BbWorld17: Blackboard Ally - Improving course content accessibility

Blog Post created by jacobspradlin@gmail.com on Aug 1, 2017

ally_logo.pngSo, if you found yourself in New Orleans at BbWorld in late July, then odds are you heard, saw, bumped into something having to do with Blackboard Ally.  Blackboard Ally will help faculty, instructional designers and administrators make course content more accessible.


[Begin Personal comment] This acquisition by blackboard is one of their best purchases to date.  It (the acquisition) demonstrates Blackboard's commitment to reach students where they are.  This, to me is more important than new tool features or a visually appealing interface.[End Personal Comment]


What follows is my interpretation of a great session given by Nicolaas Matthijs, the creator and now Product Manager for Ally at Blackboard.


Nicolaas began his session by shining a bright line on the challenges around accessibility for students, instructors and the institution when it comes to learning management systems like Blackboard.

  1. Student - explicit requests for accommodations, long delays on receiving requested format, excludes many students, closely related to quality and usability.
  2. Instructor - Lack of awareness of what to do, lack of understanding of how it affects students, lack of guidance on how to improve accessibility
  3. Institution - No insight into how institution is doing, difficult to track and identify what to focus on, manual remediation workflow, lawsuits, because of legal requirements

He also spoke about how the solution is really a three part solution.

  1. The Platform: Making the platform (Blackboard) as accessible as possible.  Blackboard is WCAG 2.0 compliant.
  2. The Content: Using Ally to ensure the Content is accessible
  3. The Services:  Using Blackboard services or local university services to ensure you are making the process of applying, matriculating etc.. as accessible as possible.

Nicolaas then pointed to the research around accessiblity of course materials and the slow pace of improvement.  Specifically, he mentioned an Inside Higher Ed article where Blackboard shared their research on the subject.


Now on to the the 'meat' of the post.  Next he went on to talk about the role the LMS plays in the process.  Nicolaas affirmed that he/Blackboard is committed to providing ally to everyone, including non-blackboard products, potential for integrations(library systems, public website content, content collection systems).    Currently available Learn 9.1 q2 17, Canvas and Moodle Rooms (English, Spanish and Dutch).  <-- This was one of those "wow" moments in the session.  Blackboard allowing this to continue speaks again to the importance of accessibility in the space (even if they are making money from competitors).


The workflow for Ally is as follows:

  • Instructor adds course content
  • Automated accessibility checklist (based on WCAG 2.0 AA) run on the uploaded content.
  • Taking Place in Background: Machine learning Algorithms: full structural visual analysis to learn semantics of document.  Identify headings, heading structure, paragraphs, footers, tables, lists, mathematical formulas, etc.
  • Ally produces alternative accessible versions: HTML, ePub, audio, electronic Braille, etc. and OCR version of all scanned documents. (Instructors original version is always kept as the default).
  • Instructor Feedback - Ally will provide feedback to instructors about accessibility of their course content, guidance on how to fix, aims to generate change in behavior over time.
  • Institutional Report -- provides a detailed understanding of how institution is doing, helps identify where problem areas are, what to focus on, what to target, etc.


Now for some photos of interface: (apologize in advance, as these were grabbed from the presentation screen during the session by my phone)


What Students See:


By using a contextual menu drop down, students gain access to the accessible versions of the uploaded file (HTML, ePub, audio, electronic braille & the OCR version of all scanned documents)


What Faculty See:


ally_ux_faculty_see1.pngJust by accessing the meter icon, faculty can gain access to:

  • Guidance on how to fix accessibility issues with images and documents.



Ally Reporting

The following screen shots go from broad to specific in terms of Ally's institutional reporting capabilities:







In the spirit of full disclosure, my institution has purchased Ally and we will be implementing it in the fall.  If you haven't already, take a look at the Ally Video for more information or visit Blackboard's Ally Page.  All-in-all, it was a great session!  If your institution is interested in accessibility and meeting your students where they are, then Blackboard Ally is something you should check out!