Q & A: Increasing Accessibility at Blackboard with Ally

February 22, 2017 BY SOFIA ENAMORADO
Updated: June 3, 2019


When it comes to accessibility in education, there are many challenges faced across the board by instructors, institutions, and students. Through Blackboard’s new remediation software, Ally, the company seeks to mitigate these obstacles that have inhibited educational institutions from providing accessible content.

At its core, Ally removes the need to manually request alternative forms of course content by creating an automatic workflow that will help remediate all content in your LMS based on WCAG 2.0 AA standards. In addition, Ally will give professors feedback on the accessibility of their course content and what they can do to improve it.

Read the following Q and A to learn more about Ally, or watch the full presentation, Accessibility at Blackboard.

On which Blackboard products will Ally be available?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS: As of April of this year, we’ll be launching it officially for Blackboard’s Learn 9.1… We’re integrating it into Moodlerooms, which is a Blackboard product as well. And then we’ll also be integrating it into Learn Ultra, which is the sort of next generation learning management system that Blackboard’s building out right now. That last integration is coming later in 2017.

JOANNA HUNT: And just for a little bit of clarity, the Blackboard Ally integration with the Learn 9.1 experience will be available for self-hosted, managed hosted, or stacked customers, as long as they upgrade to the latest release of the Blackboard software. So in the initial launch, we won’t be backporting Ally to make it available to previous versions of Learn, although we are considering that for a little bit later in 2017. But it will be available for all deployment methods.

Can you explain how Ally integrates with Blackboard Learn?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS: As an instructor, when you add some content to the learning management system, you just do what you do today. You add your content. Ally will pick up on it. …We always keep the instructor’s original content as the kind of default That will always remain available. We don’t change or alter that. But every time that the instructor’s original is available to the students, there will be a way right next to it, usually within like a context menu, to get to the available alternative formats that we generated.

So it’s a very consistent, very simple workflow, where just every time the content is being used, the students will be offered a way to get to those alternative formats.

So it’s a very consistent, very simple workflow, where just every time the content is being used, the students will be offered a way to get to those alternative formats. From an instructor point of view, in terms of some of the feedback that we provide to them, also very similar in that every time that content’s being used within the learning management system, we’ll provide a little indicator for the instructor and that will give them an ID of how accessible their item is.

And then they can engage with an indicator, and they will bring up our instructor feedback, which will essentially tell you how accessible your item is, what the most impactful changes that you can make are, and then there’s a whole bunch of feedback. There’s a whole bunch of guidance and documentation that’s woven into that to help them understand why it matters, how it impacts students. Very detailed guidance on how you can fix it, with various options and so on.

How long does it take Ally to go through course content?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS: When Ally is enabled for a particular learning management instance, when it’s initially enabled, the first thing it’ll do is it’ll actually go through all of the historical content, all of the courses and content that was already in there before Ally was enabled.

And in terms of how long that takes, that really depends on the size of your learning management system, how many courses are in there, how many items were already in there. And we’re seeing a variety there. If you’re a small institution, this is usually not more than a few hours. If you’re in very large institutions with millions of content items, it can take several days.

We just finished one, which had about 10 million content items inside of it. That one took about five days to do all the initial churning through. That only needs to happen when you enable it for the first time. Going from there, it’ll basically scan anything that’s being added and generate those alternate formats.

And every time that something new is being added, it’ll do that on demand every time. We usually finish processing an item within a minute of the original being added. There’s a few exceptions to that. So if you, for example, have a 600-page PDF with a lot of complexity, they can take– I think the longest we’ve seen something take is around 10 to 15 minutes. But that’s for the exceptionally large documents.

So in general, first, let’s say a few days to work through everything that you have already. And then it’s usually within a minute of the original.

Can you choose which courses you want Ally to scan, or will it scan all courses in the system?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS: So we sort of provide quite a bit of flexibility there. For each of the different features or the instructor feedback and situational reports and alternative accessible formats, you as an institution can determine whether or not that feature should be enabled– should be rolled out to all courses at once, or whether it should be limited to a subset of courses. So you can make that call for each of the different features.

What we usually see in some of our pilots, for example, is that pretty much all institutions will do the institutional report on all courses, because that doesn’t really have any user-facing consequences. And it gives you a more comprehensive, more complete report and better trends and so on. In terms of the alternative accessible formats and the instructor feedback, we usually see about a 50/50 split between institutions that roll it out to all of their courses straight away, which is because the user interface impact of Ally is fairly limited. They seem comfortable doing that. About half of the institutions choose to very closely manage how many courses they have access to at first.

So long story short, you basically have control over which courses to enable it for each of the different features separately.

How does Ally interact with the uploaded content? Will it work with third-party content like MyLabs by Pearson?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS: The intent is for Ally to pick up on as much of that content as possible. So right now, it picks up on any content that’s uploaded within the native learning management system tools. We are working on expanding that to include all of the content that’s created through WYSIWYG editor as well. So that should be there very soon.

The next step after that will be to look at some of the sort of external content that’s referenced from within those native LMS tools. So if there’s links out, or if there’s things like embedded YouTube videos, for example, then at that point, those would be included as well. And the same would be true for like iframe, iframe embedded content.

The one exception to this or the one challenge for all of this is LTI tools that are brought in to the LMS, because they are essentially a black box for us as well. So if we want to pick up on some of the content that they bring in, then we’d have to look at some sort of custom integration or look at it on a case by case basis. So right now, we already picked up on anything that’s uploaded within the course. And then we’ve got a roadmap to picking up more of that content, including some of the external content that’s being used.

JOANNA HUNT: We are also having conversations with our publisher partners like Pearson and McGraw-Hill and others about ways that we can look at expanding the Ally technology to their services to give you all some confidence in the accessibility of that third-party content when it’s being used within your learning management system. Again, in very early research phase conversations around those things, but we are engaging those third-party content developers in the future development of Ally as well.

Watch the full presentation below:

3play media logo in blue

Subscribe to the Blog Digest

Sign up to receive our blog digest and other information on this topic. You can unsubscribe anytime.

By subscribing you agree to our privacy policy.