UP pilots new software to make digital content more accessible

27th August 2021 By: Marleny Arnoldi - Creamer Media Online Writer

The University of Pretoria (UP) has launched a pilot of software among a small group of subtends and academics, which aims to make digital courses more accessible to all students.

UP is the first higher education institution to partner with education technology software company Blackboard, which developed the Ally solution, which integrates seamlessly into most learning management systems.

UP Department for Education Innovation deputy director Dolf Jordaan says the adoption of Ally will foster an inclusive learning environment for the university’s nearly 55 000 students.

The software will enable students with learning disabilities, as well as second-language students, to improve their academic performance. It automatically checks digital files for accessibility issues and generates alternative formats, including HTML, ePUB, audio and electronic braille, which are engineered to work better with assistive mobile devices and study tools.

Ally also provides feedback to instructors so they can improve the accessibility of their course material.

While the focus is on content accessibility, all students, including first-generation ones, may benefit from accessing learning content in alternative formats.

Students with inconsistent Internet access may be able to use offline, low-bandwidth formats, and those with undiagnosed learning disabilities could benefit from downloading an audio MP3 format file to listen to content.

Academic staff, on the other hand, will use the software to improve the accessibility of their digital learning content and as a catalyst to create more equitable opportunities for all students.

It will also boost digital accessibility across devices, in line with the university’s hybrid learning environment and strategies to improve student success.

“Ally has helped institutions to identify and resolve accessibility issues and has boosted student experience and performance,” notes Blackboard Europe, Middle East and Africa VP Oleg Figlin.

Thousands of educators, administrators and learners across 800 schools and higher education institutions worldwide are now reaping the benefits of increased accessibility using the Ally software.

The solution has processed more than 70-million courses and has scanned over two-billion content items.

UP Academic VP Professor Norman Duncan says the university’s goal is to build an inclusive digital learning environment to honour diversity.  

“We strive for excellence in teaching and learning. In the contemporary world, accessibility to digital content is not a luxury but a necessity. Meeting accessibility standards is a must, especially given the increasing ubiquity of online learning technologies,” he explains.

Meanwhile, alongside the introduction of Ally, the UP Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication has developed a digital accessibility course, which aims to create awareness among academic staff of the need to design accessible digital materials and give them the skills to make digital content more accessible from the outset.

Head of the centre, Dr Alecia Samuels, says UP has about 1 000 students with declared disabilities, but many more second-language students are likely to benefit from enhanced accessibility.

For example, she says that by adding text/closed captioning to videos, it makes the content more accessible.

UP Department for Education Innovation director Professor Gerrit Stols concludes that the university partnered with Blackboard two decades ago to provide an educational technology ecosystem to support the institutional hybrid learning model and student success.

“With the onset of lockdown in 2020, the transition to online learning was less daunting than it may have been for other universities. Adding accessibility features to enhance digital content will assist UP to proactively identify barriers to digital content for all students.

“We want to ensure that no student is left behind in their studies.”