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Return to SENDA? Implementing accessibility for disabled students in virtual learning environments in UK further and higher education


A1. Full survey text

An archive version of this document is available at

A2. VLEs in use in the UK

This is not an exhaustive list, but includes all those cited in the survey research, plus some other academically developed systems. A VLE comparison grid is available at

Commercial developer founded in 1997 by the merger of an academic team from Cornell University with independent consultants. Blackboard has 32% of the combined UK FE and HE VLE market, and is particularly prominent in post-1992 universities. (JISC/UCISA 2003)

Bodington Common
Developed at University of Leeds, and used by other academic institutions. Is an open source project:

Developed at University of Wales Bangor, a distributed learning management tool which provides context-based group and individual discussion spaces, supported by learning resources.

University of Huddersfield web-based VLE which enables sharing of documents and provides synchronous discussion space for learning; particularly aimed at arts, humanities and social science courses.

COSE (Creation of Study Environments) [pron. ‘cosy’]
Web-based system developed by Staffordshire University with funding from JISC to support development and delivery of active learning content to learners working individually or collaborating in groups. The licence is free and there are plans to make it open source.

Predominantly conferencing package from used to support both staff and students with e-mail, computer based conferencing, real-time chat. The most common users of FirstCLass are pre-1992 universities (JISC/UCISA 2003). Through CHEST, FirstClass is available to academic organizations to create their own customised online learning environments:

FD Learning (formerly Fretwell Downing)
FD Learning works in UK FE, HE and public sectors offering a range of software applications and services, specialising in the post-16 education and training market. The le ® virtual learning environment is used in 8% of further education institutions. (JIISC/UCISA 2003)

LearnWise (Granada)
Used in 18% (JISC/UCISA 2003) of combined FE/HE sector, Learnwise is from UK company Granada. Provides delivery of web based content, online assessment tools, collaboration tools, tracking and reporting.

Virtual Campus (TekniCal)
TekniCal's Virtual Campus provides web based delivery, tracking and management. Various GUIs are available to accommodate the user's IT competency, age and learning needs. Used in 10% of combined FE/HE sector, mainly in FE colleges.

VLE originated from an academic team at University of British Columbia and WebCT is now a large corporate provider of e-learning. WebCT is used by 20% of the combined FE/HE sector.

A3. W3C WAI web content accessibility guidelines

The W3C provides interoperable technologies aiming to ‘lead the web to its full potential’. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) provides accessibility guidelines for web content (WCAG), as well as for authoring tools (ATAG) and user agents (UAAG).

There are 14 principles in the WCAG guidelines:

  1. Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
  2. Don't rely on colour alone.
  3. Use mark-up and style sheets and do so properly.
  4. Clarify natural language usage.
  5. Create tables that transform gracefully.
  6. Ensure that pages featuring new technologies transform gracefully.
  7. Ensure user control of time-sensitive content changes.
  8. Ensure direct accessibility of embedded user interfaces.
  9. Design for device-independence.
  10. Use interim solutions.
  11. Use W3C technologies and guidelines.
  12. Provide context and orientation information.
  13. Provide clear navigation mechanisms.
  14. Ensure that documents are clear and simple.
    (W3C WAI 1999)

The WAI WCAG has a hierarchical structure with three levels:

  • priority 1 is a minimum level of accessibility that removes the fundamental barriers to accessing web materials, but may still exclude many disabled users
  • priority 2 removes more of the barriers, though will still not be accessible to some users
  • priority 3 ensures that web based material is accessible to the great majority of disabled users.
    (W3C WAI 1999).

The WAI is in the process of drafting a new version of the WCAG (W3C WAI 2003a).

A4. Section 508/WAI WCAG differences

Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to ensure that their electronic and information technology is accessible to disabled people. A set of standards applies to software and web-based applications. Witt and McDermott note the following additional standards a developer must address if they wish to be section 508 as well as WAI WCAG priority 1 accessible:

  • any information displayed using scripts must also be displayed with functional text that can be read with assistive technology
  • any page that requires an applet or plug-in for use must provide a link to that applet or plug-in
  • electronic forms must be accessible with assistive technology, including all field elements, functionality, directions and cues
  • users must be able to skip navigation links (to avoid repetition)
  • users must be alerted when a timed response is required and given the opportunity to indicate more time is needed.
    (Witt and McDermott 2002)

Developers who have addressed Section 508 standards but wish also to adhere to the WAI WCAG priority 1 as well have four additional checkpoints:

  • provide an audio equivalent of visual information
  • identify changes in the text’s language
  • ensure equivalents for dynamic content are updated
  • user clear and simple language wherever possible.
    (Witt and McDermott 2002)

A5: Disability statistics in UK further and higher education

1. Further education

(figures from LSC 2003)


Students in FE 2000/1 (%)

learning difficulty (LD)

• dyslexia

• moderate LD

• severe LD

• multiple LDs






visual impairment


hearing impairment


disability affecting mobility


other physical disability


other medical condition


emotional/behavioural difficulties


mental ill health


temporary disability


profound/complex disabilities


multiple disabilities




2. Higher education

(figures from UCAS 2003)


Students in HE 2000/1 (%)



blind/partially sighted


deaf/hard of hearing


wheelchair user/mobility difficulties


personal care support required


mental health difficulties


unseen disability (e.g. diabetes, epilepsy, asthma)


two or more of the above disabilities/special needs


other disability/special need


A6. Links to accessibility guidelines for VLE authors

University of Aberdeen
Accessibility of online learning materials

University of Greenwich
Guidelines for Developers of Online Course Materials and Web-based Content
Shirley Ambrose, 2002

University of New South Wales
Guidelines for accessible online courses
Elaine Pearson and Tony Koppi, 2001

University of Wales Institute, Cardiff
Making your module accessible
Carol Doyle, 2001

University of the West of England
Tips on creating accessible web pages


All pages and content copyright © Sara Dunn 2003, unless otherwise stated.