ATHEN E-Journal Issue #2 (2007)
George Mason University
George Mason University is a state funded university located in northern Virginia. It is the largest publicly funded universities in Virginia in terms of enrollment. Mason has both undergraduate and graduate school programs with a total student population of approximately 30,000 students. The total number of employees is approximately 4,700.
Institutions Context - Web Development
Mason is highly decentralized in many respects, especially in the area of web development. The top-level pages are designed and monitored by Electronic Publications, which also develops and monitor web design standards. Electronic publications offer low cost web design services to university department who request the service. The web designers employed by Electronic Publications are trained and or informed of web accessibility issues. The pages created out of this office follow the standards outlined in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. In addition, the office has created some templates available to the university community. These templates include accessibility features such as skip navigation, alt tags for images and in some cases identified headers. For the most part newly created web sites developed by University Publications meet Section 508 standards, however after the pages are designed they become the responsibility of the department that requested them. This means that the content management and maintenance of the site is transferred to the department or academic unit. Consequently, the site may not remain compliant with 508 standards. As the case with most universities, Mason provides server space to all students, staff and employees who request it. Therefore, it is difficult, if not impossible to regulate all of the content and quality of the pages that are posted.
George Mason University refers to the following statement related to the accessibility of the "official" Mason web pages. "The George Mason University web site is defined to include the university's home page (the top- level web page) and every web site that links directly from the home page (second- level web sites) unless the site is not on a university server or the site is licensed from a vendor. It also includes all the web sites that are designed by Electronic Publications in Creative Services and other sites that are developed using the university web templates." The full university policy for web accessibility can be found at: http://www.gmu.edu/mlnavbar/webdev/accessibility
Monitoring of Standards
Mason does not have a formal process for monitoring the accessibility of web sites. We also do not have any consequences for non-compliant pages. There is some basic wording associated with the procurement of technology related goods that specifies compliance with Section 508, however it is often difficult if not impossible to find software programs that meet these standards. It is also common for a vendor to say they are compliant when in fact they are not. In some instances academic units who are knowledgeable about the issues related to accessibility will put specific wording in a contract that requires the vendor to work with the university in the event that an end user is unable to access a portion of the software due to accessibility issues. I am aware of one instance of this with the College of Education and Human Development when they purchased True Outcomes software.
While we do not have consequences for people who post non-compliant sites, we do require students and employees who wish to receive Webmaster certificates from the Information Technology Unit, to complete a workshop in web accessibility. In addition a course in web design and accessibility is required for some degree programs offered by the College of Education and Human Development. These workshops and classes are discussed in further detail below.
Resources and Initiatives
Mason has resources available to help academic units and other university offices create accessible sites. A web site designed to educate the university community is located at: http://www.gmu.edu/accessibility/webaccessibility/ Additional resources or initiatives include: (1) consultation services, (2) web accessibility workshops and for credit classes, (3) accessibility testing stations
George Mason University has a full time Web Accessibility/Assistive Technology Coordinator who is available to provide consultative services to webmasters, faculty and anyone who is creating a web site. This position is funded primarily out of the Office of Equity and Diversity Services and the Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities, which is associated with the College of Education and Human Development. Consultations occur one on one and in group settings. The coordinator is often a guest lecturer for undergraduate and graduate courses that teach students to post information on line. Finally, the coordinator is a member of the Mason Web Team and assist with policy creation in the area of web accessibility. In addition the web accessibility coordinator conducts accessibility testing of university-wide applications such as Banner, survey software, blogs, portals etc.
Workshops and courses
Mason offers workshops on web accessibility specifically focused on the university"™s policy. These workshops are open to students and employees through the Information Technology Unit. The workshops are generally 2-3 hours in length and cover the guidelines in Section 508. The workshops are provided in the Assistive Technology Lab allowing participants have an opportunity to experience first-hand how individuals with disabilities access the computer through the use of assistive technology.
The university also offers a graduate level three-credit course that combines instruction on HTML coding, web accessibility standards and DreamWeaver all in the same course. Two sections of this course are currently offered. One section of the course in traditional face-to-face delivery, the other is online using blackboard. Information about this course can be found at: http://www.paulbohman.com/webaccessibility/526/2006summer/syllabus.htm#courseinfo
Accessibility testing stations
Several accessibility-testing stations have been set up on campus. These stations consist of basic assistive technology applications including JAWS (screen reading software) ZoomText (screen enlarging software) Opera (an accessible browser) and links to free online testing tools (Wave and Bobby). Mason experimented with some commercially available accessibility testing tools, but found that the online tools were sufficient. For the most part the automated repair tools that attempt to insert accessible code based on responses to questions often required too much knowledge of HTML for the novice user therefore they were unable to answer the questions. On the other hand, web designers with a great deal of HTML knowledge did not want an automated tool to "fix" the HTML for them. Most agree that the online validation tools that do not try to repair the HTML are helpful in located problems.
Success and Limitations
I think the model at Mason has been most successful in providing an ongoing dialog about accessibility. I am much more likely now to hear someone say, "Is it accessible?" than I was five years ago when we started the process. Having a person identified to lead the initiative is important, especially if it is a significant part of their job and not just an "add on" responsibility. Incorporating our workshops and classes into certificate and degree programs as required elements has helped to increase participation markedly. The most exciting advancement has been combining the HTML course with the web design and web accessibility course. Limitations as with most things are lack of personnel resources to provide ongoing technical assistance, particularly to faculty who may not have the knowledge and or time to create accessible features on their web sites. Also, with the amount of decentralization at most universities it is impossible to have an effective way to monitor the accessibility of web sites. A web site that was accessible one day can be inaccessible the next as information is added and updated regularly.
Training and Professional Development Ratings
Rating of Scope: 3 Although we offer courses and workshops to educate the university community, it is difficult to reach everyone. In addition, the web developers at Mason are often students who are transient so there are always new people who need to be trained.
Rating of Focus: 7 All of our training includes awareness activities, most of the trainings also include techniques and skill development.
Rating of Results: 3 This is also a difficult thing to qualify. We are making great progress with official university sites, but I it is likely that there are large numbers of faculty and student sites that are not accessible.
I do not think we need to take anything away from our model, what we need are more opportunities to help the faculty staff and students create accessible sites. I think many people who are creating websites have very little understanding of HTML and technical issues with web sites. It would be nice to have a group of people who could actually physically help faculty create for example, captioning for videos they put online.
The best advice I would have for an institution just beginning would be as follows:
- Provide funding for at least a partial position to lead the effort. This person should have access to the decision makers.
- Provide funding for technical support to faculty and staff. This is the best-case scenario of course. It is difficult to get buy in from faculty when you do not provide support
- As often as possible find a way to incorporate accessibility awareness and technical training into a required or mandatory activity (perhaps a staff meeting or course required for completion of a program as described above.)