After two months of travel around the US on the Blackboard Ally Tour, we flew across the Atlantic Ocean on April 22nd to kick off the European Leg of the Tour. Beginning at Regent’s University in London, we visited nine universities over three and a half weeks, wrapping up at Northumbria University on May 10th. We shared what we learned from our visits at the European Teaching and Learning Conference and as part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day on May 16th.
Working Towards the Web Accessibility Directive
So what did we learn on our journey? To meet the requirements of the Web Accessibility Directive, which will go into enforcement on September 23rd 2019 in the European Union, universities are ramping up their efforts to address accessibility barriers across the institution. The Directive specifically requires institutions take a more proactive approach in identifying and improving the accessibility of digital learning content in the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). To help universities meet the directive, the white paper by the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Assistive Technology (APPGAT) advises:
Recommendation 14: “Colleges and universities should audit the accessibility of their VLE and make a public timeline and plan for addressing different types of pre-existing inaccessible content.”
Recommendation 15: “Colleges and universities should set targets for training and raising awareness among content creators, including academic staff. In order to reach all content creators within the required timeframe.”
During our visits with universities, we learned how institutions are using Blackboard Ally to implement these recommendations. Because the Institutional Report provides universities with detailed insight about content accessibility at both the course-level and issue-level, universities can design a data-informed strategy, and then track their progress down to the document-level. At the University of Reading, Senior TEL advisor Maria-Christiana Papaefthimiou described how they will work with the library and disability offices to identify high-need courses, and use the institutional report to design a messaging and professional development plan to best support those instructors improve the accessibility of their learning materials.
Helping instructors address accessibility issues with course content does not imply fixing files for them, as such an approach leaves institutions in an unsustainable reactive position. Instead, instructors need to develop an understanding about how to effectively use authoring and accessibility tools so that universal design becomes an integral part of their pedagogical approach. Co-leader of the Blackboard Ally European User Group, Claire Gardener of the University of Derby explained to us during our Tour visit that they want academics to use the Instructor Feedback to build their awareness around accessibility issues, and use the built-in tutorials and feedback to ensure that new content they add to the VLE meets accessibility standards. At the University of Kent, a review of their Blackboard Ally usage data during our Tour visit illustrated that instructors are already taking actionable steps to fix accessibility issues. Instructional technologist Daniel Clark noted, “Academics are acting upon their documents within the VLE and making positive changes, and improving the accessibility scores. It’s really great to see.”
“With new material, I look to see how I can make it accessible right from the beginning… I made an effort this academic session to go into a number of my previous PowerPoint presentations, and try to improve those. I decided it was sensible to aim for improvement rather than perfection… It’s about continuously trying to improve.”Professor Alison Jenkins, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, University of Aberdeen
Supporting Changing Student Needs
For the instructional technologists and academic leadership teams we talked to during the Tour, the goal of becoming a more inclusive campus goes beyond meeting policy requirements, as institutions reimagine the educational experience in an increasingly global, digitized higher education landscape. Fiona Shelton, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, cited motivational research in our conversation, which finds that fostering a sense of belonging can be an important performance motivator. Ensuring diverse students feel empowered to participate in the learning environment, therefore, can impact their success in university and in the workplace. During our visits, we also heard from universities about how their students are using the alternative formats. Between March 17, 2018 and May 15, 2019, European campuses alone downloaded over 160,000 alternative formats from Blackboard Ally. Senior TEL advisor at the University of Reading, Jackie Fairbairn reported how during focus groups, students lauded the “immediacy” of the alternative formats to meet their learning preference, as well as the value of the audio format such as when time-pressed during finals. For Reading graduate student Mariwan Inferadi, the alternative formats have allowed him to engage with content using his screen reader that he could not access in previous semesters. Universities are working towards providing more inclusive learning environments where students feel empowered to be independent, autonomous, and self-reflective learners.
“Just providing choices to people, which we haven’t had in the past, I think that’s a real benefit… They can choose to make it into a sound file or an HTML document. From an academic’s perspective, that’s just wonderful because it’s giving students the autonomy to use the materials in ways that suit them best.”Professor Claire Furneaux, Dean of Teaching and Learning, University of Reading