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Improving course accessibility

Starting fall 2018, instructors and students may notice a small addition to the structure of their Canvas courses: Blackboard Ally.

By Amanda Jean Babcock, assistant director, UOnline Programs

Starting Fall Semester 2018, instructors and students may notice a small addition to the structure of their Canvas courses: Blackboard Ally.

Available to all students, faculty and staff who use Canvas, Blackboard Ally integrates seamlessly to give users the ability to transform course documents into preferred formats, including tagged PDFs, HTML, ePub (for reading on tablets or e-book readers), electronic braille and audio files. In most cases, conversion from one document type to an alternative type takes only a few seconds and is as easy as downloading a file.

For university students, course content hasn’t always aligned with how they learn best. Recognizing that student learning is dynamic, varied and individual, UOnline and the Center for Disability and Access teamed up with the Utah Education and Telehealth Network to give students and instructors the Blackboard Ally tool to improve course content accessibility, and to give students more control over how they access the information they need.

“The need for access to curriculum is so much faster-paced than it used to be,” said Chris Green, manager for Assistive Technology & Alternative Formats at the Center for Disability and Access. “Ally gives students a really quick resource for converting course materials if they need to. It’ll help spread awareness about web and course material accessibility, and the interface makes it easy for instructors and other content creators to improve the accessibility of course content.”

Because people have different learning styles and preferences, alternative formats and accessible digital content benefit everyone. “The implementation of Ally is a positive step in creating a more inclusive learning environment,” said Green.

Blackboard Ally enables students to adapt course materials to the format that suits their learning style and preferences, without creating barriers or forcing students to engage with intermediaries. Students with low vision, auditory learners, and those prone to eye strain after studying for hours are among those who benefit from access to the audio formats that Ally provides. In addition, students who want to read on a tablet will have the same access to course materials as students reading on their desktops.

For instructors using Canvas, Ally will automatically check for accessibility issues in a course, and convert documents after they’re uploaded. There is nothing for instructors to learn and no additional actions for them to take to create a more accessible course. Ally may also serve as a catalyst for helping faculty consider the general topic of digital inclusion and accessibility as they prepare their courses.

For more information, students can check out the Blackboard Ally site for students.

For faculty, the Blackboard Ally instructor site has information about the accessibility checker and other steps instructors can take to improve the digital accessibility of their courses.