Guest Blog: Blackboard Ally Implementation Year One – Lessons Learned

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This post was guest authored by Susan Gallanis, Assistant Director, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Concordia University Wisconsin and Marlena Ward-Dodds, Instructional Designer, Office of Continuing and Distance Education at Concordia University Wisconsin.

Susan Gallanis began her career in higher education as a nationally certified sign language interpreter and real-time speech-to-text captionist, providing accommodations to individuals who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing. She later became an interpreter trainer and went on to earn a Master of Science degree in Administrative Leadership in Adult Education.  Currently, as the Assistant Director for the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Concordia University Wisconsin, she promotes teaching and learning best practices for faculty who teach face-to-face and blended courses. She also provides Blackboard training and support, including the use of Blackboard Ally. 

Marlena Ward-Dodds is a change agent, teacher, and servant leader who has professional experience, which includes  an entrepreneur, college professor, trainer, and instructional design consultant. She has a BA in Political Science, an MBA, and an M.Ed. in Educational Design Technology.  She is currently a doctoral student studying Curriculum and Instruction with research interests in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). Marlena has been teaching in higher education since 2001 and she has also been recognized as a Top 10 Adjunct Faculty at CUW in 2015 and 2018. 

Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor adopted Blackboard Ally in 2019 to address our changing student population’s needs. Incorporating Blackboard Ally aligned with our diversity and inclusion initiative by supporting Universal Design for Learning (UDL), providing alternative ways for students to receive the content, and giving faculty tools to create a more inclusive learning experience.

Susan Gallanis (Center for Excellence and Learning and Teaching – CELT) and Marlena Ward-Dodds (Office of Continuing and Distance Education – OCDE) are part of the Blackboard Ally implementation team. In this blog post, they share the top five strategies that contributed to a successful implementation.

1. PRIORITIZE CONTENT REMEDIATION

It was easiest to focus on the fully online courses because these courses follow a master course model with content pre-loaded for faculty. However, it could easily have overwhelmed the Instructional Design team to remediate all content in all online courses. Our solution was to prioritize.

We refined our focus by concentrating on live sections that included students in need of accommodations. We utilized a student employee to review courses and assist with content remediation: tagging PDFs, adding alternative texts to photos, and using simple PowerPoint templates.

Tagging: We found that PDF tagging was an easy fix to help improve our accessibility scores. Our Blackboard data revealed a substantial amount of PDFs that were not tagged correctly, and proper tagging would be a great starting point.

Alt Text: Another area we discovered we could improve quickly was adding alt text on photos. Adding Alt text allows for photo descriptions to be read to students who utilize screen reading tools.

PowerPoint: Many of our PowerPoint files were rated lower because the template design registered as a jpg. If the template is more extravagant, there may be many images considered within one slide of the template. Therefore, it is vital to select fairly basic templates or make sure all the template photos are appropriately tagged. Before creating a slide deck, it would be wise to run it through Blackboard Ally to determine the score so that you don’t do more work for yourself on the back end of the course design process.

As new online courses are designed, we work with our Blackboard administrator to enable Blackboard Ally so that we are able to see the Blackboard Ally score to make sure it is 90% or above. Working with the tool helps us ensure that the content being built in our new courses is accessible to all students.

2. FOCUS ON ONE THING

Unlike fully online courses, many of our traditional face-to-face programs do not follow a master course model. Because of this, working with faculty who develop and upload their own content presented a couple of challenges, including how to prioritize content when the content varied from course to course and recognizing that faculty are very busy. We decided to focus on one thing, the syllabus, because every course has one.

Within the syllabus we focused on common formatting issues, such as proper headings, lists, tables, hyperlinks and alternative text. The university follows a common syllabus template so we took advantage of this by incorporating effective formatting into the template itself. We could then promote the changes and provide faculty training opportunities on using effective formatting techniques as they develop their own syllabi. From there, faculty could apply what they learned to formatting other content developed using Microsoft Word or PowerPoint.

We wanted to recognize that faculty are very busy and that using Blackboard Ally can save time. At a faculty meeting in December 2019, our Assistant Vice President of Academics for Student Success, Dr. Elizabeth Polzin made an initial announcement. She emphasized how Blackboard Ally saves faculty time because they don’t have to create multiple versions of the same course content and they get immediate feedback on the accessibility of their content, making the “lives of faculty easier, while still aiding student success”. 

3. IDENTIFY CHAMPIONS

Around the same time we implemented Blackboard Ally, the CELT sponsored a faculty and staff book group that focused on UDL, led by Susan Gallanis (CELT) and Janis Chapman, Director of the Accessibility Resources Center.  This paved the way for communication with the participants about Blackboard Ally. We gave the option for these faculty to turn on Blackboard Ally for their courses, and many did.

We later partnered with some of these faculty to showcase how they successfully incorporated Blackboard Ally and other principles of UDL into their course. This had an added benefit of faculty hearing about Blackboard Ally from their peers.

4. PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE

Our Online Faculty Mentor worked with our Blackboard Administrator to create a Blackboard  Ally module that we add to the Blackboard home page in all of our online courses.  This module provides a brief Blackboard Ally overview for professors and students that includes a description of how professors can improve content to make it more accessible, information about the accessibility scores, and the types of alternative formats that are available to students.

5. CREATE A TOOL KIT

CELT promoted Blackboard Ally as a tool for incorporating principles of Universal Design by creating a digital Ally Tool Kit (http://celt.cuw.edu/ally-toolkit/) that contains faculty resources for remediating content. The Ally Tool Kit link is easily shared at UDL training sessions and periodic e-newsletters. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all full-time faculty were required to attend two training sessions during Summer 2020.  The sessions focused on successful course design and Blackboard use. The CELT used the sessions as an opportunity to promote Blackboard Ally, focusing on syllabus design. If faculty turn on Blackboard Ally in their courses it benefits all students by providing effective alternative formats that align with student learning preferences. This had an immediate impact, as many faculty who teach face-to-face courses in the School of Nursing turned on Blackboard Ally for their Fall 2020 courses.

The Blackboard Ally roll out at Concordia University Wisconsin/Ann Arbor continues. We hope sharing what we’ve learned our first year with Blackboard Ally can be useful for other institutions.