Photo Claire Gardener, senior learning technologist at University of Derby

An Ally to Support Inclusive Learning at the University of Derby



Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on June 20, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

At the University of Derby, an institution in central England with over 17,000 students enrolled in over 300 programs of study, an initiative was created in 2015 to provide staff and faculty with the foundation they needed to exercise inclusive practice.

The Inclusive Derby initiative was established after changes to the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) caused learners to no longer receive government funding to help them with disability-related costs, such as buying specialist equipment or hiring helpers. The initiative brought together a working group in order to raise awareness and promote inclusive practice in the university.

“The biggest challenge we face is to bring about a cultural shift where inclusive practice becomes embedded in everyday activities, and that people across the university (teaching and professional support) see the value and purpose in understanding the importance of inclusivity and putting it into action,” says Claire Gardener, senior learning technologist at University of Derby.

The group was made up of staff in the academic areas and other professional services throughout the institution, such as teaching and learning, student well-being, technology enhanced learning, marketing, library and IT services.

Accessibility Audit

One of the group’s actions was to fund an accessibility audit, which assessed not only the institution’s physical campuses, but also the digital spaces of the university, such as their digital learning environment and website.

The audit detected some positive aspects as well as others in need of improvement. Regarding the university’s digital environment, the audit identified problems with the institutional website, which didn’t meet all the required standards. It also detected that content in the digital learning environment was not consistently accessible.

With those results in hand, Derby gathered funding to implement tools that would help them deliver a more accessible learning and teaching experience online. ATBar, a tool bar that allows users to customize their browser navigation, such as adjusting font size and color, and ReadSpeaker, a text-to-speech tool which reads the content on the screen, were deployed institution-wide.

They have also implemented Blackboard Ally, an accessibility solution that has already been adopted by over 300 institutions worldwide.

Understanding Blackboard Ally

Blackboard Ally can be integrated with different learning management systems, such as Blackboard Learn and Blackboard Open LMS. It has three main functions:

  1. Blackboard Ally automatically checks all content uploaded to the digital learning environment for accessibility issues and generates alternative accessible formats using advanced machine learning algorithms. These formats include OCR and tagged PDFs, HTML, ePub, audio and electronic braille.
  2. Provides instructor-specific feedback, which guides instructors on how to improve the accessibility of their course content and helps them alter future behavior.
  3. Provides institution-wide reporting on course content accessibility, which helps universities make informed decisions and track their progress.

Automating Steps in the Way to Accessibility

The implementation of Blackboard Ally at Derby was done in record time. According to Gardener, they decided to implement the solution in December 2017, when they had the opportunity to upgrade their Blackboard Learn system to the 9.1 Q4 2017 version.

Derby has initially deployed Blackboard Ally within 10 modules on their test server. After some testing and exploring of how the solution integrated into the digital learning environment, they decided to implement it across the university. By the end of January 2018, the solution was fully live.

“We were in a position to implement Blackboard Ally quite quickly as we had a whole host of pre-existing resources around inclusive practice. Today, every single program and module area has Ally, and we’ve also applied the solution across our system going back on our historic data. We made that decision so that we could spot trends in how our accessibility is improving,” Gardener explains.

The day Ally was launched, Gardener was expecting the phone to be ringing non-stop, since faculty would suddenly be faced with red indicators throughout their course content, due to the possible accessibility issues. “I’m pleased to say that we only got one phone call that day,” says Gardener.

The communication strategy with staff and faculty members was a key factor to the success of the Blackboard Ally implementation at Derby.

“I think the narrative we used was incredibly important. When Ally is implemented, all of a sudden you get all this wealth of data about how accessible your system is, and the accessibility rating of every individual piece of uploaded content. That can be quite overwhelming,” she explains.

The team went on to create a clear messaging strategy to contextualize the purpose and goals of Ally to staff and faculty members, and to explain how they were expected to engage with the solution. Email communications to faculty also emphasized that Ally indicators were only visible to them.

In addition, staff and faculty were provided with a point of contact at the Technology Enhanced Learning office, and Ally help guides were added to the university’s Digital Practice Handbook.

“We were very clear that what we were asking staff was not to update everything, but to start considering the materials they were currently updating and thinking about all future materials and how they could make those more inclusive. We weren’t asking them to go and review everything, because that would have been a non-starter,” says Gardener.

The Results

Four months after the Blackboard Ally implementation, Derby’s overall accessibility score increased by 4%, and it is now at 46%. Gardener says she was pleasantly surprised with these results, particularly after the accessibility audit highlighted digital course content as an area for improvement.

Since providing faculty with advice on how to improve their course materials is an integral part of Blackboard Ally, Gardener expects to see a steady increase in the future. She is also interested to see, in the next few month or years, how other institutions using Blackboard Ally compare to Derby.

“I am also interested to talk to colleagues about what an optimal accessibility score might be, particularly given the complex nature of the digital learning environment and the types of materials that are uploaded,” Gardener says.

For Derby, Blackboard Ally was a way of starting a conversation and raising awareness about the value of accessible, alternative formats to student success. The tool is also helping inform the accessibility strategy across the university, as well as to benchmark their progress.

“I still feel that we are in the early stages of it,” says Gardener. “But in conclusion, we’ve had a rapid roll out of Blackboard Ally because we have essentially decided that the risks of the technology and implementation were low and, overnight, the accessibility of our course content improved massively for our students.”

Results After Blackboard Ally Implementation

4% increase in overall accessibility in four months

46% overall accessibility score (16% above average)

3 Lessons from the Inclusive Derby Initiative

1. Inclusive Practice Must Be Embedded into Institutional Strategies

Derby realized that for inclusive practice to be a reality across the university, it needed to be an integral part of the institutional strategies. They started looking at different areas of the institution ensuring that their strategies had inclusive practice embedded into them. Effectively supporting learners through the different transitions within higher education and providing students with inclusive and authentic assessment are examples of that.

2. Faculty & Staff Should Know What They Are Expected to Do

Faculty and staff members need to know what is expected of them, so they can prepare and act accordingly, without being overwhelmed. Before the launch of Blackboard Ally at Derby, lecturers were specifically told that they weren’t expected to make all their course content accessible at once. Instead, they should focus on improving accessibility for current and future materials, and if they needed support, the Technology Enhanced Learning Team was there to help.

3. Faculty Needs Support to Learn New Skills

To prepare staff and faculty for the new challenges, Derby promoted several development initiatives. For example, a “Using Technology for Inclusive Learning” workshop and an Ally specific workshop became available. However, there’s still a long way to go. With Blackboard Ally, it became apparent that academic staff may lack generic information communication technology (ICT) skills and assistive technology skills. How to address this and engage faculty to make sure they develop the skills they need is still an issue.

Why should educational institutions consider accessibility a priority?

“The following was extracted from our TEF submission document:

‘The University of Derby has a long-established commitment to providing high quality learning and teaching as part of an excellent student experience for all learners, with our commitment to transformational learning captured in the University’s strapline: ‘Great people, original thinking, inspiring individuals… changing lives.’ The focus is on ensuring that all Derby students benefit from the full range of experiences and activities delivered within the University, enabling them to develop the graduate attributes needed to thrive in their future employment or study.’

Accessibility must be a priority if we are to meet these goals for all our learners.” Claire Gardener, senior learning technologist at University of Derby.