Celebrating the Journey: Reflections from IncluCity


After logging 86,259 miles on the odometer and visiting 51 institutions across 4 continents, 6 countries, and 20 US states, the Ally Van brought in the New Year parked in the IncluCity Repair Shop. But what an adventure we enjoyed over the past year! You might remember from our very first Tour post, we began our journey to learn about how colleges, universities, and schools around the world are addressing accessibility issues with their course materials to help make their campuses more inclusive for everyone. We documented our campus visits in 13 blog posts, 28 video interviews with students, instructors, and academic leadership, and 7 podcasts with the learning technology teams leading their Ally implementation efforts.

10 photos displayed in two rows including snowy landscapes, diverse architecture, beachers, mountains, and rivers.
A few snaps from the 2019 Blackboard Ally Tour, including Boston (US), Charleston (US), Singapore, Aberdeen (Scotland), Montana (US), Tasmania (Australia), Trondheim (Norway), London (England), Tampa (US), and Grand Rapids (US)

Our journey around the world came to symbolize the journey undertaken by the people at the campuses we visited to make learning more inclusive for everyone, as the barriers to access and inclusion cannot be removed overnight, or in a single semester, or even in a year. It is a journey defined not by its destination, but through a culture shift marked by an on-going commitment across the institution to support diverse students’ success, regardless of their need or ability.

Three Discoveries from the Ally Tour

Each Tour stop provided a unique lens into the culture, challenges, and approaches of the institution, but we’ve tried to crystalize our discoveries into three findings related to the three parts of Ally: Alternative Formats, Instructor Feedback, and Institutional Report.

The Impact of Alternative Formats can be Immediate and Far Reaching

During our data review sessions and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) workshops, our hosts often expressed surprise and excitement when they learned about the number of alternative format downloads in their courses, especially those who had yet to publicize the alternative formats to students and instructors. The encouraging usage provided evidence of the utility of the formats for all students and not just those with disclosed disabilities. It also demonstrated the value of integrating the formats into existing course workflows, as students were able to discover and make use of the formats on their own. For instructors, seeing the download data provided some motivation to improve their original documents, knowing their commitment to accessibility ensured all their students would have access to high-quality alternative formats.

In our conversations with people on campus, we learned about some of the unique ways alternative formats are used on campus:

  • Juliana Torres (student at Atlantic Cape Community College) prefers downloading her content in the HTML format because it’s more conducive for zooming in on the text to support her vision. Additionally, it allows her to easily access the content on multiple devices through her browser.
  • Andrew Phuong (student at UC Berkeley) benefits from bi-modal presentation–listening and reading at the same time–when engaging with his texts to support his learning disabilities. Having access to OCRed PDFs and MP3s without always having to depend on the alt media office makes him feel like a more autonomous, independent learner.
  • Professor Scott Brag (Medical University of South Carolina, College of Pharmacy) downloads his lecture content in MP3 form to review for clarity so that his students can access his course materials in high-quality audio while driving or reviewing for an exam.
  • Sarah Bryan (Transitions Case Manager, College of DuPage) encourages her students with diagnosed anxiety and attention deficit disorders to download the HTML format for a cleaner, less distracting, high-contrast document that they can easily annotate.
2019 Global Ally Usage Data (5.4 million alternative formats downloaded, 579,000 course files altered through the instructor feedback, and 84% of files altered through feedback resulted in an improved accessibility score)

Tackling Tough Accessibility Challenges is a Team Sport

While the campuses we visited anticipated a largely positive response from students about the alternative formats, they expressed some apprehension about how their faculty might respond to the presence of the Ally indicators in their courses. Especially for larger universities, these concerns ranged from not being able to support an increase in service calls to worries that instructors might claim the accessibility checks infringed on their academic freedoms. Yet for institutions like UC Berkeley and the University of Toledo who shared these concerns, they discovered that, upon activating the feedback in all their courses after one semester pilots, their teams were not flooded with support calls or complaints, and their usage data actually revealed many faculty were taking initial steps to improve the accessibility of files in their courses.

The success of these rollout efforts and others we encountered on the Tour were not happy accidents; they were instead the result of strategic planning, messaging, and collaboration. Strategic planning often included leveraging the remixable Communications and Adoption Toolkit to quickly assemble knowledge resources tailored to the institution’s needs, as well as configuring Ally’s Custom Help to streamline and triage help requests from faculty. Successful messaging campaigns have pursued multiple communication channels, such announcements in the LMS, email campaigns, five-minute demos at department meetings, or endorsements from academic leadership, and focused on achieving three key objectives:

  • Clearly states institutional expectations and goals for addressing accessibility issues
  • Guides faculty to content with issues that are easier to fix for immediate impact and to help build confidence, such as their syllabus
  • Helps faculty recognize more challenging accessibility issues can’t be fixed overnight and that may require expertise using specialized tools

To support instructors with those more complex issues, we observed campuses taking advantage of the Ally feedback to mobilize multiple teams across campus in a collaborative effort. For issues like untagged and scanned PDFs of publisher content, institutions such as the Medical University of South Carolina are collaborating with library staff to find accessible alternatives, add library references through Ally, or advocate to publishers about the importance of providing accessible materials. Similarly, teams working on Open Educational Resource (OER) initiatives describe collaborating with faculty to replace proprietary content with free and open content as part of campus affordability efforts. For disability resource offices and access teams, the Ally feedback has been used as a tool for proactively identifying barriers in courses and prioritizing remediation efforts. Even student worker teams are playing a role in making courses more accessible, using the instructor feedback and help documentation to take on remediation tasks that may be too time-consuming or complex for faculty.

Accessibility Data Drives Understanding and Action

For campuses small and large, their journey to inclusion with Ally often begins with and is guided by their Institutional Report. Campus administrators talked about the critical importance of understanding where the barriers exist in their content across the LMS, the types and prevalence of those barriers, and how barriers are changing over time. Perhaps no example illustrates the value of this accessibility data better than our first visit with Atlantic Cape Community College, where, under pressure from a consent decree to reach specific accessibility goals, the institutional report offered the team real-time insights into their accessibility issues to target training and demonstrate progress. 

We also saw institutions leveraging their Institutional Report insights to spark creative accessibility campaigns. During the Fall semester, Grand Valley State University kicked off their first department accessibility competition, awarding a $1,000 scholarship to the department that improved their Ally score the most by using the CSV export in their Institutional Report to track progress and share updates. Beyond just accessibility data, learning technologists like Claire Gardener (University of Derby) discussed using the report for insights into their LMS usage, gaining a clearer picture of the amount and types of content in courses as well as uptake of tools such as quizzes and discussions. With the introduction of the Course Accessibility Report, which provides instructors an overview of their course content and actionable insights into accessibility issues, along with the integration of Ally usage data in the Institutional Report, campuses have more data than ever to pave their road to inclusion.      

Screenshot of usage report for alternative formats with bar graphs showing total downloads, total engagements, and breakdown of types of formats downloaded
Screenshot of Ally usage report displaying alternative format downloads data

And Speaking of Data…

With the Inclusion Van in the shop, the Ally Community is organizing activities for 2020, focused on data and research. During data review sessions on our Tour stops, we shared how the institution’s accessibility numbers compared to our 2017 data study and how their usage data compared to global Ally usage. From these high-level insights, campus administrators have become increasingly curious about how their data compares to other similar institutions as a means of benchmarking their progress and evaluating the success of their roll-out strategies. So, we’ve spent our winter break compiling Full-Time Enrollment (FTE) data, Carnegie Classifications, and other institutional information to begin looking more granularly at trends in accessibility scores and usage.

Our goal for the Ally Community over the next year is to publish a series of whitepapers that can contribute to the emergent body of research related to digital accessibility and Universal Design for Learning. During our monthly office hours meetings, the Ally Community will be working together to compile and share data as well to design and administer surveys on campus. We’ll draw from the rich qualitative data collected during the Tour to contextualize and interpret high-level quantitative findings. Through the sharing of stories and experiences, the 2019 Ally Tour aimed to support campuses as they embarked on their journey to inclusion, and we hope this new phase of research and collaboration in 2020 will propel them further as individual campuses, and advance our collective global mission to foster a more inclusive decade in education.