Accessibility for Novice Web Designers?

Right now I’m archiving some Teaching with Technology portfolios, which are online teaching portfolios created by Penn State graduate students, and every semester I face the same conundrum.

On the one hand, we want to make the process of creating a Web based portfolio as easy as possible. Which means we allow WYSIWYG get editors. With these tools the students create some very appealing, well-designed sites and home pages. So far so good.

But then I deconstruct some of these for archival purposes (that is, students give us permission to take their pages and move them somewhere else so they can be preserved in an archive). This is when I get to deconstruct some of these sites and realize that the lovely designs are courtesy of some outrageously clunky code generated by some prominent HTML editors (hint – it’s not Dreamweaver, but products some other company whose name begins with an M). Depending on what was on the site in the future, these instructors could be receiving a letter from the Office of Disbality services in the future – some of them are that bad on the back end.

Of course it’s not really the instructor’s fault because they’re only doing what the HTML Editors let them do. If I didn’t know any better, that’s what I would be doing as well…But the problem is that we are encouraging instructors to develop content for the Web, but at the same time trying to train Web developers in accessibility, and sometimes accessibility is tricky and technical.

What’s the ultimate solution? Surely better tools are the answer, but then you face a complexity problem. Probably the best WYSIWYG editor for accessibility, Dreamweaver, is actually the most complex tool to use (not hideously so, but enough to discourage some users). Unless instructors want to create “professional level” sites, they may not be willing invest the training time.

And no matter what tool we use…there will be training needed to achieve optimal accessibility. Even a simple, but standards compliant platform like Movable Type or Drupal requires some knowledgable CSS tweaks every now and again (not to mention remembering to give a title to all your uploaded images so an ALT code is generated).

In the meantime, I’m in an interesting quandary as both a portfolio facilitator and accessibility guru. How much accessibility and usability can I insist upon before the Web creation process becomes too burdensome? I doubt it will be enough for full Section 508 compliance. Even worse – how much time can I spend fixing the wretched WYSIWYG code? Accessibility retrofit is such a pain.

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