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Strategies and Quick Wins for University Web Accessibility

by Mark Shropshire
May 25, 2021

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Open Waters Podcast: Season 2, Episode 2 

In this episode of the Open Waters Podcast, Donna Wicks, a Web Strategist at Kettering University joins us to discuss web accessibility in higher ed. We explore engaging accessibility-related topics including marketing to prospective students, user experience, accessibility tools and training, and much more.

Episode Transcript 

Shrop: I'd like to thank everybody for joining us again on the Open Waters podcast again. With us today is Donna Wicks from Kettering University. Donna, welcome to the podcast. We're excited for you to be here today. We also have Susan Cooper co-hosting today.

Donna: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

Susan: I'm excited to talk about accessibility today!

Shrop: Yes, especially accessibility within higher ed. It certainly applies to all of the web but higher ed has its own demands and concerns. It's great to talk to Donna and learn a little bit more about it. For Kettering's site, for example, how important is accessibility when it comes to generating leads?

Donna: It's very important. The pool of applicants is shrinking everywhere. We all know that the number of high school students going on to college has decreased. So now you're talking about needing to really compete for every available body up there. It becomes even more important in today's age when you need to be hyper-focused on every single lead. So we pay attention to the accessibility issues that anyone might have.

Susan: Could schools be turning potential students away by not providing accessible websites? 

Donna: I would think so. For those of us who do the marketing side of websites for schools, we have to be very mindful that we are often that first impression of what a campus might be like. So we really want to pay attention that people can get to the information in a way that makes it as easy as possible for them to get to and in a way that they can consume it. Accessibility is definitely something that could affect their decision of whether to continue to pursue an interest in the university or even come to campus to see what it's like.

Shrop: Has accessibility always been at the forefront of Kettering's goals for a good user experience? If not, what has made accessibility more noticeable in recent years?

Donna: I would say that it's becoming bigger as time goes on. I started in my position in 2012, but prior to that, I had been a system administrator for our learning management system. And of course, accessibility has always been at the forefront with that. So I was mindful of it, but I don't think I was quite aware of all the standards that we should be meeting and all the difficulties somebody might have.

As time goes on, the admission staff, the marketing staff, everyone's becoming more aware of the accessibility issues. It's starting to get some more attention. All visitors to a website benefit when we concentrate on meeting accessibility standards.

Susan: Now that there is more awareness and accessibility is more at the forefront, do you perform routine accessibility audits? How do you know that you're upholding the standards that you're trying to keep?

Donna: Best practices are that we should be doing audits and it is something I strive to do. We're a small university, with a small web team. Some of the things that I do are anytime that I see content being created, whether it's for our marketing sites, that I directly am responsible for a digital ad, or even some of our print pieces. I am constantly pointing out information, as I understand it, that might not meet the accessibility standards that we should be striving for. It's easier to do that sort of education for anyone involved in the process of marketing so that they become aware of where they should be shooting. As they become more educated, I have less to worry about going back and looking, I can begin to set up some of those audits. Maybe check with me next year and I can proudly say, yes, we're doing audits on a regular basis. And we don't have problems that exist longer than 24 hours on the website. We'll continue to strive for it.

Shrop: I'm involved a lot in the security side of web development and we have the same attitude. We want security to be something that everybody thinks about and asks questions about and is always concerned with.

Susan: I think most schools have good intentions to comply with accessibility guidelines. But what are some of the reasons that they may fall behind? What are some of the struggles?

Donna: Well, from my personal experience, the amount of information out there is simply overwhelming. I of course started with just looking up accessibility guidelines. They're out there and they're spelled out in great detail, but it's a matter of trying to figure out what are the important things I should focus on initially. What can I reasonably do? From my perspective, I would love to find a group or start a group of some kind focused on higher ed and what accessibility means for, in particular, the marketing materials that we send out. I think higher ed has done accessibility very well on the learning side. But for reaching out to prospective students, many universities have been doing it, but not necessarily in a standard way. We all sort of pick and choose which standards we want to reach. 

The great thing about higher ed is universities love to collaborate with each other and user groups are a great way to go. People love to share information, and I simply just have not stumbled on it. Maybe it's out there. So if one of the listeners knows and wants to ping me at Kettering, I'd be happy to take a look. But to me, it's the amount of information. I think people look at it and they simply go, whew, I'm not going to worry about it until somebody points a finger and says you can't do that. We have to figure out as a group, how do we do this so that people are proactive about the issues rather than trying to be reactive to either a complaint that's come through or somebody who has noticed something saying thou shall not.

Shrop: It sounds like accessibility is very challenging, especially in a university setting. With that challenge, do you know of any cases where legal action has been taken against the school or lack of accessibility compliance?

Donna: The US Department of Education will randomly select some schools to tell them that they may open an investigation. We ourselves received a notice about a year and a half ago, and then they did follow through with an investigation. That sounds very scary. And it was kind of a long involved process, but the US Department of Education will work very well with you. They meet with you, they go through everything that they found, and that's not just necessarily on one web property. They will look at multiple web properties. If you've got a PDF that you've linked to, they will look at that and run their accessibility tools against it. 

For us, most of the corrections could be taken care of within a matter of days. The problem that I was running into is that the site that I was using at the time really hadn't been developed with an accessibility focus. It had the tools for me there to use, but it wasn't forcing me to use them. And as we all know, we get in a hurry and it's easy to skip that alt tag. It didn't force me to use certain colors, so we would start getting into color contrast issues.

This came at a time when we were working with Mediacurrent to move to and develop a Drupal 8 site. One of the first things we did was create a whole style guide around ensuring that we were going to meet those minimal accessibility standards that everybody should be meeting.

Susan: You mentioned alt tags as low-hanging fruit for accessibility. What are some other simple improvements that higher ed websites should be thinking about making that can really make a big difference in someone's experience using the sites?

Donna: One of the things that anyone should be testing as soon as you've created navigation and or a page, is just to do that simple tab, keyboard, accessibility test. So you're just taking the tab key and tabbing through the page. Color contrast -- that's a no-brainer. Our site was developed with a color palette. I can't stray off that, as much as I might want to! That way, I know if I'm putting text on top of a color, that it will need the highest level of accessibility. Another issue that I've run into is when our marketing department develops images for social media or digital ads where they have taken this wonderful graphic and put all this text in it. I simply won't use it on the website anymore. That text is either too long for an alt tag or there is no reason for the text to be embedded. That’s another win. Don’t use images with words in them. You want to make sure you’re keeping images as clean as possible for every visitor on the site.  

Susan: We have one final question for you that's not necessarily related to accessibility, but it is related to marketing in general. What's something that you think every marketer should read, listen to, or watch this month?

Donna: Besides this podcast? [laughing] For me, one of the things that I have found I've been doing for the past month so I was, I've also been looking at SEO and what we need to do for SEO and stumbled onto Google Trends. It is absolutely fascinating to me to go out every day and see what's been trending on Google for the past day or past week, or what's actually currently trending on Google.

I recommend it highly - anybody who's in marketing should be looking at Google trends. We can't always tell people they should be interested in us; we have to figure out what they're interested in and show how we're relevant to those interests

Shrop: Thanks again so much for your time today, Donna, this is fascinating learning more about accessibility in higher ed. I know Susan and I learned a lot about it.

Mark Shropshire Headshot

Meet team member, Mark Shropshire

Mark “Shrop” loves working at the intersection of leadership and technology. He has a passion for personal and team growth, aligning individual purpose with Mediacurrent’s vision. Shrop focuses on empowering teams to excel while using best of class open source technology solutions.

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