Making Accessibility Accessible at GVSU with Blackboard Ally

On November 14, 2018, Sherry Barricklow and Eric Kunnen delivered a webinar for the Michigan Blackboard Users Group (miBUG) on the topic of accessibility and the implementation of Blackboard Ally to support GVSU’s work in supporting inclusive education.

The session was recorded and information is also available from the miBUG Bb Community site.

Here are the session slides that were presented during the webinar:


EDUCAUSE Highlights the Best Thinking in HigherEd IT

SherThis post is brought to you by Sherry Barricklow, eLearning and Instructional Technology Specialist.

The EDUCAUSE Annual Conference is one of the largest higher education technology events, bringing faculty, staff, instructional designers, technologists, and vendors together to share best practices.  This years themes included sessions in the following tracks:

  • Creating a Culture of Data-Informed Decision-Making
  • Evolving Infrastructure and Enterprise IT
  • Exploring Innovation in Teaching and Learning
  • Leading and Partnering Across the Institution
  • Managing and Reducing Information Technology Risk
  • Transforming the Student Experience

Here are a few of the sessions I attended:

  • Digital storytelling and Education Technology:  The State of the Art
    Bryan Alexander and Mark Corbett Wilson

    This session was excellent in reinforcing the concept of digital storytelling from both the instructor and student perspective.  Alexander was animated in describing the long-tern retention of details in any subject when the faculty member uses a storytelling multi-sensory format vs a lecture style.

    He also discussed the concept of enhanced learning for students to internalize the materials they were to learn about and distill them into digital storytelling. Along with content acquisition, students learned skills/abilities as they assembled their materials to tell the story.

    Fun link

  • Eavesdropping on America’s Conversation of Race
    Michele Norris
    Michele Norris discussed The Race Card Project and how six-word snapshots paint a vivid picture of America’s attitudes and experiences about race during a fascinating moment in American history. Michele has a project site with more information.
  • Open-Source Tools for Auditing and Inspecting Web Accessibility

    This session focused on a variety of tools that can be used to check for accessibility.

    Open-Source Tools and Session Slides

  • Talking to Our Colleagues About Universal Design for Learning
    Tom Tobin
    Instead of ADA think Re-Framing UDL Focus on Mobile Learners.  Instead of talking about the students with exceptions, Talk about how it is a way to reach out to our students on their mobile devices.

    Most student students have a smartphone 93%

    “Aim for progress not perfection…”

  • Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast Transformation of Culture through IT
    Mojgan Amini, Laura Boehme, Todd Migliaccio, Jen Schwedler

    This session spent time polling the audience.  Here are some of my favorite responses and buzz phrases:

    Failure is also information.

    IT is the sticky-ness of the organization

    What percentage of strategic initiatives fail and what is failure and success?

    Check and double check for the Organizational technology Readiness

    If the administration does not have a willingness to invest in training is hard to convince Faculty and Staff that it is very important.

    Define the culture so you can move forward and get ideas out it a way that makes sense to the end users.

    Look at this as a business process > (not the shiny tools)

    Define what is success?  It is not 100% adoption.


  • Secret Decoder Ring
    Presented by Sarah Miller (U of Wisconsin-Madison) and Cody Connor (Purdue)
    Explore Faculty Roadblocks

    Examine How Faculty Communicate

    Identify Key Challenges in your Community

    Identify Strategies

    Share Institutional Examples

    Distillation of all the conversation:   Faculty must feel supported and that they can get help, when needed, to move forward in adopting technology.

    • What issues might be contributing to each situation?
      • Change is difficult and scary
      • Change takes times
      • Fear of failure and embarrassment
      • Not convinced that active learning will have desired outcomes
      • Belief students like traditional
      • Student evaluation process and the validity of use of active learning
      • Not have the technology support.  Not the active learning tools.

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative “2018 Key Issues” meet the Initiatives in eLearning at GVSU

Since 2011, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) has compiled a list of  “Key Issues in Teaching and Learning” [See Infographic]. These key issues assist in our work in eLearning and Emerging Technologies to discover and identify common trends that are impacting higher education in the areas of teaching and learning.

educause eli key issues 2018

In this post, 11 ELI key issues are presented, along with the role of eLearning and Emerging Technologies as it relates to supporting and responding to each issue.

  1. Academic Transformation and Faculty Development

    The eLearning team at GVSU is focused on both of academic transformation as well as faculty professional development as we strive to:

    “Support faculty pursuing innovation in teaching and learning…”

    Instructional technology and new pedagogies are the eLearning team’s focus as we provide creative professional development coupled with enterprise campus technology resources in an effort to create the next generation of teaching and learning – all in support of student success.

    In fact, eLearning aligns with GVSU’s 2021 Strategic Plan in the following areas that support academic transformation and innovative faculty development:

    Institutional outcome D: Grand Valley supports innovative teaching, learning, integrative scholarly and creative activity, and the use of new technologies.

    Objective 1.D.2: At least 93% of faculty members regularly use electronic course management tools, such as Blackboard, in their teaching.

    Objective 3.D.2: At least 30% of undergraduate courses are offered in innovative approaches and formats, such as hybrid, online and competency-oriented.

    Objective 3.D.3: At least 30% of graduate courses are offered in innovative approaches and such as hybrid, online and competency-oriented.

    Objective 4.D.1: Effective technologies are integrated into every function and structure across the institution.

    For many institutions, in addition to individual consultations, training sessions and seminars are often provided to faculty as part of a professional development program. To successfully engage faculty at GVSU, the eLearning team offers a wide array of sessions that focus on best practices in the application of technologies to solve instructional problems. Throughout the academic year, the eLearning and Emerging Technologies team provides over 80 training seminars covering a large scope of instructional technology topics are offered to faculty. These seminars are centered on the effective pedagogical integration of technology in teaching with the goal of enhancing student success.

    Further, the eLearning team facilitates faculty learning communities on the topic of online teaching and learning as well as hosting regular weekly open office hours to connect directly with faculty. Finally, each year, the eLearning team organizes the Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium to provide a venue to showcase innovative pedagogical practices.

  2. Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

    Accessibility and UDL continue to be important key issues and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies team supports these initiatives through faculty professional development and shared resources along with collaborative services with the Disability Support Resources department. Blackboard Ally was adopted and put into production at GVSU in the summer of 2018 to: generate awareness, build capacity, and increase institutional oversight of accessibility. In addition, Panopto was implemented to provide video caption capability for faculty who are using instructional video content in their teaching. Both Ally and Panopto support the principles of inclusive education through UDL.

    eLearning Web Resource – Blackboard Ally
    eLearning Web Resource – Panopto
    eLearning Web Resource – Universal Design for Learning
    eLearning Web Resource – Accessibility Tips for Online Course Content

  3. Online/Blended Learning and Instructional Design

    Distance education continues to grow at GVSU with a +25% increase in enrollment in online/hybrid classes since 2017.  With over 5,000 student enrollments in the Fall 2018 semester, just over 17% of all students are taking at least 1 online or hybrid course.  To support distance education initiatives, eLearning and Emerging Technologies has trained over 250 faculty to teach online/hybrid classes in the past year through the Foundations of Online and Hybrid Course Development and Delivery course.

    As one of the most desired professional development opportunities, the “Foundations of Online and Hybrid Course Development and Delivery” workshop  is a required training for all faculty that teach an online or a hybrid class at GVSU. As part of this professional development, Blackboard competencies are also required. Faculty must demonstrate basic competency in using the essentials of Blackboard, whereas the Foundations training focuses on best practices in online/hybrid pedagogies.

    All in all, the required Foundations training has led faculty to develop and teach high quality courses at the university. This professional development experience has been created and is delivered entirely through Blackboard, showcasing and modeling best practices, as well as a variety of technology tools that are available to faculty to use in their own teaching.   

    Finally, in order to successfully complete the Foundations training, faculty must create a week of instruction using Blackboard. The week of instruction is peer reviewed using a quality rubric that has been created by the GVSU Online Education Council. This rubric is based on the Blackboard Exemplary Course Program, Quality Matters, 7 principles of good practice in undergraduate education, and Grand Rapids Community College’s course quality review rubric.

  4. Privacy and Security

    One of the key issues in privacy and security is in maintaining the integrity of our enterprise systems while ensuring student privacy. This is also essential when 3rd party technologies are used as part of a course. While encouraging the use of GVSU’s enterprise systems such as Blackboard, the eLearning team has created a few tips for instructors who are using external web services and social media with their students and in their courses.

    IT Resource – CyberSafety
    eLearning Web Resource – Social Media and Third Party Tools in Teaching

  5. Digital and Information Literacies 

    As a liberal arts educational institution, GVSU’s mission is as follows: “Grand Valley State University educates students to shape their lives, their professions, and their societies. The university contributes to the enrichment of society through excellent teaching, active scholarship, and public service.”

    Part of this work is establishing opportunities for students to build literacy and fluency as it relates to the use of everything digital. The eLearning team supports the equipping of students and the campus community in supporting a variety of enterprise applications as well as the advancement of digital fluency through support and infrastructure. Inclusive education and the support for digital media is most notable in the work of the eLearning Digital Studio. The studio maintains a vast project list that provides great breadth and depth of leveraging to technology that contributes to dialogue around 21st century literacy skills for students. Further, the eLearning team is looking into the future by working collaboratively to establish more support for student-based digital media creation at GVSU.

  6. Open Education

    GVSU has been involved in the open education resources (OER) movement for many years, and most recently has seen a growth in the adoption and use of #OER in teaching and learning. For example, there have been several adoptions of OpenStax textbooks in Chemistry and Mathematics and a new interdisciplinary team lead by the university’s library is helping to coordinate resources and raise awareness.

    In fact, GVSU has been participating with the K-12 community through the #GOOPEN initiative as part of the US Department of Education’s goal to encourage states, school districts and educators to use openly licensed educational materials to transform teaching and learning. GVSU joined the K-12 #GOOPEN initiative in January last year.

    Further, there has been activity across the state for several years, and one recent example is the #MIOERSummit, which brought together faculty across the state with the goal of improving student success through the use and adoption of OER. At GVSU, students have saved over $480,000 in textbook costs, with 3000+ course sections each semester that require no paper textbook.

    eLearning Resource – Open Educational Resources (OER)

  7. Integrated Planning and Advising

    GVSU IT supports a variety of student information system initiatives across the university. The eLearning team supports retention and student success through the use of Blackboard automation to make faculty advisors more effective and efficient in communicating with students through the Blackboard Organization Advisor sites. Opportunities exist also to leverage Blackboard Collaborate Ultra for live online counseling and advising.

  8. Learning Analytics

    The opportunities are abound with big data and small data. BIG data, meaning the large scale and mass amounts of data that can inform strategic decisions. Also, SMALL data in the use of course level information about students and their levels of engagement in their courses. Solutions that include early alert, intervention, and that provide student insights empower faculty and advisors with unique capabilties in the support of student retention. Most notable here is “Clicks, Grades, Engagement, and Student Success” whereby, Blackboard has provided research in how successful students are using learning management system tools.

    “The most successful students are those who access MyGrades most frequently; students doing poorly do not access their grades. Students who never access their grades are more likely to fail than students who access them at least once.”

    Big and small data can enable unique solutions that support student success. Applications such as Blackboard Predict which provides capabilities to inform campus advisors with students at-risk through early alert, and also at the individual instructor level through tools like the Blackboard Retention Center.

  9. Learning Space Design

    As the campus continues to create classroom and in-between spaces for students to informally gather and learn, active learning becomes more important and so too the purposeful design of facilities.

    Active learning classrooms provide a unique faculty and student experience as the spaces include flexible and movable furniture and technology to support: 1) a student-centered design, 2) enhance collaboration, 3) increase faculty/student engagement, and 4) improve interaction through dynamic group work and classroom communication.

    IT Resource – Technology Enhanced and Active Learning Classrooms

  10. Emerging Technologies – Technology Showcase

    As part of the eLearning team’s work, the latest emerging technologies are a focus of the Atomic Object Technology Showcase. The mission of the showcase is to provide faculty, staff, and students with an immersive and engaging environment to: interact, discover, learn, and share how innovative emerging technologies can enhance teaching and improve student learning at GVSU. With over 40 emerging technology exhibits that include virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D printing, the showcase is an outstanding and very unique example of education, technology, and innovation.

    While being a spotlight for campus tours, visitors, and also a destination for a variety of classes at GVSU, the showcase also engages with partnerships across the campus. For example, in a unique partnership with the GVSU Art Gallery, the showcase provided an innovative virtual reality experience at the opening reception which was held on January 15, 2018. To celebrate the grand opening of “Ebb & Flow: Explorations in Painting” with art by artist Herbert Murrie, participants were able to create their own painting in a 3D virtual reality experience using Tilt Brush by Google.

    A GVSU campus wide beacon of emerging #edtech, the Technology Showcase has had over 53,000 visitors since 2015, hosting a variety of colleges and university visitors, including most notably the President of the country of Palau who brought with him the United States Secret Service!

    eLearning Resource – Technology Showcase as Engaging Space with Emerging Technologies

  11. Competency-based Education/New Methods of Assessment

    eLearning facilitated the implementation of open badges for faculty professional development with the faculty teaching and learning center and university libraries.  In fact, the first badge awarded at GVSU was eLearning and Emerging Technologies’s “#EdTech Summer Teaching Institute” badge. Further, 7 badges are currently offered by eLearning, including 4 Blackboard badges, a digital media badge, an #EdTech Summer Teaching Institute badge, and a badge for the successful completion of Foundations of Online and Hybrid Course Development and Delivery.

What about you? What are some other key issues or trends that resonate and that bubble up in importance on our campuses? How can we focus more deliberately on supporting student success through innovative technologies and pedagogies?

eLearning Team Supports Online Learning Growth at GVSU

Online and hybrid learning is growing rapidly at GVSU – and the eLearning team is here to support and equip faculty with instructional design, instructional technology, and digital media development assistance.


The eLearning and Emerging Technologies team provides support to faculty at GVSU. Pictured left to right: Vince St. Germain, Matt Roberts, Justin Melick, Colleen Cameron, Sherry Barricklow, Kim Kenward, Katie Clark, Glenna Decker, and Eric Kunnen. (Not pictured: Hunter Bridwell)

As part of the Information Technology Department, eLearning and Emerging Technologies provides a wide array of services and resources designed to facilitate the support of faculty teaching hybrid and online classes as well as to assist faculty in delivering innovative classroom based instruction.

The eLearning and Emerging Technologies team is dedicated to supporting facultycontributing to teaching excellence, and enhancing student success through:


A Growing Demand in Online Learning

In the Fall 2018 semester, student enrollment in online/hybrid courses has risen to 5,318 which represents a 15% growth since Fall 2017.  Looking back to the Fall 2017 semester, GVSU offered over 300 online/hybrid courses, (177 unduplicated), representing a one-year increase of 17%  (from Fall 2016), and significantly, a 78% increase in online enrollment since 2013. In fact, as of the Fall 2018 semester, 17% of all students at GVSU are taking at least 1 online or hybrid course, with 12% of all classes now being offered via distance education.

17% of all students at GVSU (5,318 enrollments) are taking at least 1 online or hybrid course.

Additionally, in the summer 2018 semester, online/hybrid courses contributed to a 4% growth in overall enrollment, with 42% of all enrollment offered as distance education. During the summer, there were nearly 4,000 students in total enrollment, which represented a 10% increase in online/hybrid enrollment since the summer 2017 semester.

High Touch and High Tech

On Friday, August 24, 2018, GVSU President Haas provided the campus with an inspiring lecture for the opening semester faculty/staff address. Focusing on the topics of stewardship, leadership, and innovation, the address also highlighted flexible learning options that meet students’ needs, including online learning while also mentioning the importance of high touch practices through high tech methods.

“We must be responsible to the changing needs of our students… on how we deliver education. Online learning and that becomes more vital to our students… we will not lose our high touch practices as we smartly utilize high tech methods.” – President Haas

GVSU 2021 Strategic Connection

Distance education is connected to the following GVSU strategies with special focus on Objectives 3.D.2 and 3.D.3:

Strategic Priority Area 1: Actively engage learners at all levels.

Institutional outcome D: Grand Valley supports innovative teaching, learning, integrative scholarly and creative activity, and the use of new technologies.

Objective 1.D.2: At least 93% of faculty members regularly use electronic course management tools, such as Blackboard, in their teaching. Baseline: 89% of faculty indicated either daily or weekly use of Blackboard in their teaching according to a GVSU faculty survey conducted winter 2016.

Objective 1.D.3: At least 60% of faculty members use state-of-the art instructional methods in their teaching. Baseline: 47% of faculty members use state-of-the-art instructional methods in their teaching according to a GVSU faculty survey conducted winter 2016. Additional Information Source: Education Center for Analysis and Research preliminary data is being collected for 2014-15, available June 2015.


  • The eLearning team provides support for innovative teaching methods, including the advancement and use of Blackboard.


Strategic Priority Area 2: Further develop exceptional personnel.

Institutional outcome E: Grand Valley strategically allocates its fiscal, human, and other institutional resources.

Objective 2.E.1: At least 75% of faculty and 75% of staff participate in professional development to expand, enhance or extend their competencies and capabilities within the context of the responsibilities of their positions. Baseline for faculty will be determined via Digital Measures in summer 2015. Baseline for Fall 2014 for staff is 50-55%.


  • The eLearning Team provides the facilitation and training of faculty through a variety of seminars, including the Foundations of Online and Hybrid Course Development and Delivery course.


Strategic Priority 3: Ensure the alignment of institutional structures and functions.

Institutional outcome D: Grand Valley supports innovative teaching, learning, integrative scholarly and creative activity, and the use of new technologies.

Objective 3.D.2: At least 30% of undergraduate courses are offered in innovative approaches and formats, such as hybrid, online and competency-oriented. Baseline for undergraduate courses for Fall 2014 is 6%.

Objective 3.D.3: At least 30% of graduate courses are offered in innovative approaches and such as hybrid, online and competency-oriented. Baseline for graduate courses for Fall 2014 is 25%.


  • Key to the advancement of online and hybrid courses, instructional designers in eLearning provide the point of contact for faculty in their work to design distance education courses as well as to facilitate a quality learning experience for students.


The eLearning Team is Here to Help!

If you are new to online learning or a seasoned veteran, the eLearning team is here to help! We provide consultations, faculty learning communities, coaching, and guidance to faculty. Please reach out and connect with us today!


GVSU participates in Blackboard Ally Forum Series Roundtable

On October 31, Eric Kunnen, Associate Director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies, participated in a panel for a Blackboard Ally Forum Series entitled: Heroic-Ally Minded.

Panel Description

Whether you’re considering bringing Ally to your campus, just getting started, conducting your pilot, or going live across campus, our roundtable speakers have seen it all. In our final webinar of the series, Ally campus leaders share their experiences launching Ally on their campus and what they have planned next as they continue on the pathway to inclusion.


  • Dena Coots, Director of Distance Education, Alvin Community College
  • Eric Kunnen, Associate Director eLearning, Grand Valley State University
  • Kim Gelsinger, Director Distance Education, Gaston College
  • Christopher Soran, Director eLearning, Tacoma Community College

Blackboard Ally logo with a city lights backdrop with the words "Heroic-Ally Minded"

Questions/Discussion Topics

  1. What kinds of tools, processes are you putting in place to address accessibility challenges on your campus? What motivated your institution to include Ally as part of this solution?
    GVSU’s accessibility efforts are facilitated through a campus-wide approach that includes a wide array of departments, faculty, and staff. The Division of Inclusion and Equity leads the university’s work in providing a framework for equity and inclusion.

    The university established a web accessibility policy in March 2017, that commits to the academic principles of equity to support an inclusive academic environment.  Much of this work is facilitated by the Web Team in Institutional Marketing to ensure public facing website and digital information is compliant.Focusing on teaching and learning, GVSU’s eLearning team, along with the Disability Support Resources (DSR) office provides accessibility awareness and training for faculty, and accommodation support for students. The eLearning team is committed to empowering faculty and supporting their efforts to leverage technology in teaching and to most effectively and efficiently use technology in an accessible way.

    Finally, GVSU’s Academic Senate established an Accessibility Taskforce to investigate the existing accessibility impediments of faculty and students. This taskforce established Captioned Media Guidelines in November 2017.

    Blackboard Ally was adopted at GVSU to: 1) raise awareness of the importance of accessibility, 2) to build capacity of faculty in creating accessible content, and 3) to offer greater insight of and ADA compliance at the institutional level.

  2. How did you make a “business case” to leadership to purchase Ally?

    Blackboard Ally was a natural fit, culturally and strategically with the university.Inclusive education is embedded in GVSU’s vision statement: “Grand Valley State University demonstrates its commitment to providing an inclusive learning environment where all students can explore new directions, find their niches, and develop skills for life and productive careers.”

    Blackboard Ally contributes to the university’s vision by providing opportunities for generating awareness among faculty through highly visible on screen indicators of accessibility for their files, on demand help and guidance for how to improve their files, and auto-generated alternative formats for students to support universal design for learning principles.

    In addition, GVSU has an “Inclusiveness” value statement whereby: Incorporating multiple voices and experiences by valuing identities, perspectives, and backgrounds. Strengthening and expanding possibilities through technology to increase accessibility and remove barriers.

    Blackboard Ally provides solutions for more effectively managing accessibility of course content, while providing real-time conversion of content for students, and finally establishing an institutional dashboard to best monitor GVSU’s level of accessibility in course content.

    Further, the Blackboard Ally request was aligned to the following GVSU 2021 Strategic Plan objectives:

    Objective 3.B.1: All systems and policies ensure inclusiveness and accessibility.

    Objective 1.D.2: At least 93% of faculty members regularly use electronic course management tools, such as Blackboard, in their teaching.

    Objective 1.D.3: At least 60% of faculty members use state-of-the art instructional methods in their teaching. 

    By providing Ally at GVSU, faculty would be encourage to place their electronic course documents into Blackboard, thereby assisting with Objective 1.D.2.

    Objective 3.D.2: At least 30% of undergraduate courses are offered in innovative approaches and formats, such as hybrid, online and competency-oriented.

    Objective 3.D.3: At least 30% of graduate courses are offered in innovative approaches and such as hybrid, online and competency-oriented.

    As the university expands and grows in online learning (For the Fall 2017 semester, GVSU offered over 300 online/hybrid courses, representing a one-year increase of 17%, and significantly, a 78% increase in online enrollment since 2013.) a solution to assist faculty in creating accessible content is of strategic importance.

  3. How have you supported instructor adoption of Ally? What have been your biggest challenges and successes in motivating/training instructors to fix accessibility issues with their course content?
    At the most basic level, we turned on Ally to make accessibility accessible. Meaning, our focus we to promote through the Blackboard portal and email newsletters of the implementation of a new accessibility solution. One of the challenges has been awareness. Despite a large amount of ongoing email and notification campaigns, many faculty are not aware of the rationale and value of Ally, along with the importance of accessibility overall.We have found that Ally does make faculty take notice as “red” indicators appear along side content.

    All in all, we have found that “faculty don’t like red” and they are encouraged to discover how to improve their files with “green being the goal”. Our eLearning team is continuing to promote the use of Ally as a tool to increase the pathways toward inclusion through accessibility.

  4. What was your process for rolling-out Ally to your campus (eg pilot phases, full roll-out)? How did you inform students/instructors about the availability of Ally?

    In brief, we implemented Ally in a short 2 month time frame. We started by deploying Ally on our test environment, then moved to a pilot with select courses, then enabled Ally site wide. The Fall 2018 semester was the first full semester of deployment.

  5. How (if at all) did you use the institutional report to inform your strategy? How (if at all) do you use the institutional report to track your progress?

    We have used the reporting information to present adoption and usage levels back to the GVSU Budget Committee, Academic Technology Advisory Team, ADA Advisory Council, and our eLearning and Emerging Technologies team. We have also used the reporting information to identify the top 3 accessibility issues so that we can be proactive with tip sheets and to hit these areas during our training sessions with faculty.

    Since deploying Ally in the summer of 2018, there have been 3,734 courses and 203,361 content items checked for accessibility. The top 3 accessibility concerns are: contrast issues, missing headers, and alternative descriptions with non-OCRed documents the most severe concern.

    In 837 courses, students have accessed over 2,800 alternative file formats with PDF being the most commonly downloaded file type. In over 1,000 courses, there have been 2,558 registered clicks on an Ally indicator and 107 faculty have manually improved the accessibility of over 400 files.

    In the first full semester of Blackboard Ally being used in production, GVSU is beginning to move the needle toward improving accessibility with “Green (indicators) being the Goal”.
    Through visibility, faculty, and our eLearning team are aware of the most common accessibility issues. This awareness has contributed to improving accessibility. Since deploying Ally, GVSU’s institutional dashboard has shown an improvement of 16 percentage points. We are beginning to take steps down the pathway to inclusion.

  6. What kind of usage of alternative formats are you observing with students? What do you see as the main benefits of the alternative formats?

    See above

  7. How (if at all) are you gathering feedback about Ally on your campus?
    We have recently sent a survey to our early faculty adopters. Our early results (N=25) include that most faculty became aware of Ally through an announcement on the Blackboard portal, followed by our eLearning website, and then from a colleague.When asked about the effectiveness of the online tips and suggestions that Ally provides in addressing issues with accessibility, 40% rated excellent or good, with 32% rating feedback as average.

    Faculty were asked to rate Ally as a solution to help ensure the accessibility of course content, 44% rated excellent or good, with 28% average.

    When asked if they would recommend Ally to a colleague, 88% indicated yes or maybe after spending more time with the application.

    96% of faculty haven’t informed students of the alternative file formats that are available in Blackboard through Ally.

    Open-ended comments ranged from Ally being self-explanatory and helpful to expressions of confusion as to how to get files to 100%, for example, being unsure as to have to properly tag a PDF and more helpful instructions on screen. In addition, faculty using math or chemistry expressed challenges in using LaTeX or MathML. MathType is an option for faculty which can create equations in an accessible format.

  8. How have you addressed accessibility challenges that are not handled by Ally, such as embedded content?
    As accessibility has created more interest, we are beginning to work with faculty to educate them on the importance of beginning with accessibility in mind. The GVSU Disability Support Resources office supports students and faculty in accommodations for students with documented disabilities. We are starting to walk down the pathway of inclusion.
  9. What’s next for Ally on your campus? What would you most like to see for future Ally capabilities?

    While sessions have been offered on accessibility and universal design for learning, they have not been well attended. Turning on Ally has generated attendance in our accessibility seminars. Our next steps include increasing and consistently working to promote inclusive education as a way of working, not an extra or “if I have time” optional activity.

    We plan to continue to promote the importance of pathways to inclusion for faculty and students. Most recently, our student newspaper, the Grand Valley Lanthorn, featured an article on the front page entitled: “Blackboard Ally provides resources to improve accessibility”.


Learn more about Blackboard Ally for Faculty at GVSU on our eLearning web page.

Humanizing Online Learning at the ETOM Fall Conference

On November 2, 2018, Matt Roberts, Vince St. Germain, Justin Melick, Hunter Bridwell, and Eric Kunnen from eLearning along with faculty member Kerry Mohney attended the ETOM Fall Conference. The conference brought together over 80 faculty, staff, instructional designers, and distance learning administrators to focus on enhancing online learning. In addition to the keynote, there were 3 breakout sessions with 15 presentations on topics such as: OER, using video in learning, badging in professional development, tips for effective online discussions, interactive and engaging learning, critical thinking, and crafting collaborative classrooms.

Humanizing Online Learning Experiences


The conference was kicked off by Michelle Pacansky-Brock who delivered a session entitled: “Humanizing Online Learning”.  Dr. Michelle Pacansky-Brock is a noted leader in higher education with expertise in online teaching, course design, and faculty development. Michelle’s work has helped online instructors across the nation and beyond understand how to craft relevant, humanized online learning experiences that support the diverse needs of college students.

Michelle is the author of Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies (2nd edition, Routledge), has received national recognition for her excellence in teaching, and has held various leadership roles with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI).

Currently, Michelle is Faculty Mentor, Digital Innovation with the California Community College system. She coordinates professional development efforts related to emerging technologies in online teaching and learning for @ONE (Online Network of Educators) and the CCC Online Education Initiative. The California Community College system includes 114 colleges in 72 districts, serves 2.1 million students per year, and has roughly 60,000  faculty members. Learn more about Michelle at and connect with her on Twitter @brocansky.

  • When trying a new #edtech, tell students – so they lean in and become part of the feedback – that vulnerability is part of the core of meaningful human experience.
  • Brene Brown TED Talk – Dare to Lead

When teaching online, there can be a boundary in getting to know students and inviting them into the learning experience. When there is limited teaching presence, students can feel isolated. Students strive for a sense of connection, a safe place, an environment where relationships matter.

  • Clips Apple Video App – Clips help faculty record videos and easily share on Twitter and instagram posts. Denise Maduli-Williams, San Diego Miramar College, uses Clips to engage with students and to be very present, very in the moment…

You can’t get to empathy without vulnerability…

  • TIP: As a faculty member start a week with a video engagement technique, as a way to increase instructor presence.
  • Presentation Slides:


At the conference, the eLearning staff presented at the conference in 2 sessions:

Digital Badges for Faculty: A Primer


Matthew Roberts, Instructional Designer, and Eric Kunnen, Associate Director or eLearning and Emerging Technologies

GVSU In this session we will detail the history of Grand Valley State University’s Faculty Badges Initiative (, an effort to improve the recognition of faculty professional development. The discussion will include how GVSU came to develop a campus badging initiative, the considerations involved in establishing a badging curriculum, and the personnel and technical questions that need to be answered to create a functional badging process.



Promoting the creation of efficient and effective instructional media

IMG_1142 2

Justin Melick, Digital Media Developer, GVSU

GVSU This session will explore the ways in which Grand Valley State University has created a positive culture around the production of educational media by their faculty members. By providing faculty with the resources to create their own content GVSU has been able to expand the use of asynchronous media to help meet the needs of it’s students. Specifically, this session will cover how GVSU has promoted the creation of screencasts, more highly produced lightboard videos and other more complex educational resources as well as an overview of the training that is available to faculty members in regards to the various forms of media they could produce for their courses.



Session Notes by Vince St. Germain

Vince St. Germain, eLearning and Instructional Technology Specialist, captured the following notes from the conference:

Keynote: Humanizing Online Learning Experience

Dr. Michelle Pacansky-Brock

  • Relationships matter…face-to-face and online
  • Be vulnerable
  • Be present
  • Humanize your course and its contents
  • 96% of undergraduates own a smartphone
  • More 18-24 year olds have smartphones than computers
  • What if educators designed mobile environments that embraced phones as a learning tool?
  • Relevant Connections – deeper learning
  • Untethered Learning – learning woven into life
  • Multisensory learning – supports unique needs of all learners
  • Take learners from passive consumers to active creators of content
  • Storytelling builds empathy
  • Most importantly:
    • Be Human
    • Tell Stories
    • Reduce Disposable Assignments

Creating Accessible, Mobile Videos

Dr. Michelle Pacansky-Brock

Tips for creating mobile content:

  • Turn your phone. You want to record in landscape mode (rather than portrait mode) so your video fills the video/YouTube player.
  • Keep it short. The longer your video, the larger the file size. Uploading large files can be a problem if you are using a purely mobile workflow.  For videos longer than a few minutes, it is best to transfer them to your computer and then upload them to YouTube.
  • Light your face. That’s right, we won’t be able to see you if you are backlit. Be mindful of where your light source is before you record.
  • Look at the camera. I know it feels weird, but it feels even more weird to watch a video of a person who isn’t looking at you.
  • Find a quiet spot. Background noise can be especially problematic in mobile recordings. If you are recording somewhere noisy, do a quick recording test and play it back. Use a simple pair of earbuds with a built-in mic to improve your audio quality.

Critical Thinking in the Age of Google

Brad Stetson – Schoolcraft College

  • What is critical thinking?
  • Students can typically master the first three levels:
  • Remembering – Find or remember information
  • Understanding – Understanding and making sense out of information
  • Applying – Use information in a new way (but similar) situation
  • …but have difficulty with higher levels of learning
  • Creating – Use information to create something new
  • Evaluating – Critically examine info and make judgements
  • Analyzing – Take info apart and explore relationships
  • Build confidence in critical thinking through your course structure (decrease the discomfort level)
  • Critical Thinking in the Age of Google – continued

Problems to overcome:

  • Discomfort with higher level learning
  • Students – Google
    • Used semester-to-semester (increased exposure)
    • Available online answer resources (Chegg, CourseHero)
    • Publisher resources
  • Student-Student
    • Copying
    • Sharing feedback/correct answers (previous semesters)

What has worked:

  • Pooled questions (prevents student-student)
  • Randomizing questions semester to semester (curbs some Student-Google)
  • Allow audio and video answers
  • Pre-submission feedback (curbs discomfort)
  • Not everybody has to solve the same problem or get the same answer as long as the students are learning the appropriate concepts.

Surprising Impact of Synchronous Sessions in Nonsynchronous OL Classes

Deirdre Hennebury and Lynn Wietecha – Lawrence Technological University

  • The use of synchronous sessions in an online class can increase a student’s perception of faculty presence in the course and a greater sense of learning community.
  • Synchronous sessions can be both connecting and humanizing for students and faculty.
  • Tips for online synchronous sessions:
    • Break class into smaller groups and schedule multiple, shorter live sessions
    • Set expectations for participation in syllabus and make clear in course introduction
    • Make them required and relevant


GVSU eLearning team with Vince St. Germain, Matt Roberts, Justin Melick, Hunter Bridwell and Faculty Member, Kerry Mohney

2018 Students’ Use of Technology Research Study via EDUCAUSE

Each year, EDUCAUSE conducts research on students and their use of technology through the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR). GVSU has participated in this survey in the past. (See this post from 2015: ECAR Study of Students and Technology at GVSU)

This year, the ECAR study included 130 institutions and responses were collected from nearly 65,000 students. The goal of this study is to monitor trends and to determine technology usage patterns among students.

Here are few highlights:

1 – More than 75% of Students indicate that an LMS (Blackboard) was used for Most or All of their Courses

“LMS use remains prevalent across higher education institutions, with continued high rates of use and student satisfaction. Three-quarters of all students reported being either satisfied or very satisfied with their institution’s LMS, and more than three-quarters of students reported their LMS was used for most or all of their courses. This likely reflects satisfaction primarily with the functional aspects of their institution’s LMS.

Consistent and widespread use of the LMS and ensured access to it in public institutions can benefit students. Even the basic functions of the LMS, such as posting grades, have been found to contribute to a student’s academic performance; access to grades allows for real-time monitoring of their course progress and the ability to make mid-course adjustments as needed. And the convenience of the LMS offers off-campus students much needed flexibility in contacting instructors and classmates, accessing course content, or taking quizzes.” 1

GVSU uses Blackboard to support the delivery of content, provide live communication capabilities, and enable grading feedback in teaching and learning.

2 – Laptops are the most important Device for Students


“Continue providing students with access to the basic technologies
that are most important to their academic success. The maintenance of
desktop computer labs, laptop and tablet rental programs, and negotiated
discounts for personal academic devices enable nearly all students to have
access to the technologies they need to succeed. Avoid the creation of a new
digital divide by making bleeding-edge technologies such as AR and VR
headsets and 3D printers and scanners equally and publicly available to all
students in venues such as makerspaces and libraries.” 1

GVSU provides unique bleeding-edge technologies in the Atomic Object Technology Showcase.

3 – Accessibility remains a Concern


“Overall, our data suggest that IT accessibility is an issue for many college students with both physical and learning disabilities. According to these students, institutions have a lot of room for improvement. Awareness may be especially challenging for the largest public DR institutions given the sheer number of students they serve, but resources to accommodate may be an issue.

To increase institutional awareness and provide better support to students with
disabilities, we recommend the following:

  • Be a collaborative partner in testing and implementing assistive/accessible technologies and the principles of universal design for learning.
  • Provide professional development to IT staff via accessibility workshops,conferences, and training; develop campus IT accessibility policies related to the development, procurement, and implementation of products.
  • Encourage the cultivation of an “accessible mind-set” across all campus stakeholders to better understand the needs of students with disabilities.
  • Offer training for faculty on implementing Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and other universal/inclusive instructional practices.
  • Educate faculty on the inequitable impacts and potential legal implications that bans on in-class use of personal devices can have on students with disabilities.
  • And stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Stop banning laptops.” 1

GVSU supports the use of Blackboard Ally (and Panopto for video captions) to provide accessibility awareness and to establish a pathway to inclusion.

4 – 62% of Students Favor Online and Hybrid Courses over Face to Face


“Expand student awareness of the benefits, expectations, and demands of
blended learning environments. Students should receive consistent and
clear information from multiple campus sources so that they can make
well-informed decisions about the learning environments that are best
suited to their own learning and lives. Expose students to blended learning
early in their college careers and provide faculty who lack blended learning
experience with professional development and opportunities to teach in
these environments.” 1

GVSU offers instructional design support and assistance to faculty through IDeL (Instructional Design for eLearning).

5 – 67% of Students indicate that their Instructors use Technology to Enhance Learning, Engage Students, and Encourage use of Online Collaboration


“Eliminate classroom bans of student devices important to their success. Although devices that can connect to the internet have the potential to distract students during class, many students—especially women, students of color, students with disabilities, first-generation students, students who are independent (with or without dependents of their own), and students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds—find these devices significantly more important to their academic success than do their counterparts. Classroom device bans have the potential to indiscriminately undermine students who may disproportionately rely on them, creating unnecessary (and possibly illegal) obstacles for those who may need them the most.” 1

GVSU offers support for the use of a wide array of instructional technologies such as (Blackboard, Panopto, Lightboards, etc.) through the eLearning team.

Access the full report, view an infographic, and learn more about the 2018 Students and Technology Research Study on the EDUCAUSE website.

[1] Galanek, Joseph D., Dana C. Gierdowski, and D. Christopher Brooks. ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2018.  Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, October 2018. Retrieved from: