Delivering an Inclusive Learning Environment during a Pandemic – University of Lincoln

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For the past 16 years, the Catalyst Awards program has honored innovation and excellence in the Blackboard global community. In this series, a group of 2021 winners from across the globe shares their success stories and best practices.

This post was guest authored by Andy Beggan, Dean of Digital Education and Michael Shaw, Digital Education Consultant, who both work within Digital Education at The University of Lincoln, UK.  

University of Lincoln is a 2021 “Inclusive Education” Catalyst Award winner. 

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With the implementation of the EU Accessibility Directive 2016, all public sector websites created after 23rd  September 2018 had to be accessible by 23rd September 2019 and existing websites complying by 23rd September 2020. At the University of Lincoln, we interpreted, like many across the UK HE sector, that this requirement also extended to Blackboard and the learning resources published to it. Appreciating that inclusive learning content benefits everyone–it is easier to understand, more organised, and allows you to reach a wider audience with more flexible and adaptive content–it was, therefore, a moral, legal, and pedagogical driver to enhance the accessibility of all our learning resources.   

To address this, we undertook a strategic and coordinated series of activities to enhance awareness and adoption of accessible practice in design and delivery. Institutionally guided by a cross function steering group (with academic, student and professional service representation), the team has delivered a step-change in the adoption and use of accessible learning, building upon the accessible features inherent within our digital learning ecosystem, embedded re-usable exemplars, and targeted support activities. 

Implementing Inclusivity by Default 

Our aim was, at the outset, to implement an inclusive learning digital ecosystem for the upcoming academic year (AY2021). This necessitated a tangible change in behaviour to support the creation of digital content that delivered our pedagogic driving principles of a clear, consistent, and coherent learning journey for all our students. To achieve these aims, we: 

  • Implemented new template structures onto all Blackboard module sites, enhanced with re-usable accessible components to inspire and provide productivity benefits (especially for such a challenging period when everyone was working remotely during COVID-19), 
  • Launched institution-wide mandatory training on accessibility and released support resources for staff and students on accessibility, 
  • Implemented an institutional roll-out of Blackboard Ally, promoting its benefits as a support tool for staff and alternative formats for students.  

The impact was immediate, and we were very pleasantly surprised to see an almost doubling in the level of accessible learning resources (42.5% increase) over the previous average accessibility score of learning materials in just one year. We also saw a rapid increase in the adoption of captions on our video learning resources (on one instance over 30% when compared to the same month the previous year). Even more impressive, due to the national lockdown in the UK, was that the number of digital resources uploaded to Blackboard increased by 47%. 

What did we do? 

To begin with, the University senior management supported the implementation of mandatory accessibility training for all staff. The e-learning module was launched in September 2020 and sought to enhance a greater appreciation and understanding of the unintended impact of our own common behaviours when creating web-based resources. Using a series of realistic scenarios, empathy and understanding of accessibility challenges faced by staff and students were developed, enhanced with an explanation of simple, easy to implement fixes which could be adopted as a solution (see link to an open access version: An Introduction to Accessibility for the Web). The course, itself, covers core fundamentals of digital accessibility, including document (and PDF) formatting, image alt-text, colour and contrast, video captioning (via Panopto), etc. The full course also features specific training on the use of Blackboard Ally. 

We also launched corresponding Creative Commons learning materials in the form of an Accessibility Toolkit, freely available online and promoted as a resource to support and extend the mandatory training. Elements of the toolkit were built and presented using Microsoft Sway, demonstrating a platform that staff can use for information dissemination that features built-in accessibility tools for the viewer.  

To help students to succeed and utilise the features of Blackboard Ally, the Digital Education and Student Life team produced a series of student-facing video content titled Blackboard Productivity Hacks (YouTube). These videos, created by students for students, highlight the features of Blackboard Ally alternative formats to not only support those with additional learning needs, but how alternative formats can support all students. This is beneficial to highlight, not only as a learning tool, but also to normalise the use of assistive technology and promote an inclusive culture. 

Templating Blackboard Sites 

Finally, we turned to our Blackboard sites for the upcoming academic year and explored options to embed accessibility features by default. Our digital education principles promote “consistency, clarity and coherence,” which are at the core of our Blackboard Guidance (published openly on this website). To underpin these principles, re-usable accessible components, shared as “Blackboard Recipes,” were launched by embedding within templates on every module site for 2020/21.

Through an innovative approach to Blackboard templating, we created re-usable accessible components, aligned to student learning activities, that served as a shortcut for staff to apply to their own sites. Envisioned as an inspiration tool with the opportunity for rapid content creation opportunity, the re-usable components could be easily applied by copying the content item and modifying the placeholder text. Staff could draw inspiration on the format, presentation, and design of their modules from the “Recipe” examples. 

Worked examples and templated components for structuring and implementing learning activities were installed on every module site in a dedicated “Blackboard Recipes” area visible only to staff. “Recipe” items were categorised under “Scaffolding and Narrative Flow” (for structuring a clear learning journey), or the categories of learning activity according to Laurillard’s Conversational Framework (website), in line with the curriculum design approach implemented at Lincoln. The “Recipe” items ensure that each learning activity is clearly and consistently structured within the relevant learning and assessment outcomes, that student expectations are clearly stated, and that relevant support links are signposted.  

The underpinning pedagogical framework encourages a wide range of learning activities and supports a variety of learners. The “Recipes” all demonstrate accessible HTML (WYSIWYG) content on Blackboard with appropriate headings, colour/contrast, and image descriptions. 

Take-aways 

The results have seen a step-change in the adoption and implementation of accessible practice across our digital learning ecosystem, especially within Blackboard. We are keen to collaborate with colleagues across the sector and invite you to view and reuse any of the materials shared below. 

An Introduction to Web Accessibility Mandatory Training 

Accessibility Toolkits 

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Watch their story here.

For more information visit our Catalyst Awards Page.