Teaming up with University of Texas Arlington on Innovating higher ed technology for students with sight disabilities: Q&A with Kent Pawlak, Senior Director of Platform Strategy


Last semester, the Campus Enablement product team at Blackboard had the privilege of working with the University of Texas Arlington senior engineering students on a final team project prior to graduation. The senior design project is a chance for students to work in teams to create solutions to real-world problems and provides them with valuable experience in the engineering design process from start to finish. It also provides exposure to real-life work responsibilities like deadlines, workflows and other situations they will encounter in their careers.

Kent Pawlak, Senior Director of Platform Strategy for Blackboard, was onsite for the final project presentation at the University of Texas Arlington. Read the Q&A below to see how the team was able to take an existing Blackboard product and make it useful for persons with sight disabilities. Watch footage of the final presentation filmed at The University of Arlington Texas.

Q: What Blackboard product was the senior design team working on and why did you select this product?
A: The team worked on an application that could be installed in the Blackboard PR5000, a point-of-sale kiosk device, that allows for access to persons with sight disabilities. This was a goal of Blackboard to provide a product to meet this need and where we had a gap in our product line. It has been difficult to provide a modern touchscreen based application that fully meets accessibility demands.

Q: Why is it important for Blackboard to develop higher education technology for persons with sight disabilities.?
A: All students should have equal opportunity to be self-sufficient in a positive, safe learning environment. It’s important to Blackboard to provide solutions to campus administrators that permit them to serve all students.

Q: What do you think was the most challenging project objective for the team?
A: The biggest challenge to the team was gaining the proper perspective to design a solution that really met the needs of the intended users. The student team did a great job of visiting with a local school for the blind, interacting with the campus Office for Students with Disabilities, and conducting independent research. In addition, the team worked with Accessibility experts at Blackboard to ensure they were considering all facets of use cases.

Q: What feedback do you expect to get from students with sight disabilities?
A: The best feedback would be no feedback. If a student is able to use the device after an initial tutorial with no additional questions, then our solution is a success. The most positive feedback we can get is that students are able to use the reader to do laundry with no assistance.

Q: What advice would you give a university who is interested in enabling accessibility technology on their campus?
A: Our intention is to help campuses serve all students and meet the reasonable needs for all segments of the campus population.

Q: How was the process of working with the Engineering team at the University of Texas Arlington?
A: This was a very rewarding exercise. The students were eager to learn and jumped on every suggestion with a detailed research project. It was a great project in that it involved application software, hardware and cloud services. In addition, designing an application to serve both sighted and sight impaired students with equal ease provided a great skill set useful in any future career path.

See below the video with more details and footage of the final presentation filmed at The University of Texas Arlington.