design: winning websites were required to score high both on accessibility and on design, as judged by persons with and without disabilities.

Jake Kupiec became the next lead web programmer of the ASU website. Today, she still heads up the group, now known as the Research and Academic Affairs Communications Group. Jake has continued the spirit of accessibility and adherence to standards.

For this study, eleven developers or trainers from eight different units were interviewed. These eight groups are influential and where applicable are historically known for their efforts towards accessibility. They include two newly founded groups in the University Technology Office; Research and Academic Affairs Communications; Distance Education; Disability Resources; the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, ASU's largest college;  the Applied Learning Technologies Institute; and the Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence, a unit devoted to professional development. Of these, the first three may be the most influential, but all eight may be said to be at the top level in serving as resources for others. Many other units are involved in web development exist at ASU as well, but these eight are perhaps the most important.

This study comes at a watershed time both for ASU and for the web. ASU is in a time of change in many ways, and growing rapidly. In seeing the web presence as a virtual campus, ASU administration has set out, not necessarily to standardize the web presence, but to revise it to be more user-friendly; this will entail some standardization in terms of look and feel of related pages across different units, which in turn will require cooperation among units.

Professional web developers across the world, in a little-noticed development (because source pages are invisible to most), have in the last few years gained the upper hand in terms of insistence on well designed, CSS based, standards compliant, device independent, and hence largely accessible web pages. This level of web design is required if pages are to be viewed through any browser and with devices such as handhelds as well as a stunning variety of computers. CSS has come into its own as the way to design easily updatable pages that are universally viewable. Since CSS separates formatting from structure and content, it renders content accessible to any device that can read text, including assistive technologies.

At the same time, Internet technologies have become more interactive, and "social communication" opportunities are all around us. As a cadre of developers able to design at the professional level exists at ASU, although scattered across different units, and as staff at ASU have been encouraged to use interactive technologies to work together, web development at ASU is showing very professional and accessible results. Following the movement towards standards based, accessible design through the University would be a fascinating sociological study in itself.


Arizona State University, which calls itself "one university in many places," has four campuses with a total enrollment of 61,000; in terms of enrollment, the Tempe or Main campus, with 51,612 students, is the largest single campus in the United States. In Fall, 2005 there were 8,291 full time staff members and 2,419 full time faculty members; these numbers are rapidly growing.

The enormous ASU web presence includes sites designed over the past 12+ years by each college, department, unit and even project. While each college and unit has its own web development team, three such teams, with a combined staff of perhaps 25 people, are taking a leading role in implementing new university policy: these include two University Technology Office groups, as well as the Research and Academic Affairs Communications Group, historically responsible for the main ASU web pages.

Web development

All eleven respondents reported that in terms of web development, ASU is "highly decentralized" some saw this as positive, and others as negative; and quite a few reported a movement towards centralization.

As with many other universities, ASU has always granted freedom of web development to its various units. In short, the ASU web presence grew in much the same way as the web itself grew, organically and rapidly. This has had much to do with the ideal of academic freedom, and much as well to do with allowing users to continue pushing the new technologies as far as possible: after all this is how the expansion of the web was possible in the first place. In general, decentralization is also seen as part of the culture of the university. The downside is that there are "many ivory towers" as one respondent observed, not communicating easily with each other.

Those observing change towards more centralization stated that in recent years, new communication tools, including wikis, podcasts and the blogosphere, have allowed for greater cooperation among developers. The three most influential groups included in this study, in fact, are cooperating on a daily basis to create a web presence that will be more professional, CSS-based, standards compliant, device independent and therefore largely accessible. CSS templates are being created, and code for such features as fully accessible Javascript forms will become a part of a knowledge base made available to all University units. The call by administration to create a more usable web presence has certainly increased cooperation, as talented designers network with one another towards a common goal.

Institutional accessibility policy

Early institutional policy was set by the Web Advisory Group (WAG) at ASU. While somewhat contradictory, and not always enforced (due perhaps to a lack of people who understood the policy), the guidelines were intended to at least show direction.

The older policy was vague and in some cases contradictory; in its defense, few people at that time understood accessibility, and fewer still were able to design accessibly. Accessibility standards were set, but with the exception of the main pages, these were rarely enforced; and other than the mandate to be as accessible as possible, instructor pages were not given specific guidelines, unless students required changes.

The WAG is now being replaced by a Web Editorial Board, or WEB, with decision-making members from all units across campus; the WEB is expected to draft a new policy.

Respondents indicated that neither monitoring nor consequences for accessible design has been historically tied to policy, nor is procurement of accessible technologies tied to policy. Several respondents explained that monitoring occurred only in the sense that when non-compliance was reported, and a student needed access to a particular website, the pages would then be updated. One respondent added that procurement of accessibility technologies has also usually been after the fact, as students require them, rather than before the need. Unfortunately, retrofitting is more expensive than creating accessible resources in advance.

On the other hand, an interesting process occurred almost invisibly during the WAG years: pockets of accessibility arose, where a person or a group committed to accessible, standards-compliant websites. Through a difficult period for accessible web development in general, in which many professional sites outside the university were neither accessible nor standards compliant, and when managers everywhere saw only the front end and ignored the coding, smaller groups at ASU chose to continue a focus on standards-based development and on accessibility. Asked about their work, members of these groups would explain that they intended to lead by example and that they would be prepared to take that leadership when, as would surely happen, others would decide to follow.

"Leading by example" is thus naturally enough the watchword of the next step in ASU's web presence. Decentralization remains; but cooperation among web developers is growing, smaller units are being brought in, and, perhaps most importantly, developers plan to make the tools required for the success of the smallest units available in a central repository, so that these units too will be brought on board. Respondents spoke of the use of "carrots" rather than "sticks" with the planned repository representing a rather large carrot for the rest of the university.

Training and support for accessible design

Of the eight groups participating in this study, the three discussed thus far are highly influential web development groups on campus; the other five develop to a greater or lesser extent, but are charged as well with training and professional development. Here too, the model is decentralized to some extent, although the University Technology Office (including three of the five charged with training) has historically offered training in accessible web design to all units across campus. These training activities have included a graduate course open to all disciplines; a four-week online training; 20-minute introductions to accessible design as a part of initial Blackboard training; three-hour sessions; weeklong sessions that include highly technical skills; and 1:1 follow-up assistance. Such training activities may involve University partnerships, with presenters from one or more UTO groups working with Disability Resources and combining skills.

Web developers, while welcome at such training sessions, receive more in-depth training in professional or interest-driven groups such as ASU's WebDev group, which historically has met once a month to discuss topics of general interest. Today, blogs, wikis and podcasts take the place of some of this interaction. In all cases, the training is staffed and funded by the various participating units.

The Center for Learning and Teaching Excellence, as a professional development unit, offers highly regarded certificates and even lunches for participants, as well as follow-up for anyone requesting such support; and the CLTE, Distance Education, and alt^I, all located in the UTO, offer one-to-one faculty and staff support for anyone participating at any level of training.

There are no consequences for non-participation in any of the trainings. On occasion, participants are directed to attend by a departmental chair, or they may attend as part of a grant.

Respondents reported that far too few people seek training, but that those that do seek training are excited by what they learn.

Successes and limitations

In summary, the model observed is that the ASU web presence, ASU's accessibility implementation efforts, and ASU's accessibility training are moving from "highly decentralized" towards "moderately centralized." However this centralization is coming about through cooperation rather than by fiat. "We don't need accessibility cops," said one respondent. Finally, the model is one of efforts at the grassroots level meeting administrative support: it has been through long effort at the grassroots level that web developers are prepared to take on the larger challenge of creating a truly professional web presence.

Respondents who saw success in this model explained that decentralization of web design and to some degree of accessibility training is necessary in order to best serve clients. At such a large university, where one college may use specific software for updating web pages, it is more practical to develop training on accessibility requirements within that college's web development team. A high degree of interconnectedness among designers and trainers across the university was seen as integral to the decentralized model, however: networking, whether virtual or face-to-face, allows individual efforts to succeed because knowledge is easily shared.

The "carrot rather than stick" approach was seen as a success when servant leaders, leading by example, are followed with enthusiasm. Modern professional web design, in which accessibility follows almost as a matter of course when professional coding practices are used, was seen as a "carrot" in itself. Mention was made of the excitement of projects that push developers to greater efforts, especially when developers can see results.

Those speaking of limitations to decentralization mentioned the disappointment of watching as individuals worked hard to implement accessibility and accessibility training within their areas, only to have their efforts disappear when those individuals moved on. Decentralization was seen as leading to haphazard and random accessibility efforts. One respondent observed that she did not know where to find expertise when she had a question. Communication breakdowns were also cited as possible issues, along with the fact that the improved networking has not as yet reached all corners of the university. Respondents from units that are less well networked spoke of the frustration of working alone and of a lack of communication: this study in some ways may have helped them to find others, better connected.

Ratings: scope, focus, results

Respondents were in agreement that in scope, accessibility training has reached only a few or at most some of those who need it, believing that everyone needs this training; and they asserted that the problem does not lie in the willingness of the trainers. One respondent remarked that training seems to be neither wanted nor appreciated on campus. Some suggested that a top-down fiat would improve things: others pointed out that the real problem may be that faculty and staff should not have to be concerned with creating accessible courses or designs themselves, but should be able to rely on software.

Two of the groups reported that they focus on accessibility awareness only in their training; one group focuses on a mixture of awareness and skill development; and two groups focus on having all participants develop accessibility skills.

All respondents agreed that more than a few elements of the larger web presence are accessible, but felt that no more than "some" elements are completely accessible.

Improving the model

The eight groups can be seen as existing on three levels: three, at the top, spoke of themselves as being so well networked that they are in one family. Representatives of a fourth saw their group as reasonably well networked with the first three. The others appeared to perceive themselves as someone isolated still. As this paper points out, ASU is very much in a state of transition, and communication is one area of growth. For this reason, one well-connected respondent stated that the model could best be improved by extending communication to everyone.

One respondent felt that as a research university, the model would be well served by a focus on student outcomes: researching the implementation of good web design in regard to student outcomes would be a worthwhile goal.

Advice for newbies

Some suggestions mentioned included:

  • Creating partnerships with people across campus who have been successful in implementing accessibility policies, and with those who have the technical knowledge to do so
  • Identifying and partnering with deans and administrative officials who have the power to implement accessibility policies over large areas
  • Finding a way to create the vision of a truly accessible campus, and making it a university mission to have accessibility be a central part of all information presented by the university
  • One respondent suggested a good stiff drink before even beginning

A possible vision

The "advice for newbies" have clearly shows that some respondents, at least, favor going beyond offering carrots and enlisting the support of those senior management persons with the ability to make things happen.

Nevertheless, these interviews reveal not only the process of change that ASU finds itself in, but the inner workings as well of a decentralized model, with highly trained experts working together, prepared for greater cooperation, and excited about the goal of a well designed web presence. This pool of experts developed at a grassroots level over years of working alone, and members are embracing the improved means of communication as they encounter such means. This pool of experts may, in a time when professional designers set a high standard, be sufficient to meet the administrative desire for a professional web presence with a response that is likewise professional. In so doing, they may change the face of accessibility, as is happening as well outside the university, wherever a truly professional web presence is being created.

After all, the benefits of accessibility and standards compliance, today, include sites that are easily updatable, available to handhelds as well as to screen readers, and easily standardized in terms of look and feel.

To quote a developer: "We're the model, like it or not. Taking that position is basically saying [we] have taken a stand for web standards and accessibility issues. It says we're not afraid to set a precedent or act as leaders in a cause for progress and equality on the Internet."