Accessibility in digital content is one of the tenets of many client’s needs. A good LMS provider will work towards making the platform a ‘one-stop shop’ where all the necessary tools for instruction are tightly integrated and work together to provide a solution well beyond just the LMS—something that’s often referred to as the learning ecosystem. Additionally, open-source LMSs are particularly good at offering the type of flexibility education institutions need right now, including transparency and cost efficiency for them to focus on what they do best: teaching and learning.
As the LMS has been relatively commoditized in the sense that there’s feature parity when comparing LMSs, what distinguishes one platform from another is the level of service and effective application integration into the ecosystem. This includes having access to the tools that will make digital content accessible for all learners, a key priority and trend for educators today.
Mind the Gap of Accessibility in Education
During the pandemic, there was a significant struggle that occurred in terms of equitable access to learning across the globe, for many reasons. One of the gaps evidenced by education professionals was the lack of accessibility in learning environments and materials.
In the past, we’ve heard that accessibility in education is not about students with disabilities. Instead, it’s about making course content that’s accessible in multiple formats for a wide range of learners—including those with disabilities. It’s evident, however, that the shift to remote instruction in the past year greatly affected many students, including those with disabilities. Course content that didn’t always work with their assistive technology, screen readers, or the physical hardware devices that were used to interact with the content, are just some of the reasons why students struggled.
Overall, education institutions also struggled to support students effectively, due to the major gap between students’ needs and the knowledge and resources available (both monetary and technology-wise). From limited access to high-speed internet to limited access to computers, many students throughout the pandemic simply didn’t have proper access to learning.
The Diverse 21st-Century Learning Needs
When we think about the divide between students and learning content, education institutions must work closely with tech providers to bridge the gap as much as possible. The gap includes all types of students in today’s diverse 21st-century learning needs, including:
- those with disabilities
- mature students that are returning to upskill or reskill
- fully-mobile users that are doing everything from their phone (as is the case in many parts of the world)
- professionals trying to advance in their careers by taking courses in their spare time
- Full-time parents or caregivers trying to gain education credentials
- and many more
So, as we think about learners today, we need to think about a more inclusive learning environment and providing digital content that meets the needs, devices, and preferences of all learners.
Accessibility impacts engagement for ALL users. A 2017 study measured user engagement with more accessible website content. One of the key takeaways from the study was that when students have access to high-quality digital materials, it’s significantly easier for them to retain information and complete tasks faster and more effectively.
If education professionals strive to create high-quality digital materials and impact how well students can potentially learn and engage in class, instructors can truly impact learning for all types of learners.
Making Course Content More Accessible Through Technology
Blackboard Ally is an LMS-agnostic solution that integrates with Moodle™. It exists to make all content more accessible in three ways:
1) Provide alternative formats: If an instructor has loaded content into the LMS that’s not screen reader-friendly or has some accessibility issues, Blackboard Ally will automatically scan the content using machine learning algorithms and will generate a number of alternatives to the instructor’s original material. There are over 80 items that are checked by the technology, depending on the source material, which can then be converted into a more accessible version. Some of the alternative formats it provides include:
- Mobile-friendly HTML
- OCRd PDF
- Electronic braille
- Translated version
2) Provide Instructor feedback: There are many faculty that are moving online for the first time and accessibility might be something new. Blackboard Ally provides feedback to instructors about the accessibility of the content, guidance on how to fix accessibility issues, and assistance in generating awareness in a change of behavior over time.
3) Provide institutional reporting: Administratively, understanding and being aware of accessibility issues with the LMS has often been a challenge for institutions. By leveraging reporting within Blackboard Ally, education institutions can have a more proactive approach to accessibility. The reporting will:
- Provide a detailed understanding of how the institution is doing in terms of accessibility
- Help identify where the problem areas are, what to focus on, and where to target remediation
- Offer a means of tracking progress over time
Focusing on enabling access for people with disabilities, or special needs, or enabling access through the use of assistive technology.
Findings from Coastal Carolina University
Coastal Carolina University (CCU) is a traditional liberal arts higher education institution in the United States with over 11,000 students, 47% of whom are out of state. As an institution that uses Moodle™, it has a large presence of online and blended learning. Over the past three years, CCU has used Blackboard Ally and has experienced some interesting wins in terms of accessibility in course content. These include:
- 10% overall increase in digital content accessibility
- 50% conversion rate accomplished by instructors making changes to their content based on Blackboard Ally recommendations
- 4,000+ document accessibility fixes completed over the last year
- 30,000 student downloads of alternative course content formats over the last year
As a way to promote and increase accessibility usage across the campus, CCU ran a “Fix Your Content Day” initiative sponsored by Blackboard Ally in May 2020. CCU ranked 18th globally for its efforts, using the dedicated day to celebrate digital accessibility for all learners. During a 24-hour period, university staff ensured they made alternative format changes to content, including adding alternative image tags, and many other fixes to courses in order to improve the overall accessibility experience for students.
Accessibility is for the entire learner population, not just students with disabilities. With the right accessibility technology, digital content will be created with universal design in mind, built to be simple for faculty, administrators, and for students to be able to learn from any device, any time.
This blog post is based on an Open LMS webinar session that occurred on March 17, 2021. Watch the full session here.