Blackboard Ally scholarship aims to increase course accessibility


COURTESY \ Amanda Pitts

Audrey Whitaker, Staff Reporter

The eLearning and Emerging Technologies department at Grand Valley State University began the College of Liberal Arts and Science (CLAS) Scholarship Competition Sept. 25. The competition will end Nov. 6, said eLearning and Instructional Technology Specialist Sherry Barricklow.

The competition will award $1,000 to the department that shows the greatest percent increase in accessible course content by Nov. 6, said Associate Director Eric Kunnen.

Blackboard Ally is a tool that instructors use to gauge the accessibility of any documents uploaded to their course. Accessibility is represented by a gauge and gives step-by-step instructions on how to improve the accessibility of the materials. The closer the dial is to green, the more formats will be available, thus the more accessible the content will be.

“When a faculty member looks at their course we see these dials,” Barricklow said. “These indicate the level of accessibility. When you look at this from a student’s point of view, Ally helps to break (a document) into various formats, such as audio, an MP3 file, braille or an EPUB to read on other devices.”

Kunnen and Barricklow both emphasized the idea of universal design for learning, meaning that while supplying alternative formats of assignments will help students with disabilities, it will also be useful to students and faculty without.

“The goal is to make all of our (course) documents more accessible to absolutely everyone,” Barricklow said.  “It goes so much broader than just the intended purpose.”

CLAS Dean Frederick Antczak said that the issue of accessible learning material has been important to him as dean for over 16 years. CLAS and IT have been leaders in creating accommodations that are inclusive of faculty and students who need them to teach and learn, Antczak said.

“I hope it teaches everyone that if you’re willing to change just a little with the opportunities that technology brings, it can make big differences for lots of students,” Antczak said.  “Why keep an unproductive habit when what you’re changing to will be just as easy and a little more effective? That’s a lesson for students at least as much as professors.”

The eLearning department is working with CLAS on the competition in order to enhance the learning experience of students at GVSU. Kunnen said that he hopes the competition will raise awareness of Blackboard Ally and how to use it among faculty, as it is a relatively new resource at GVSU.

“One of the reasons why we purchased Ally was because Grand Valley is all about inclusive education,” Kunnen said. “We have values around inclusion and equity and diversity, removing obstacles, removing barriers and increasing the inclusiveness of access to courses.”

Antczak said that much like the competition, the award money will be used by the winning department to enhance teaching and learning for students.

“Let’s face it: $1,000 is a small amount for faculty who bring in million-dollar grants,” Antczak said. “The real prize is enhancing your students’ learning.”