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Make the Shift to an Inclusive, Accessible Learning Environment with Blackboard

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Technology can help dismantle the barriers to education. In the many years I have advocated the benefits and possibilities presented by digital teaching and learning, I have seen recurring proof of this at institutions around the world.

Since first stepping into the digital teaching and learning arena, I have been a firm supporter of making education available to each and every learner. And over the last few years, galvanised by research and fresh developments, technology has made this possible. New solutions are now being introduced that can create and capably sustain this sort of an inclusive learning environment — an accessible learning environment.

Accessibility, according to the broader definition of the term, entails tailoring products, devices, services or entire environments for a diverse range of users, including people with physical or cognitive disabilities. Accessibility in the context of learning is making content available to all learners, without disadvantaging those with impairments.

The way I see it, to make education accessible is to make it approachable and attainable. This is where Universal Design for Learning (UDL) enters into the picture. UDL is a way of thinking about teaching and learning to give all students equal opportunity to succeed. To become an inclusive campus, accessibility best practices and UDL principles must be built into courses from the start.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than a billion people in the world live with some form of disability. So the importance of accessibility extends beyond a mere check-in-the-box. In fact, accessibility is now becoming mandatory in many parts of the world, and we’re seeing this in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region too. The UAE, for instance, has added accessibility to its national agenda and is making serious efforts to include people with disabilities in mainstream educational settings. Article 12 of the law designed to protect the rights of ‘people of determination’ guarantees them equal opportunities in education.

Meanwhile, the shift to fully remote learning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic has also spurred efforts across the region to improve the accessibility of course content for all learners.

Accessibility is therefore one of our key areas of focus in the MEA region right now. We’re emphasising inclusion in our conversations with our clients. We’re working towards familiarising them with Blackboard Ally, an award-winning and revolutionary solution that integrates seamlessly into the Learning Management System (LMS) and focuses on making digital course content more accessible. It helps institutions improve the student experience by helping them take clear control of course content with usability, accessibility and quality in mind.

Blackboard Ally automatically checks digital course content for accessibility issues and generates alternative formats using advanced machine-learning algorithms. It also provides feedback to guide instructors to improve the accessibility of their course content and institution-wide reporting on course content accessibility.

We have now also launched Blackboard Ally in Arabic for the MEA region. The solution user interface (UI) and alternative file formats — which include mobile-friendly HTML, audio, ePub, electronic Braille, and a language translation version — are now all available to Arabic-speaking learners.

As part of our commitment to the region and our user community (Blackboard Learn users and other Learning Management Systems), our team is working on scaling up accessibility across universities across the Middle East. So far, we have implemented Blackboard Ally at leading institutes who share with us the same message about accessibility such as Zayed University, American University of Cairo, University of Bahrain, and several universities across Saudi Arabia offering thousands of alternative formats downloaded. We have received encouraging feedback from faculty members and students praising Ally for enabling seamless access to course content across devices and for making content more accessible to diverse learners.

Blackboard Ally has also helped the region’s institutions provide a higher quality of online education to their students during the pandemic. At the British University in Dubai (BUiD), Blackboard Ally has enabled a more flexible, more personalised approach and has contributed to the success of their digital teaching and learning.

Blackboard Ally is now also available to public universities in Saudi Arabia through our strategic and long-term partnership with the Saudi Electronic University (SEU) and the Ministry of Higher Education.

We really have seen some gratifying results in the region so far. Accessibility practices have become a natural part of every instructor’s course design workflow. I want to empower institutions across the region with this level of access. That’s the sort of cultural shift we’re hoping to engineer across the MEA region.