Blackboard is clearly deciding to emphasize its focus on accessibility. One of its newest products, called the Blackboard Ally, promises to look into the content of courses and identify the accessibility concerns that need to be addressed.

Blackboard Is Committed To Accessibility

To their credit, the folks behind Blackboard LMS are doing their best to make their platform accessible. Their goal is to ensure that all of their “products are designed and developed in accordance with the internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA as well as the Section 508 standards in the United States.”

The three goal they list on their main accessibility page seem to further confirm this. They call their offering the Blackboard Ultra Experience. Their page on their platform accessibility features is fairly standard. Not bad, but nothing impressive either.

So while Blackboard and control the platform, they don’t regulate the content that is provided on it. That was the gap their new tool is meant to fill.

Blackboard’s Ally Promises Greater Accessibility

Blackboard is promising that their new Ally too will provide insight by institutions, instructors, and designers about the accessibility concerns of their online courses. It will also provide suggestions for how the course content could be fixed.

Their goal is to solve the issue of accessibility in courses by addressing three key problems:

  1. Courses have a lot of content and it takes time to ensure that all content is accessible.
  2. A lack of understanding by designers and instructors about what needs to be made accessible and how to do it.
  3. Content not made accessible can delay students in learning.

How Does Blackboard Ally Work?

Machine learning meets course accessibility. Blackboard is promising that the new tool can scan all of the course content and provide accessibility where it can, and suggest changes where it can’t make the change itself.

Blackboard describes it more fully as:

Blackboard Ally will automatically run all course materials through an accessibility checklist that checks for common accessibility issues. Using advanced Machine Learning algorithms, Ally will also generate a range of more accessible alternatives for the instructor’s original and will make these available to all students in the course. These alternative accessible formats include Semantic HTML, audio, ePub, and electronic braille.

Marketing Vs Reality?

It is clearly in Blackboards’ best interest to market their accessibility features. As a company who is committed to this, it helps them stand out from the other learning management systems competing in this space. The other major LMS competitor for higher education is Canvas LMS. They too have an accessibility page that provides their goals and guidelines for course design. How does this stack up to Blackboard’s accessibility offerings? Besides the existence of Blackboard Ally, they are both providing guidance for their users.

Blackboard takes it a step further with their Blackboard Ally, a tool for checking accessibility of course content.

The Problem With Blackboard’s Accessibility

There is a fundamental problem with Blackboard’s accessibility and its new Ally tool. They provide insight into concerns and suggestions on how the content could be fixed. That is where the tool stops, how it could be fixed. Accessibility demands extra effort on the part of the designers and instructors. That means that they have to take the time to add in the Alt Text to images and to make sure PDFs are built with embedded OCR. Blackboard, like all LMSs, don’t actually prevent an image from being uploaded if it does not meet accessibility standards.

An alternative, and perhaps easier, way to meet the goal of providing accessible courses and content is to make accessibility features, like Alt Text mandatory for any image uploaded to Blackboard.

Their new Ally tool will automate the process as much as possible. Yes, it is impressive and promises to solve many accessibility concerns. However, until accessibility is mandatory, human error will always create gaps in accessibility in online courses.