Accessibility testing with Blackboard Ally

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Wrapped up a sandbox project last week that I have worked on with 5 BC post-sec institutions for the better part of the past year. I’ve coordinated the system wide testing of an accessibility product called Ally with 5 institutions: UBC, VCC, NIC, Langara College & Camosun College.

Ally is an interesting product. An LMS plugin that has three features. For students, it allows them to convert content in the LMS to different formats for accessibility (think transforming a web page into an audio file). For those who build course content, it provides accessibility checks and prompts as they are building course content to make sure that the content being built is accessible. And it has an institutional dashboard that provides reports on all the content within an LMS, useful to get a birds-eye view of how accessible all course content in the LMS is.

While the testing was technical, the results of the testing gathered by the participating institutions contained a lot of feedback that was not about the actual product per se, but rather about the supports and structures required to support rolling out a tool like Ally at an institution. To me, this reflects the type of holistic approach to learning technologies that a contemporary EdTech needs to have – the ability to not only evaluate the technical requirements of a product, but also to understand how this product would fit into existing structures – both technical and cultural – at an institution. What would an instructor building a course think of the prompts that a tool like Ally provides? Would they see it as useful, or a criticism? The way the technology gets rolled out and framed is as critical to an educational technologist as issues of whether or not a technology integrates with an LMS via LTI.

Here is the Executive Summary of the final report (available on the BCcampus website).

Executive Summary

  1. The ability for students to convert learning materials to alternative formats, including translation to another language, was viewed as a highly beneficial feature of Ally, although one institution noted that the language translation may not be quite as accurate as Google Translate.
  2. Course development tools in Ally are very useful in both correcting inaccessible content, and for raising the overall level of awareness within the institution about accessibility issues. However, they could be made even more useful with better integration with existing LMS content creation tools.
  3. With some exceptions, testing institutions noted that the accessibility guidance and feedback provided to course developers in Ally is clear, useful, and instructional.
  4. While the institutional reporting tool is useful, it may be too rigid to provide all the required information institutions would like.
  5. Ally can provide an important avenue for students who do not wish to identify as a student with a disability an option to access services that would normally require them to disclose a disability.
  6. If not rolled out thoughtfully and deliberately, Ally could be viewed by faculty and instructors as an encroachment on their instructional autonomy, or as a criticism of their work.
  7. While generally regarded as a very useful tool in addressing accessibility issues, Ally is viewed as one piece in a wider accessibility strategy within the institution, and one that can prompt wider discussions about the importance of accessibility.
  8. Cost is a significant factor, which provides support that further explorations into the possibilities of a shared system wide shared service and/or license agreement are warranted.

These results have now been shared with our system partners BCNET, who are responsible for shared services in our sector. The idea behind this early testing is to generate some empirical data that they can then use if they want to pursue a potential shared service. The reports are also meant to be useful for other institutions who may be interested in Ally on their own.

While I have done sandbox projects before, this has been the first one where I have worked directly with a commercial vendor, in this case Blackboard, who own the Ally product. It has been a very good experience working with this particular team. I’ve been very impressed by the commitment to accessibility by the Ally team, right from the product developer Nicolaas Matthijs through to the sale team of Billy Gould and Aaron Bond, all of whom worked hard to make this sandboxing happen.

Full reports are available on the BCcampus website.

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