Blackboard Ally: Our Journey of Improving Digital Course Content Accessibility

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It’s been just over two years since Blackboard and Fronteer joined forces to continue to develop Ally, an application designed to help educational institutions make their digital course content more accessible and bring it to as many institutions and students around the world as possible. Ally has since had 51 product releases and is now available in 20 languages and 5 data centers around the world. Looking back over those two years, the journey has been absolutely exhilarating and we’ve been thrilled with the response and the progress we’ve made since joining Blackboard, but we’re also very excited about some of the additional improvements on the horizon.

If you aren’t familiar with Blackboard Ally yet, it’s a tool that integrates closely with the LMS and other learning platforms and automatically runs digital course content through an accessibility checklist that looks for common accessibility and usability issues. It then automatically provides students with a range of alternative formats such as responsive HTML, Audio, ePub, Electronic Braille and other formats. It also provides educators feedback and guidance to help them improve the accessibility of their course materials, while also supplying comprehensive reporting on the current state of content accessibility at both the course and institutional level.

The first general available release of Ally was launched in April, 2017 and provided an integration with both the Blackboard Learn (original experience) and Canvas LMSs, making it platform agnostic by design. While this may have been a surprise to some, we believe that improving content accessibility is extremely important and remain committed to making Ally’s benefits available to as many students as possible, regardless of the learning platform they use. This initial release was followed by an Ally integration for Blackboard Open LMS in July, 2017 and self-hosted Moodle soon after in October, 2017.

But we didn’t stop there, as our goal has always been to try to touch as much of the content that a student interacts with as possible. In December, 2017 we made Ally available for Blackboard Web Community Manager, a product that enables K-12 schools and districts to create websites that improve interaction with parents. And in May, 2018, we launched Ally for Websites to help institutions assure that their website content is more accessible.

This brings us to our latest release. We are proud to announce Blackboard Ally for the Learn Ultra experience on SaaS. This latest addition to Ally provides instructors and institutions the ability to increase accessibility of online course content within the personalized, proactive, and intuitive user interface that Learn Ultra offers.

Since our first release, the overall impact is simply breath-taking. So far, 464 higher education institutions and 275 K-12 districts have licensed Ally across 14 countries, serving over 3 million students. And the product has won three prestigious awards: the 2017 WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) Outstanding Work (WOW)award, the 2018 Innovation Award from the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA), and the 2018 IMS Learning Impact Platinum Award.

But more importantly, I’m proud of the impact Ally has had on course content for students. Ally has checked 12 million courses and 285 million content items for accessibility issues, has generated over a million alternative formats, and instructors have improved hundreds of thousands of content items through Ally! What’s been most exciting to me though is the opportunity to work with institutions as part of their larger accessibility and inclusivity journey, and seeing the improvements they’re making (several institutions have increased their accessibility score to over 90%!) and the feedback they’re receiving on how Ally is helping to improve the quality and usability of course materials and how it is benefiting all students. Ultimately, that is what this is all about.

To learn more about why accessible content is better content, please visit the Blackboard Ally webpage.