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What makes a good educational website?

John Simkin

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I thought we could start a discussion about what makes a good educational website. I am a great fan of Jakob Nielsen. This is what he has to say about the design of a good website.







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Whilst this advice is, of course, extremely useful, Nielsen himself has now adapted and changed his ideas. Thus is it quite dangerous to look back at articles from a number of years ago. His more recent articles, whilst still pushing the same concepts are quite different. This reflects the way the Internet has developed.

For instance, he published a very influential article entitled 'Flash 99%' bad:

http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20001029.html (2000).

He was then recruited by Macromedia (the makers of Flash) and subsequently altered his views. He claimed that this was because of significant steps Macromedia implemented following his advice.

As with all experts he also has his doubters:


This quotes another famous self-opinioned phrase of his:

"In the future, first of all, websites will be designed by my guidelines ... for the simple reason that if they don't, they are dead."

I've found Nielson's articles really helpful - but if you visit his site is it really a model of good practice?

The greatest issue for websites, no matter what their purpose is accessibility. If you take the time and trouble to make your website accessible to all users, making sure it adheres to web standards, you make a website that is better for everyone.


Use of CSS for control of the site design, separating it from the site content is a key area. This benefits everyone - aside from the poor designer tasked with changing an existing site to a CSS-based design. Search engines even promote your site in their listing if you have an accessible CSS-based design - this is because their search tools can find your content more easily.

In terms of accessiblity it is a major challenge to get your website Bobby approved - but the journey to do so is well worth it. The Bobby Approval system seems to have developed further now, but its goals remain the same. Test your site at http://webxact.watchfire.com/

Rather than Nielsen, I feel it is much better to focus on organisations such as http://www.cast.org/

CAST is a nonprofit organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all individuals, especially those with disabilities, through the research and development of innovative, technology-based educational resources and strategies.

In terms of generic webdesign, the best resource I have ever come across is 'The Design of Sites'. http://www.designofsites.com/. The authors of the book don't attempt to make sweeping judgements about websites, rather they look at the roles different websites try to fulfill, and then they provide ideas and guidance how to best do this. Again though - it's a pity they don't stick to their own guidelines - if you click 'Resources' on their website while using Firefox it doesn't work because they've missed part of the html code off the end of the page.

A good educational website provides interesting, engaging and useful content that is accessible to all. Simple as that.

Edited by Andrew Field
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Andrew raises the issue of accessibility. This is crucial for education websites. Education websites have to comply with SENDA 2002. Most of the rules are basically quite simple, e.g.

- Use fonts of a readable size. Sans serif fonts are preferred.

- Don't mix colours that colour-blind users cannot read - and which normally sighted people find uncomfortable to read.

- Always provide alternative text for graphics and pictures.

- Don't present key text in graphics as it renders it JAWS-incompatible.

- etc.


BECTA (2002) Paving the way to excellence in e-learning, a publication relating to e-learning materials commissioned for the National Learning Network (NLN), covering pedagogy, accessibility, technical standards and quality assurance:


I am currently working on a DfES-funded e-learning project. Everything we produce has to comply with technical and accessibility standards. But it's not just a question of technical and accessibility standards, it's also a general question of good graphic design and commonsense. I have seen far too many websites that would make a graphic designer tear his/her hair out.

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Further to Graham's message about accessibility issues:

The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act of 2001 cover school websites and oblige schools "to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that people who are disabled are not put at a substantial disadvantage compared to people who are not disabled."

The World Wide Web Consortium's website accessibility guidelines can be found at


Sheffield City Council has posted guidance about school website accessibility and the law at


"Taking a pragmatic view," this document reassures us, "so long as a governing body has taken 'reasonable adjustments' to make their school site accessible there is little likelihood of successful litigation".

Martin Sloan's PowerPoint presentation "Web accessibility in education: SEN and Disability act 2001" at


is also of interest.

On the general matter of website design, I find Robin Williams and John Tollett's "The Non-Designer's Web Book" (Peachpit Press) an excellent publication for the lay person. It's a companion volume to Robin Williams' equally readable and unpatronising book "The Non-Designer's Design Book".

David Wilson


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