With funding from the Office of Educational Outreach, SIUE’s Informational Technology Services and Accessible Campus Community and Equitable Student Support departments came together to implement Blackboard Ally, an extension of Blackboard that aims to appeal to a broader range of learners.

The new extension was first introduced during a trial period for summer classes and was made available for all fall classes on Aug. 9. It shows professors how to make posted content accessible to students with different learning needs. In turn, students can choose from a drop-down menu of alternative formats for their course content, including ebook, audio, HTML and electronic braille versions of text.

Emily Keener and Jennifer Albat, from Instructional Design and Learning Technologies, along with ACCESS Coordinator for Instructional Accessibility Andy Koch say that Blackboard Ally draws from the concept of universal design.

“[Universal design] is an idea that disability isn’t caused by a person’s diagnosis … or what they can do physically or mentally; it’s caused by the environment that they are in and if they can navigate through that environment,” Koch said.

Federal school systems are required under the Rehabilitation Act to provide all accessible materials to all students. Blackboard Ally takes a more proactive approach by allowing students to more readily obtain content that fits their learning preferences, allowing them to take agency over their learning.

“It’s important for everyone that’s at a college or university to have agency in general, but I think it’s especially important for students who have disabilities because, usually, their parents have been more watchful [or have] given them more guidance,” Koch said.

Blackboard Ally intends to be useful for all students, not just those with learning or physical disabilities.

“[With universal design], you’re not just designing for accessibility,” Albat said. “You’re designing for all learners, to reach them where they are and to meet their needs.”

For example, students with long commutes can use the audio feature to listen to assigned readings while driving. Because Blackboard Ally aids students both with and without diagnosed disabilities, it can break down the stigma that our culture creates.

“There’s a stigma in our society,” Jennifer Hernandez, assistant professor of teaching and learning, said. “We are socialized to be a culture that is able-dominant, so we create our spaces, our lectures and our classes with the belief or the assumption that everybody in the room is 100 percent able and doesn’t have any learning disabilities at all, whether it be a learning preference or a physical one.”

Because Hernandez taught secondary special education before teaching at SIUE, she is well aware of how to make her materials accessible to students with different learning needs. 

However, not all professors recognize the ways in which their posted content may create avoidable barriers to students without the help of Blackboard Ally.

On the faculty end, Blackboard Ally includes the “Ally Indicator.” The feature rates the accessibility of the content, tells the instructor why the content can be inaccessible to some students and how to fix the problem. Potential problems include low-quality texts that cannot be translated to audio and pictures with content that exclude the visually impaired.

While the process of making course content accessible for all learners may seem overwhelming for faculty, there are ways to make editing the content manageable.

“We tell faculty to start small,” Albat said. “Set goals for yourself; you don’t have to do this all at once.”

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