This is a guest post by Bob Solis. Bob currently serves as a member of Blackboard’s Advisory Council. The Council is comprised of higher education leaders from institutions and organizations throughout the U.S. The Council provides feedback on technology, solutions, corporate strategy and key topics effecting higher education today as well as supports Blackboard thought-leadership activities.
Growing up, I was fascinated by how individuals with disabilities manage their major life activities. During high school summer vacations, I cared for individuals with intellectual disabilities. During my college years, in the early 1980’s, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I worked for the University’s Disabilities Services Department. I had roles ranging from assisting students with transportation to class to providing one-on-one life activity support. I saw then, as I do today, UMass as a leader in recognizing and promoting these services, creating a welcoming environment for those with disabilities.
Some 20 years after I graduated, UMass created UMassOnline. UMassOnline has built an online platform that not only removes the barrier of geography with respect to learning, but also strives to eliminate the barriers to learning for those with disabilities. Valerie Haven, who is blind herself, is an Adjunct Faculty and Academic Technology Coordinator for the Ross Center for Disability Services at UMass Boston. At a recent online learning talk, Ms. Haven offered this, ‘Many students with disabilities chose online learning because they felt that it would be very supportive of their learning styles and disabilities. I think that is a tremendous compliment to online learning.’ I take pride in the evolution of my alma mater and its focus on providing an education for any and every student.
UMass and Blackboard have seized the opportunity of online learning, in two very important and distinct ways: 1) creating a culture that is rooted in addressing the needs of learners with disabilities and 2) leveraging that culture to create products and services that provide solutions to those needs. UMass has embraced today’s technologies in meeting the needs of those with disabilities, bringing together technology from Blackboard and robust quality assurance on all course content before it is posted online.
In partnering with Blackboard, I have seen its inherent accessibility culture take root and drive success in many of its widely used software products. Blackboard Collaborate, its web-conferencing and collaborative software, leads the way as its new Ultra interface and mobile capabilities make tremendous strides in providing support for people with disabilities. After a UMass evaluation process of a variety of vendor products, we concluded that Blackboard offered the most mature functionality and a committed strategy to driving innovation in meeting accessibility challenges.
With a committed team of dedicated and experienced individuals, Blackboard measures and evaluates accessibility across both the WCAG 2.0 standards issued by the World Wide Web Consortium and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, issued by the United States Federal Government. Product testing is performed exercising the two dominant readers, across both Intel and Apple based machines. Finally, support of these standards is validated again via a third party. Blackboard’s focus on addressing learner disability challenges starts with a company culture that fosters awareness, empathy and knowledge.
While software seems like a natural place to dedicate resources to accessibility standards for a company such as Blackboard, I also discovered that there is a team of Blackboard professionals who are ready to partner with institutions to ensure that they are equipped to provide the best course experience for all types of students. These professionals help institutions validate the quality and accessibility of online courses through its Course Review services.
Technology today, offers tremendous capability to address the challenges facing learners with disabilities. It is imperative upon the learning community to focus and apply these technologies. I would offer that Blackboard has created a culture to get there.
Bob is Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the University of Massachusetts system. In the capacity of University CIO, Bob leads the University Information Technology Services group, a University-wide IT group dedicated to servicing enterprise applications and technology on behalf of the University and its campuses. Bob serves on several Executive governing bodies and Board committees representing University enterprise applications and technology as well as chairs the University CIO leadership council. Bob has over 25 years of experience in information technology and services, consulting and management in the fields of Higher Education and Healthcare.
Bob has a Bachelor’s of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a Master of Business Administration from Northeastern University as well as a certificate in Executive Management and Leadership from the Sloan School of Management at MIT.