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.


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