Comparison of websites to inform the design of accessible online learning environments
By Jessica Gramp, on 20 June 2017
The Accessible Moodle project is looking at how UCL Moodle can be made more accessible for those with disabilities, with input from disabled students and staff. A number of recommendations have been developed to guide work on the project and address the concerns of the focus group participants.
In order for e-learning to be accessible to all students and staff, including those with disabilities, the pages and resources contained in the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) need to be constructed in a way that is accessible. The rules for doing this are not always straight forward to implement, so I set out to determine how others are developing their websites to meet the needs of disabled users.
I analysed the websites of a number of leading UK government, charity and public broadcasting websites to obtain a clearer idea of how web accessibility standards can be applied in practice. These websites aspire to meet the needs of a large range of users, including those with disabilities. The websites I analysed are:
- Disability Rights UK: disabilityrightsuk.org
- Scope: scope.org.uk (covers support for mobility impairment, amongst others)
- Action on Hearing Loss: actiononhearingloss.org.uk
- Action for blind people (working with RNIB): actionforblindpeople.org.uk
- British Dyslexia Association (BDA): bdadyslexia.org.uk
- UK government: gov.uk
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): bbc.co.uk
- St Martin in the Fields: stmartin-in-the-fields.org
I used the built in Chrome web page inspection functionality, and a number of browser plugins to help me determine how the web pages were constructed, including:
- WhatFont? for checking font, font size and line spacing.
- ColorZilla for checking colours.
The four main types of disability are:
- hearing loss;
- cognitive and neurological; and
Each of the four main types of disability are considered by at least one charity website (most of which focus on supporting that particular disability). Five of the websites aim to be accessible to people with a range of disabilities more generally, in order not to exclude members of the public, and this is also true of the websites for specific disabilities, already mentioned.
At UCL, the majority of our disabled students have cognitive and mental health conditions (Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Autism, long term depression etc.). However, it is important we consider all types of disability when looking at improving accessibility.
Meeting web accessibility standards
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international community, led by Tim Berners Lee (father of the world wide web). The W3C runs the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) to develop “strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities” (W3C).
Part of the WAI includes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, for making web content more accessible. These recommendations are split into three levels from A to AAA. Most websites attempt to adhere to WCAG Level AA standard, “because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content” (W3C).
Another WAI guideline is known as Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite (ARIA) and defines how to construct HTML and scripting languages that aid users of assistive technologies, like screen readers. Screen readers read websites aloud for those who are visually impaired or who have difficulty reading, such as people with dyslexia.
Finally, the WAI Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) documents how to make accessible content editors that produce accessible content.
Five of the eight websites analysed mentioned they aimed to adhere to W3C WCAG in their Accessibility statements. Most also specified meeting level AA, which aligns with the aims of the UCL Accessible Moodle project.
Many of the WCAG guidelines are written very broadly, recognising the ability for accessibility to be addressed in different ways. However, there are common practices which make it easier to adhere to these. WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), which is a non-profit organisation connected to Utah State University’s Centre for Persons with Disabilities provides practical advice on how to apply W3C standards when developing websites.
My analysis of websites was led by questions I had around how to apply the WCAG 2.0 guidelines to develop a more accessible Moodle. This blog post summarises common practices used by UK websites interested in being accessible to a broad range of people with various disabilities.
The analysis is broken into the following key areas:
- Skip links
- Access keys
- Accessibility toolbar
- Accessibility statement
- Paragraph v div tags
- Alternative text
- Site maps
“Avoiding anything that draws a person’s attention away from the main content and using good design, such as color, white space, and simple presentation can help users focus on important content and functionality.” (WebAim). The designs on these eight websites are simple, with bright colours and plenty of white space around key elements, such as the main content and lists of news items.
Blue and white is a common colour scheme. Some websites, particularly those aimed at users with dyslexia and hearing loss, use a lot of bright, primary colours for different menus and areas of the page. This helps people distinguish between different areas of the website and make links between the menu items and the corresponding section they are in. The St Martin in the Field’s website allows users to override the coloured boxes with a simple dark grey background by choosing the ‘High contrast’ option in the accessibility toolbar at the top of the page.
Every website examined, except Scope, has an off-white background, to help reduce glare for those with dyslexia and certain visual impairments. Scope does, however, explain to users how to change text and background colours within their web browsers from their Accessibility statement.
Disability Rights UK also provides a toolbar that changes the default colour scheme (dark blue on an off-white background) with a choice of dark text on a light blue background, or a high contrast option, with light green and yellow text on a dark grey background.
All eight websites link from their logo to the homepage of the site. To confirm this is also common practice for UK Higher Education institutions’ Moodle installations, I also checked some of these (Bath, Cranfield and SOAS) and they too follow this protocol. Therefore, I suggest the UCL logo on UCL Moodle should link to the UCL Moodle homepage. This was raised by a student in one of the project focus groups, who expected this behaviour and were surprised that, in the current UCL Moodle, the logo does not link anywhere.
Links were either underlined when there weren’t many links on the page; or coloured and usually bold, with an underlined hover state. Only the UK Government website underlined links in the menus. For most sites they did not, as this would have been overwhleming.
The links that were underlined normally, had a hover state with no underline. A few were coloured with no hover states, which may prove problematic for people with colour blindness.
In Moodle, there are links in close proximity to each other, both in the main content region and in side menus, so I suggest an approach where linked text has a unique colour and is bold, but only appears with an underline when someone hovers their mouse over it, to avoid visual clutter. However, it still needs to be clear to those who are colour blind that it is indeed a link, so it may be that links within textual content are underlined and links in blocks and alongside icons (such as the resources and activities), where it is more clear they are links, are not underlined. This causes inconsistency to the visual appearance of links, which may cause confusion, so it’s likely the project will need to go back to the disabled community to check what is best for most people.
Most of the websites examined showed large text, at a minimum of 16px with line heights between 1.25 and 1.6. Although line-height is only included in the AAA level of the WCAG 2.0 standard and the Acessible Moodle project is aiming to adhere to AA level, the line height and paragraph spacing is a current issue that has been identified within UCL Moodle.
WCAG 2.0 AAA expects a way to set “line spacing (leading) [to] at least space-and-a-half within paragraphs, and paragraph spacing [to] at least 1.5 times larger than the line spacing.” (W3C). Therefore, the project will aim for the visual design to meet this requirement.
One UCL student mentioned they find it easier to recognise icons than links that are purely text. The British Dyslexia Association website makes extensive use of icons to supplement menu item text. Action on Hearing Loss also uses icons to highlight key areas of the page and to supplement call to action buttons. Icons are also common in popular social media websites like Facebook and LinkedIn, so it is likely a large number of UCL students will be familiar with using them to help them navigate. I suggest we use icons to supplement text links, and in some cases, such as the search, replace the text link entirely, taking care to provide adequate alternative text for people using screen readers. In addition, the icons that supplement text should be hidden from screen readers entirely, using techniques defined in the WAI-ARIA guidelines.
WebAim states that websites should generally only have one <h1> heading tag per page to describe the page title, followed for a <h2> tag the describe the section title. Moodle already follows this convention.
Most of the websites widely use 3 or 4 heading tags, and have only 1 heading 1 (<h1>) tag to describe the title of the page. It is important these headings occur in order, to help blind users understand the navigation structure. Therefore the Atto text editor only allows Moodle course editors to add heading 3 to 5, as headings 1 and 2 already exist on a Moodle course page to describe the course name and section heading. If possible, the TinyMCE text editor should be configured to do likewise, otherwise content will jump incorrectly from one level to the next, as shown below:
- H1: page title
- H2: section title
- H1: content section (added by Moodle course editor who sees heading 1 as the obvious option for a “first” heading and is unaware of the existing heading 1 and 2 on the webpage).
The WAI ATAG guidelines for improving the accessibility of rich text editors are a useful reference here.
Skip links are a common way “to bypass blocks of content that are repeated on multiple Web pages.” (W3C).
All but two of the websites use skip links to enable screen reader users to skip straight to the main content area. Most of these are hidden to sighted users, but two of the websites provide visible skip links at the top of the page. These same two websites also provide a skip to navigation or footer links, and one of them also enables users to skip to the accessibility statement. Webaim suggests limiting the number of skip links in most cases, to avoid adding to the problem of too many links on a page. The skip links on Moodle only appear when a user presses the tab key. Webaim suggests this as a good way to avoid affecting the visual design of a website, while still catering to sighted keyboard users. The new theme provides a ‘skip to content’ link, which is warranted given the complexity of the pages.
The majority of the websites analysed do not use access keys.
The Action on Hearing Loss website defines access keys on their accessibility page. These are based on the UK Government standard and they describe how to use them (alt on Windows; Ctrl on Mac, although each web browser may differ). Strangely, the UK gov website does not offer any access keys and the standard document on their website has now been archived, even though it seems a number of websites still refer to it and it appears to offer a default consistent schema for UK websites that still use access keys.
S – Skip to content
1 – Return to homepage
2 – News & events
3 – Sitemap
4 – Search site (at the top of the page)
6 – Help / contact
8 – Terms & conditions
9 – Feedback / contact us
0 – Access keys details
WebAim summarises that due to conflicts with browser and screen reader shortcuts, many web developers avoid the use of accesskeys, which explains the low number of websites I analysed that use them. This approach is now outdated and was removed from the WCAG standard when it was revised to version 2.0.
The Adaptable theme, which we will base the new UCL Moodle theme on, uses accesskey=”6″ for search (ALT+6 for Chrome), which does not match the UK government standard. In most cases WebAim explains that browser accesskeys will be ignored and the shortcuts for assistive technologies like JAWS and web browsers will take precedence, so there does not seem much harm in leaving the accesskey in Moodle. Additionally, there is no impetus to create any further accesskeys for quick access to common features. Instead we should concentrate on upskilling screen reader users, and other users of assistive technologies, to better use the native features of their software and hardware.
Four of the websites provide some form of accessibility toolbar at the top of the page. Three of these provide a variety of 3 text sizes, which seems redundant given that people can simply zoom in and out directly from the browser using the menus or common shortcut keys (Ctrl/Cmd+ and Ctrl/Cmd-).
The British Dyslexia Society provides Recite.me access at the top of the screen if the user chooses to enable it, which reads aloud text, enables background and foreground colours to be changed and enables OpenDyslexi font amongst others to be displayed on the website, amongst other features.There is an open-source Assistive Technology bar (ATbar) that can eaaily be installed on websites, or by end-users, but I have found it problematic, as there seems to be no way to stop the speech once it has started. Even closing the toolbar does not stop the text being spoken aloud.
At UCL, the Disability Services teams work with individuals to install and configure software that performs many of these tasks, so I do not suggest we implement an accessibility toolbar within Moodle itself.
All of the website analysed have an accessibility statement of some kind which explains how the organisation attempts to meet the needs of those with disabilities and in most cases provides a way to raise accessibility concerns a user may have with the website.
Most of these are directly accessible at the top of the page (3), or in the footer links (3). The British Dyslexia Association requires users to search for their Accessible Communications statement, and the UK government website expects users to know their Accessibility information is in the help section, which is available from a link in the footer. The scope accessibility statement is the most comprehensive and I suggest we use this as a template for our own Moodle Accessibility statement.
Paragraph v div tags
All the websites analysed use <p> tags for paragraphs, rather than <div> tags, which is the correct way to use this semantic element according to the W3C. Moodle also uses <p> tags correctly, rather than <div> tags, in both the Atto and TinyMCE text editors.
According to W3C WCAG 2.0, images should include alternative (alt) text for any image that is not purely for decoration, so visually impaired users can understand what the image is for. A similar feature is the title tag, which is text that is often applied to links, to explain to sighted users where the link will take them if they click on it. Title tags can also supplement the alt tag on an image where you want that text to appear as a tool tip for sighted users (Penn State).
Five of the websites provided only an alt tag for their images, with no title tag that appears when you hover over the image.
The Action for Blind People website provide captions directly below the images in a paragraph tag and a blank alt tag for their images. Although the example on the W3C website suggests indicating in the alt text that the following paragraph contains text to explain the image, WebAim claim it is fine to use an empty alt tag and include text directly after the image instead. WebAim also suggest using blank alt tags for purely decorative images, so screen readers skip over them entirely. This practice is supported by the W3C amongst others (Penn State; AbilityNet; Oregon State University).
One feature requested by a focus group participant during the Accessible Moodle project was to provide a site map of the course. There is a course format that offers this, but currently Moodle does not allow students to choose their own course formats, this can only be changed by the course editor.
Half of the websites analysed provide sitemaps and all but one spelt it as a single word. Since it is such a large site, the BBC website provides a separate site map for each area of the website. I suggest the project team raise the idea of allowing students to choose their own course formats and if this happens then investigate the sitemap course format. In addition, I suggest raising the idea of providing a site map to users to help them navigate each Moodle course.
So what does this mean for the development of a more Accessible UCL Moodle?
From my investigation of common practice across eight UK websites, I would suggest the following for the development of a more accessible UCL Moodle:
- UCL Moodle should use an off-white background in its content and menu areas.
- The UCL logo should link to the UCL Moodle homepage.
- Links should underline on hover to avoid visual clutter in Moodle courses, most of which contain many links.. The potentially exception to this is for the content areas, where it may be useful to indicate links with an underline to supplement the coloured text for those who can’t distinguish this colour difference. This is providing the inconsistency in behaviour between the list of links and the links within content does not prove confusing for the majority of users. This therefore, needs further thought and consultation.
- Text should be 16px for paragraphs, with a line height of 1.5 (times the normal spacing) and paragraphs another 1.5 times larger than the line spacing.
- Icons should supplement text links and in some cases replace the text entirely where the icon easily recognised as performing a particular function (such as the search icon). Icons need alternative text where replacing text and need to use ARIA tags to hide them from screen readers, where supplementing text.
- The TinyMCE editor should be configured to only show headings 3-5, to ensure a clear page structure for screen-reader users.
- Access keys should not be used as this is an outdated accessibility feature that is mostly overwritten by browser and assistive technology shortcut keys.
- We should teach assistive technology users to use the shortcuts native to the software.
- An Accessibility toolbar (like ATBar) is not required due to the availability of assistive technologies for those who need it, especially since it does not allow text to speech to be paused and resumed.
- An Accessiblity statement should be available, either in the header or footer, containing similar information to what is provided on the Scope Accessibility webpage.
- Alternative text should be used for all images portraying information, or that are used as a link. Any images where a tooltip would be useful, such as icons to explain their meaning, should also include a title tag. Purely decorative images should have an empty alt tag, so screen readers skip over them, which simplifies navigation of the page.
- The project should raise the idea of making a sitemap available for each Moodle course to the Moodle development community, to enable students to easily locate resources and activities on the page.
Read the top 10 easy accessibility tips from WebAim for further tips on making your website more accessible.