Photo Marlene Zentz, Senior Instructional Designer and Accessibility Specialist, UMOnline at University of Montana

Accessibility in Higher Education, Focus in University of Montana

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Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on May 23, 2016 – Click here for the Spanish version

For the University of Montana, innovation and accessibility go hand in hand. By working with Blackboard Open LMS and the Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group, the institution strives to provide an online learning management system that is accessible for all students, including students who are assistive technology users.

Located in Missoula, the second largest city in Montana, the University of Montana welcomes close to 13,000 students to programs covering various fields ranging from humanities and sciences, to forestry and health. The university offers these programs through fully online, blended, and face-to-face courses. Any course with an online component uses the learning management system, Blackboard Open LMS, for the delivery of electronic content.

In addition to facilitating communication between professors and students, supporting document sharing and providing online working spaces, Blackboard Open LMS also provides new accessibility features that improve the learning experience for all users, including students with disabilities. One of the major improvements has been the development of an accessible Advanced forum. Forums provide opportunities for online discussion; Blackboard Open LMS created the Advanced forum to be fully accessible and made it available to the open source community. According to Marlene Zentz, UMOnline’s senior instructional designer and accessibility specialist, “The Advanced forum now allows all students to easily participate in online discussions and fully understand the meaning being conveyed there. The forums we were using prior to the Advanced forum both had usability and accessibility barriers that posed major problems for screen reader users.”

Blackboard Open LMS also created a new “born accessible” course theme called Snap, which makes it easier for faculty to create accessible online course content. This accessible course theme is responsive and intuitive for students to use. Blackboard Open LMS has released this development to the open source community as well, for Moodle 2.7 and above.

These improvements are in part a result of the collaboration between Blackboard Open LMS and the University of Montana. UMOnline Accessibility Specialists Aaron Page and Marlene Zentz both worked with Blackboard Open LMS to provide usability testing and accessibility perspectives on the Advanced forum and the Snap theme. Page himself is an assistive technology user, so he is able to test prototypes with his screen reader and provide highly valuable user information to product developers.

Blackboard Open LMS also created a new “born accessible” course theme called Snap that makes it easier for faculty to create accessible online course content. This accessible course theme is responsive and intuitive for students to use.

The University of Montana and Blackboard Open LMS were also instrumental in creating the Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group (MACG), an international group formed during the summer of 2013 to improve the accessibility of core Moodle. Core Moodle is the foundational open source system that Blackboard Open LMS and many other Moodle partner systems are built upon so accessibility work with it is critical. The Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group now includes individuals and universities from around the world and continues to welcome others to participate the group’s efforts.

So far, the changes and improvements to the learning management system at the University of Montana have had a positive impact in the student community and among faculty. According to Zentz, “The university has found that products designed with accessibility in mind from the beginning have a better ‘look and feel’ and work much better for all students, including students who are using assistive technologies to successfully complete their degrees in higher education.”

Zentz has also worked to provide more information about accessibility to other universities around the state of Montana. In 2013, she founded the Montana Accessibility Interest Group (MAIG), which meets virtually on the first Friday of every month. During these one-hour meetings, accessibility experts from around the nation present on topics ranging from captioning to math accessibility, to alternative text for complex images, and much more. Participants now include members from other states and anyone interested in accessibility is welcome to join these conversations.

Photos by: AFP – Tommy Martino