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A More Equal Online Opportunity

SHSU Online courses utilize a healthy amount of multimedia. From images, charts, simulations, and automations, to videos, podcasts, screencasts, and mashups, online courses at SHSU are rich in dynamic content. 

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While the benefits of multimedia inclusion in online courses are documented in the literature, their use can often bring a level of complexity as it pertains to accessibility. Accessibility in higher education is regulated by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, including the 2008 amendments. Increasingly, an emphasis on Universal Design is coming into sharper focus as educational institutions seek out ways to establish equal online opportunity in the delivery of dynamic online content.

While much headway remains to be gained in the establishment of equal online opportunity, a few game-changing technologies have recently entered into the accessibility landscape with the promise of improving access and opportunity for students of all kinds. Last academic year, SHSU Online licensed Ally, a new tool designed to enhance accessibility for files uploaded to Blackboard.

Ally renders alternative formats of files frequently uploaded to online courses. Take, for instance, a PDF of the syllabus. Traditionally, accessibility on PDFs within Blackboard depended largely on the use of screen-readers to convert text to speech (most widely used for students who are deaf).

With Ally, that same PDF not only remains compatible with a screen-reader, but any student can opt to access it in electronic braille, semantic HTML, tagged PDF, or as an .mp3 audio file. Similarly, other types of uploads, such as Microsoft® Word, Microsoft® PowerPoint®, OpenOffice/LibreOffice, and Uploaded HTML, will receive the same type of accessible alternatives.

Providing alternate formats for uploaded files is not only constructive in improving equal online opportunity for students with disabilities, but the practice yields benefits for learners of all kinds. Consider the required use of ramps around campus. Not only are ramps used by persons in wheelchairs, they can also be used by a professor pulling a wheeled bag full of classroom materials, a campus visitor pushing a stroller, an Aramark employee steering a cart full of food, or a custodian negotiating the sidewalks with a utility cart.

Much in the same way, providing alternative formats for files uploaded to Blackboard can prove beneficial for any student. We often receive requests to convert lecture presentations to audio files because students want to listen in on a long commute. Other students prefer to print a transcript of a video, which can be read while the video is playing, or can be read offline.

ally1We are looking forward to integrating Ally across all online courses. A few departments on campus have already reached out to us to launch a special initiative for activating Ally across all courses in their departments.

If you are interesting in learning more about Ally, check out these opportunities: