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EDUCAUSE 2011 Speaker Spotlight: John Foliot, Manager of the Stanford Online Accessibility Program

Posted in Knerds on September 26, 2011 by

As a lead-up to this year’s EDUCAUSE conference, we’re interviewing some of the speakers who will be sharing their knowledge and experience at the conference. It’s our hope that these interviews will spark conference and give conference attendees a better sense of this year’s speakers.

For this installment, we spoke to John Foliot, Manager of the Stanford Online Accessibility Program. John is speaking on a panel at EDUCAUSE 2011 entitled “Developers View of Accessibility: Pitfalls, Gotchas, and Solutions.” John was gracious enough to speak to us via email about the ins and outs of online accessibility and EDUCAUSE.

For more EDUCAUSE-related blog posts, click here.

1. What do you see as the greatest challenge to improving online accessibility?

In many ways, the answer to that question today is the same answer we had five and even ten years ago: education. Due to the decentralized publishing environment that seems to thrive in higher education, getting to the actual content authors is often the biggest hurdle. It’s not that these authors are deliberately creating inaccessible content, but rather often they are unaware that doing “this” (whatever “this” might be) is inadvertently introducing access issues. In my experience, most content creators, when informed of an issue, are both apologetic and willing to correct or modify their work, which is gratifying. Only rarely do I hear “I don’t have any disabled students in my course” or “what about academic freedom?” – again these issues are often addressed with educating that person on the advantages that ensuring accessible content brings to them, often due to increased search-ability (SEO), or simply a better user experience for all users.

2. What guiding principles inform your work with SOAP? How, if at all, have these principles changed or evolved in your 5 years leading the program at Stanford?

Education and Outreach has been a significant part of my efforts to date, along with evaluation and reporting. I’ve worked hard at establishing myself as a credible technologist on campus, one with a goal (for sure), but also one who also understands the complexities of a rapidly evolving and changing user-base and requirements. I like to joke that I am more like the fireman (racing to fires when needed, but more focused on fire-prevention), rather than the “accessibility police” chasing after developers and slapping them into hand-cuffs.

I’ve found that grass-roots initiatives on campus tend to see the most adoption, as real people have a real and vested interest in seeing their favorite solutions thrive; I’ve striven to be part of those activities on campus since I first arrived. The Drupal CMS adoption at Stanford is a classic example of that, and Drupal has now become the CMS of choice by most of the tech folk on campus – to the point that a new division within our IT Services department is being established this September to both provide robust on-campus support to Drupal, as well as to steer and enhance the Drupal eco-system at Stanford.  Drupal is succeeding because the technologists on campus believed in it early on, and grew support organically, via peer-to-peer support using tools such as a campus-wide Drupaler’s mailing list, volunteer “drop-in days” (where the gurus helped the newbies), and organizing an on-campus Drupal conference and other developer initiatives. It’s been exciting to see Drupal take root, and I’m pleased to have been part of that effort since it first began.

My personal strategy has also been to be part of the larger technology discussions on campus, where I bring the “accessibility perspective” to the table; however I have taken pains to ensure that I keep up with all the emerging technologies, so that I am not seen by others on campus as a one-tune fiddle. Web accessibility is important, but cannot live inside its own little bubble – it needs to be part of the larger whole, and so being involved in the bigger tech discussions has helped keep me relevant and related to most initiatives on campus.

Of course the POUR principle (Perceivable, Operable, Understandable and Robust), which is at the heart of the W3C’s WCAG2, is also a core mantra for me: helping developers and content producers understand what POUR means to them helps them understand what real accessibility entails.

Finally, I believe in what I call the Path of Least Resistance – which translates to: “Make things easier for people to do the right thing, and they will do the right thing”. Campus life is busy and moves quicker than many believe, and there is a constant struggle to get things done in time for yesterday. Ensuring that tools, processes and other forms of support exists so that “accessible” development is as easy – or easier – than inaccessible development is important for success. Our in-house captioning system for videos is an example of that philosophy at work, and we are proud that other higher-ed institutions have shown interest in our system since we launched it.

3. In what ways do you think web accessibility will improve in the next 5, 10, 50 years? Who or what do you foresee being the driver(s) of these changes?

I think that the web moves way too fast to try and predict where we will be in 5 years, let alone 10 or 50 years. Less than 4 years ago, “mobile” development was barely, if even, on the radar of many higher education institutions, and now it is *the* hot topic. Even institutions that jumped in early by developing dedicated mobile apps are now looking at “web apps” as a more sustainable and cost effective way of reaching their student body, and with advances in the technologies, even “off limit” mobile tools such as the camera and phone accelerometers will soon be available to HTML5 developers. I am watching and participating in that space quite actively, as it will continue to be a growth area for a number of years to come. Interestingly, many accessibility best practices also have real and tangible benefits on the mobile platform, as the confines and restrictions that mobile brings to web development force content creators to focus in on the key issues: scalable text, good structured documents, brevity of text, abandoning distracting “sidebar” content, clear navigation (and hopefully the demise of “flyout navbars”), etc. As an example, mobile phone users will have a hard time if a website’s navigation requires the use of a mouse because they typically only have an alphanumeric keypad or a small touch screen.

Of course, HTML5 is now emerging as the new standard for web development, and with that comes better integration of ARIA (Accessible Rich Internet Applications), a slew of new form inputs and landmark elements, and new advances in multimedia (with the <audio> and <video> tags) that will make the next generation of web content leaner, more robust, and significantly more accessible – at least that’s the vision. Having been involved with some of that emergent Standards work at the W3C, I believe we will succeed – all-in-all HTML5 will make creating accessible web content that much easier as it too is using the “path of least resistance” principle. I am watching with particular interest the continued emergence of video on the web as being an exciting new frontier: I don’t think we’re anywhere near where that technology will take us in just a few more years, and with it will be new challenges with regard to accessibility, and new solutions too. So watch that closely.

4. Are there any sessions or events you’re particularly looking forward at this year’s Educause conference? If you’ve attended Educause before, do you have any recommendations for first-time attendees?

There are a number of interesting accessibility-related sessions coming up this year at EDUCAUSE 2011. I am looking forward to Tuesday’s Preconference session on “IT Accessibility Law, Policy, and Implementation”, “Beyond Compliance: Strategies to Increase Online Accessibility and Engagement for Students with Disabilities” on Wednesday, and Thursday’s “IT Accessibility in Higher Education, Present and Future”.

Of course, I am also looking forward to being a panelist at “Developers View of Web Accessibility: Pitfalls, Gotchas, and Solutions” on Wednesday, and I invite anyone interested in web accessibility at Higher Ed to stop by for one of our “Ten-Minute Tune-ups”, offered by myself or one of my EDUCAUSE Accessibility Constituent Group colleagues in the CG Lounge  (Wednesday afternoon from 3:30-4:20pm, or by chance at other times during the conference).

As for tips to first-time attendees? Network, network, network. Ask lots of questions (remember, there is no such thing as a dumb question), and pace yourself.  EDUCAUSE is a huge event, and there is a lot to see and learn. Trying to cram it all in is understandable, but I find that focusing on a few key topics proves to be more useful than running from session to session to session, seeing lots but retaining little. Spend the time in hallway chats, they have the most value (at least for me), as they are true dialogs and not just “info-dumps” – and if you see me, stop me and say hi, I love to meet new people.