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Cirrus Student Manual
A Guide to Using the Cirrus System and to Writing in the Digital Environment
(Status : Public)
Coordinated by Cirrus
  • About Accessibility

    Considering the accessibility of your work is a key component of working online. Accessibility is how you bring the content of your exhibition across to your readers, bearing in mind that some readers might find it harder than others to read your work.

    Some aspects of website accessibility are built into the structure of Cirrus itself, but some involve you thinking about how you design your own work.

    The core guidelines for accessibility in a digital environment are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, published in 2008. This is an extremely comprehensive listing, with dense content. A more accessible version of this content is the website Wuhcag, which offers a series of checklists in straightforward language, which you can use to consider the accessibility of your work.

    Below, we have set out some questions about accessibility, based on the Wuhcag checklists, that you should ask yourself as you are constructing your exhibition.

  • Make Your Structure Logical

    As we noted in the section on working in the digital environment, writing for the web relies on a logical structure. A well-designed research question can help you obtain this structure, but you also need to think about how you get that structure across to your readers.

    A logical structure is vital to all forms of writing, but writing online has its own challenges. When you present a research essay on paper or as a Word document, for example, the reader is encouraged to begin with the first page and read straight through to the last page: both writer and reader agree that this is how a research essay works.

    An online exhibition doesn't have to be linear in the same fashion as a research essay. But the agreement you make with your reader remains the same: you need to offer them a logical structure that they can easily follow.

    For example, imagine that your topic was the history of Penguin Books. What is a meaningful structure for that topic? You could organise it chronologically, from 1935 to the present day. You could organise it in terms of book format, from paperbacks to hardbacks to glossy coffee table books. You could organise it by continent: Penguin in Europe, in the US, in Australia.

    Any and all of these structures can be logical–by themselves. But a structure that begins with the 1930s history of Penguin, then flips to Penguin in Australia, and then to paperbacks? The logic breaks down, and the reader begins to lose focus.

    The following questions are a good starting place:

    • Do you follow the same structure throughout the exhibition?
    • Do your paragraphs follow on from one another?
    • Do your headings make logical sense?
    • Is your exhibition easy to follow?
  • Make Your Structure Meaningful

    As well as being logical, your structure should be meaningful. Where a logical structure is a question of how you present your argument, a meaningful structure is a question of how you present your content.

    Creating a meaningful structure depends on how you present your content on the screen. Readers feel comfortable jumping around from place to place when reading online. A meaningful structure help your reader know where they are, guides them through the content, and helps them get back to the starting place.

    Creating a meaningful structure includes being aware of how people read: for example, the English language is read from left to right, and top to bottom. So readers will be approaching your exhibition expecting that they will be led through the work in that order. The Cirrus platform contributes to this aspect of your work to some extent: for example, by placing the navigation menu on the left, where the reader's eyes first rest. But the other elements are up to you.

    The following questions are a good starting place:

    • Are your paragraphs in order?
    • Are your headings consistent?
    • Is your structure parallel?
    • Do the tabs in the sidebar match your content?
    • Is your audio-visual material placed where it will be most effective?
  • Make Your Headings Effective

    Readers who are confronted with a large block of text online might find it difficult to know where to begin, or may be uncertain about how to navigate the content.

    Headings are one way in which you can help your readers navigate. They break up large sections of text in more accessible pieces, and allow readers to scan the page to find the section they want.

    When using headings, consider the following:

    • Make them parallel. All headings in a section should follow the same structure.
    • Make them specific. The reader relies on the heading to indicate the contents of the work.
    • Make them brief. Long or complicated headings don't work effectively as guides for the reader.

    Not every sub-section needs a heading, and too many can make the work seem choppy and unfocused. Limit your use of headings to when it can be most effective. For example:

    • When your topic changes. Did you discuss Roman art techniques in section one and are now discussing their revival in Victorian England? Use a heading to signal the change of topic.
    • When your purpose changes. Did you begin with a general history of bread-making but are now giving instructions on how the reader can actually make bread? Use a heading to signal the change of purpose.
  • Make Your Links Clear

    The ability to embed and link resources is one of the great strengths of writing online. Linking resources allows you to:

    • give your reader direct access to your source materials.
    • extend your work beyond the boundaries of your exhibition by pointing to further reading.
    • include material that would otherwise be tangential.

    However, you also need to use links cleverly, or they can distract from your work, draw your reader away to other websites, or make your work choppy and unclear.

    Before adding a link, consider the following questions.

    Is this link necessary? If the information is commonsense or general knowledge, you probably don't need a link. If the information is obscure or if it is the argument of a specific researcher, you probably do need a link. Consider the following examples.

    Hostilities for World War I broke out in 1914. [Common knowledge: a link is neither necessary nor advantageous.]

    The first casualty of the British Commonwealth in World War I is believed to be Private John Henry Carr. [Specialised knowledge: a link offers both a source and the option for further reading.]

    Is this link clear? Is it obvious from context where the link will go? Consider the following two sentences:

    Wikipedia is another common resource for students.

    Wikipedia is another resource that, some newspapers argue, is commonly used by university students.

    In both cases, the destination of the link is clear from the text.

    Using clear, descriptive link text and limiting yourself to necessary links is an important way of making your work as accessible and engaging as possible.

  • Make Your Language Clear

    When you write university assessment, you are writing for a highly specific readership, and you can assume that your reader is familiar with certain names and specific terms that are relevant to your work.

    In contrast, when you publish your exhibition online, you are reaching out to an enormous and highly varied readership, and it is important to consider whether your language is clear and accessible, or whether you are confusing your reader with technical terms.

    For example, your tutor in a second-year biology course will know what you mean by 'molecular signalling and transport systems', just as your tutor in cultural studies will understand 'objectural competency'. But a general readership will include people who do know those terms, and people who don't.

    To make your work as wide reaching and accessible as possible, consider the following questions:

    • Is your language clear and accessible to a broad readership?
    • Is your language too technical?
    • If you need to use technical language, have you explained it?
    • Are you relying on acronyms and initialisms?

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