Enhanced accessibility with Ally

Enhanced accessibility with Ally

Core Technology Services has recently added a new feature to its Learning Management System that aims to increase the accessibility within its digital content, and it’s already making things a bit easier at some campuses.

Collaborative Learning Manager Patti Heisler said roughly half of the institutions within the North Dakota University System have already signed agreements to implement the tool, which can help make content more universally accessible, including to students who may have disabilities.

“For example, it benefits athletes by giving them the ability to listen to course content rather than read it while en route to a game, or students who commute to school,” Heisler noted. “Ally shared one story where a student who had a three-hour commute to and from school opted to use the Mp3 format so she could listen to the course content while driving. The following semester she was in a course where the instructor wasn’t using Ally and the student explained to that instructor how not using Ally was impacting her. It’s very possible campuses may see students drive its use.”

Campuses that implement Ally will find it straightforward to use. According to Heisler, once a campus has it turned on, they can choose whether to turn the tool on in all courses or give that instructor the capability to make the tool available. Educators might benefit from some training to properly format content to ensure its accessibility is as high as possible.

Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of English Julee Russell is helping drive the pilot implementation of Ally at Valley City State University. She and others see Ally as a significant part of faculty development.

“I think one of the things that stands out is that it’s a tool that’s readily available and easy to use,” Russell noted. “In some cases it can be the fix for the faculty member to make documents in courses even more accessible. I thought that was really neat. Say I assign a novel in a class and someone is traveling or is online, now they can listen to it. Ally turns it into an audio book.”

Russell noted that the tool wasn’t only for students with special needs, it was a way to increase accessible content for everyone. Currently, 18 faculty members at VCSU have been working through the options for about a month across 52 different courses. According to Russell, the internal measurement regarding course accessibility was really easy to read, with faculty members gaining instant feedback when they post new content.

Once turned on, Ally would provide a flag – represented as a dial – on content uploaded by the instructor. Orange dials would represent limited accessibility, while green dials would represent heightened accessibility. This is accomplished through Ally automatically checking course materials against WCAG 2.0 accessibility standards.

While green dials on content could represent the heightened accessibility, recommendations might still be available. Heisler provided one such example, of a PDF containing images that were missing descriptions. For students with visual impairments, for instance, that would translate to missing content and lower accessibility.

“Ally provides guidance to instructors on how to make improvements to their content,” Heisler said. “To make my PowerPoint better, Ally shows me how and I can upload a new PowerPoint right here!”

Additionally, the new tool allows students to download the content in an alternative format, such as a tagged PDF, HTML, ePub (for eReaders), Electronic braille, or audio.

“As a student, when I log in, I can click an arrow that corresponds with a content item and see the option for alternative formats,” Heisler stated, noting that once the required format was selected the conversion would automatically begin before downloading into the default My Downloads folder. “The initial process takes a bit but as subsequent students access the same file it goes much quicker.

As with many accessibility features, plenty of supporting documentation exists for students, faculty and administrators to tailor content to current needs – which should be helpful once Ally finds more widespread implementation.

“We’re hoping to get more of the campus involved by the fall, with the hope that we could turn it on for every class by spring,” Russell said. “We’ll need to come up with some sort of policy parameters around degrees of accessibility so that everyone is strongly encouraged to make their materials as accessible as possible.

“It levels the playing field and makes it equal for everybody,” Russell added. “That makes it important. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can use this tool to help us.”