Accessibility and Usability & Your Websiteil

Getting up at 05:00 is not my idea of fun. Nor is driving to Newcastle, and getting lost before attending a workshop on; Accessibility and Usability & Your Website, organised by Netskills.

Accessibility is a general term used to describe the degree to which a product (e.g., device, service, environment) is accessible by as many people as possible.

My own accessibility skills are self-taught and I’ve always found the internet provides plenty of articles for web developers of all levels. During the obligatory intros, I cited my aims of the course as “..filling in any gaps in my knowledge”. As it turned out, there weren’t many gaps and in some areas, my knowledge exceeded the course content.

My gaps where more in my thinking and approach rather than in how to write accessible code. Some of the hands-on sessions on the webaim site give a feel for problems some visitors have using the web. Try the these simulations for yourself;

WCAG 1.0 was published in 1999, Accessibility badgesand although many found implementation of the guidelines difficult, but despite that they’re still around today. Of the 14 guidelines only 3 relate to usability. The first 10 focus on markup, and this really forms the cornerstone to accessible websites. The hands-on exercise to use the guidelines to evaluate a site demonstrated how difficult they are to use and why they have spawned so many third party tools (wave, Bobby [defunct], vischeck fae) to attempt to automate conformance, often with badges so frequently seen on government sites.

WCAG 2.0 is long overdue, started in 2001 it has had its critics. Many feel that its simply too complicated to make any site accessible. Personally speaking, I’ve never read either of the guidelines through, completely. You try it, its like pulling teeth. I tend to refer to it when I feel I need to.

The day was enjoyable, but the course felt a little stale, and that might be down to a long wait for WCAG 2.0. In addition, working with AJAX and Web 2.0, opens up more questions regarding accessibility and usability, which are being talked about and written about, but which the course didn’t cover. I’ve fed all of this back so if you go to one in the future, let me know if its been included.

Migrating WordPress

WordPress LogoWe’re moving some websites to a new server. Hi has already been done except for the databases and this post is actually a test to see if the blogs have moved over successfully! Let us know if you see any odd behaviour!

The move will bring several sites onto newer hardware which may make them a little faster and will get rid of the blips of downtime we’ve had over the last month. We’ll also be upgrading to a newer version of WordPress MU in the very near future so if you blog with us look out for a fresh new control panel.

EeePC one; Michael nil

My attempt yesterday to semi-live blog was scuppered by an obscure problem with my laptop so you’ll have to survive with my four-day-old memories of the conference!

Picking up from where I left off – after welcomes from Mark Flinn and Alison Mackenzie and an introduction from Mark Schofield we went into the first keynote talk.

Les Watson from the Glasgow Caledonian University began:

There is, as yet, no paradigm for the 21st Century University

Saltire Centre - Norma Desmond - Creative Commons LicenceThe talk built up to what they’re doing at the Saltire Centre, an impressive learning space by the look of the photos and a million miles away from what I had at my University.

I’m not going to go over everything in the talk – you can find a copy of the slides from a very similar presentation online – but I’ll do my brain dump here:

  • Be unhappy (with the way things are)
  • The truly successful businessman is essentially a dissenter
  • Michael Wesch’s “If these walls could talk” (in case you’ve not seen it already)
  • Decreasing creativity with age. 2% at 25
  • Barcodes

My first breakout session was “How can we make our online content interesting?” by Edge Hill’s Lindsey Martin and Mark Roche, now at MMU talking about how they structured an online module to make the content as engaging as possible. The challenges are similar to those we have when designing for public facing websites – how to put across a lot of information in a way that people can understand and absorb when reading online. A lot of effort is spent editing text, choosing photos and coming up with innovative ways of navigating content for the web, and we’re not there yet. We can probably learn from the way teaching resources are provided and maybe some of the techniques we try to promote to staff with a responsibility for supplying content for the corporate site can also be applied to course content.

After the break was the chaired session – three presentations with a linked topic, in my case “embedding eLearning”

Helen Bell and Rachel Bury (of this Parish) presented the steps being taken here towards a baseline entitlement for the VLE. The exact baseline varies slightly between faculties but by September every first year undergraduate starting at Edge Hill will have access to some core information through Blackboard.

Ryan Bird from the University of Reading gave details of their Pathfnder project.

Third session was Peter Reed (Edge Hill University) and Richard Hall (De Montfort University) talking about their Pathfinder projects. Both gave an interesting insight into the work they’re doing. Lawrie Phipps asked a question about whether the work being done at DMU could be seen as an exit strategy for their VLE. DMU’s approach seems to be more about upskilling staff to allow them to make better use of all technologies whether they be part of an institutional VLE or third party web applications.

Final part of the day for me (before sneaking back to the office) was the second keynote from Eric Hamilton. I attended his workshop last year and some of the same issues were raised then but it was good to see some of the ideas expressed in a new way. The concept of sightlines in a teaching setting always interests me, as does the baseball model of statistics – give everything to the user and let them figure out what they want.

I’m going to leave it at that for now – if you’ve got any questions or want me to expand on anything please leave a comment. The conference overall was very useful and has given me much to think about over the coming months.

My experiment with live blogging however leaves much to be desired. I’m not going to give up though – I shall try again at IWMW 2008!

SOLSTICE Conference 2008

Today I’m at SOLSTICE’s third annual conference, subtitled eLearning and Learning Environments for the Future. Mark Schofield introduced the conference:

The key aim today is to collectively contribute to the rowing agenda and generation of knowledge at this University and in the international community.

I’m going to attempt some semi-live blogging so check back for more over the day.

BarCampNorthEast: Day 2

SundayRecharged by all I could eat from Newcastle’s finest only Mongolian-Chinese restaurant (it was very good) I headed back to the Art Works Galleries for day two of BarCampNorthEast.

I caught the second half of Tom Morris’ session on Citizendium. It’s like Wikipedia but with stricter editing rules and obligatory disclosure of editor’s real names. Articles are reviewed by experts in the appropriate field, written with different audiences in mind and attempt overall to have a higher quality.

While this sounds like a noble cause, there’s something about it which makes me feel uneasy. In my notes for the session I put “seems a bit like Starship Troopers“:

Service guarantees citizenship

Next up, Gareth Rushgrove led a discussion session “do you need to move to London to further your career?”

I found it hard to draw any clear conclusions – a lot of the people there who had lived or worked in London said it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but that it’s also possible to fill your week with tech meet-ups.

Mark Ng has moved out of London to Bournemouth and now won’t be taking any more work in central London.

What are my views?! Clearly I haven’t (yet?!) found the draw to London to be too great to resist. Working in the Higher Ed sector is probably different to commercial work, but the tech community in the North is vibrant and growing. BarCamps in Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle show there is the demand for and ability to organise good events. GeekUp meetings are now happening monthly in Liverpool, Preston, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. The thing the North doesn’t have is any big digital agencies, but do we or the industry need them?

Lightening talks up next where several people talk for a short time. First part overlapped with the moving to London discussion so I caught a few towards the end. Rather than attempt to write up anything that makes sense, here’s a brain dump:

  • Calais
  • Tagaroo
  • FeedShaver by Mark Ng and symfony powered!
  • BBC tagging service – an internal system that they use. Should it be “radio1” or “radio-one” etc. Provides a vocabulary of tags.

Jure Cuhalev, Head of User experience and Community Manager at Zemanta gave a brief demonstration of their system. It takes your blog posts and suggests relevant links, photos, articles and tags. Quite cool stuff and worth watching. Jure’s also a bit of a professional conference-goer – check out his blog for reviews of BarCampLondon4, Thinking Digital, @media and that’s just in the last couple of weeks!

BarCampNorthEast co-organiser Alistair MacDonald gave an introduction to Geocaching. If you’ve not come across Geocaching before, it’s a treasure hunt game played all over the world using GPS to find caches. There are hundreds of thousands all over the world including a couple left by my Explorers 🙂

Last session for the day was Emma Persky (blog) talking about Hand Gesture Recognition. Using a webcam she demonstrated how hands (or anything else!) can be tracked around the screen. The movement can then be used to control systems such as TVs.

Tara Hunt's Photo CCSo that was all for day two – after a quick tidy up of the venue most people went across town (maybe – I had little concept of where I was!) to the famous Belle and Herbs where I had a heart-attack inducing Breakfast Club:

The Breakfast Club is big – really big – you just won’t believe how vastly, hugely appetite-quenchingly big it is.

Now you tell me!

Overall thoughts? Great event. Different to BarCampLeeds, but not in a bad way. The smaller number of participants led to a more intimate feel.

I did mention that I’d comment on how HE conferences can learn from BarCamps but I’m going to leave that for another time. Hopefully I’ll be posting soon about issues like Twitter, live blogging, use of Laptops at conferences and a whole bunch of other topics, but if I forget, give me a gentle reminder!