Designing Quality Courses in Blackboard with Cheryl Kautz

kautzcSit back, relax, and watch as Cheryl Kautz, Affiliate Instructor, in the School of Computing and Information Systems at GVSU guides you through her CIS 231 course in Blackboard.



As a previous “Blackboard Exemplary Course Award” and “Most Inclusive Classroom Award” recipient, Cheryl focuses on using quality course design methods including key tools in Blackboard such as Blackboard Ally for accessibility (eg. Syllabus, course content etc. includes alternative formats such as audio only), Panopto for video with popup formative quizzes, and tips for improving navigation including using course links to keep students on track and to provide easier navigation.

Highlighted in Cheryl’s course tour are the following design principles in using Blackboard to delivery quality instruction at GVSU.

Streamlined Course Menu

Customizing the course menu provides students with a simple and easy way to navigate the areas of her course. When designing your menu, aim to keep your navigation areas as clean, short and simple as possible. Use headings and dividers to break up the menu into chunks.


Course Links

Course Links assists students with navigating and jumping from section to section in a course site. Using Blackboard Course Links ensures students can easily navigate to other areas of your course quickly.


Checking for Accessibility with Blackboard Ally

Cheryl has dedicated time for inclusive learning by ensuring the content uploaded is accessible with Blackboard Ally. A GREEN indicator indicates that the file has a good rating. Yellow or red indicators appear when a file has low or poor levels of web accessibility.


Students benefit from using Blackboard Ally by accessing alternative file formats such as audio only.


Getting Started

Establish a “Getting Started” content area to help students “get started”. This area of Cheryl’s course provides:

  • links to “Are you ready for online learning at GVSU”
  • encouraging students to upload a Blackboard profile picture for increased engagement
  • an introductory Blackboard blog post for student to student interaction
  • a course link directing students to begin the “week 1 tasks”

Weekly Folders

Each weekly folder uses a consistent design and includes key dates and reminders such as midterm, spring break, final exams, and most importantly the objectives to be covered. The objectives are connected to the learning activities and assessments to inform students clearly about what they are expected to accomplish throughout the week which is good instructional design.


Inside of each weekly folder, students are presented with a “To Do” instruction list, practice assignments, video lectures, discussions, projects, quizzes, audio PowerPoints, and homework help.


Panopto Videos with Quizzes

Cheryl uses Panopto to present video based instruction with quizzes to check for students’ understanding and to provide formative feedback.



eLearning and Emerging Technologies Team offers Course Design and Development Support

As you build courses in Blackboard, please feel free to reach out to the eLearning and Emerging Technologies team for assistance in most effectively leveraging the use of Blackboard in your teaching at GVSU. We’re here to help!


Top 8 Posts from 2018

At GVSU, the eLearning and Emerging Technologies team is here to support faculty pursuing innovation in teaching and learning. Our team is dedicated to supporting faculty, contributing to teaching excellence, and enhancing student success through:

  • exemplary instructional design
  • effective application and integration of instructional technologies
  • interactive digital media development
  • administration and enhancement of the university’s enterprise learning management system (Blackboard)
  • deployment of innovative emerging technologies


Reflecting back on 2018, we would like to recognize and celebrate the work of faculty at GVSU in their efforts to advance education through the application of technology in teaching.

Here are the top 8 posts from the eLearning blog in the year 2018:

1 – 7 Things you didn’t know that Blackboard can do!

2 – GVSU selects Blackboard Ally to Support Inclusive Education

3 – First ever hackGVSU ‘Hackathon’ brings Innovative Ideas to Enhance Blackboard at GVSU

4 – Applying the Blackboard LMS to TPACK

5 – Teaching with the Lightboard at GVSU

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

7– eLearning Team celebrates receiving the 2018 Blackboard Catalyst Award for Professional Development

8 – GVSU selects Panopto to Increase Accessibility and Enhance Teaching with Video

Data-Driven Strategies for Inclusive Learning with Blackboard Ally

Blackboard Ally’s Community User Group site is chuck full of helpful information for colleges and universities looking to learn how Ally supports inclusive education.

One of the highlights of this site are community stories which showcase a variety of use cases of “Ally in Action“. Stories have been shared by the University of Derby, California State University Chico, California State University Fresno, Tacoma Community College, Technical College System of Georgia, and recently our own Grand Valley State University!

Read the GVSU Blackboard Ally Community Story
“Data-driven Strategies for Inclusive Learning”


Blackboard Ally supports Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Education at GVSU

GVSU’s use of Blackboard Ally supports diversity, equity, and inclusive education.

Recently the GV Forum featured a highlight of Ally as the university works to increase the accessibility of course content in Blackboard.


Here is the article as highlighted by GV Forum:

Blackboard Ally supports inclusive education

More than 218,000 digital content items from more than 3,700 courses have been scanned by Blackboard Ally since the software was made available in June to students, faculty and staff members.

Blackboard Ally scans files uploaded into courses and evaluates the level of accessibility of content by displaying colored “dials” (red, yellow and green). These indicators provide awareness and insight and are only visible to instructors. The goal is to work to improve the accessibility of the files to turn the dials to green, which provides benefits for the learning needs of all students.

Eric Kunnen, associate director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies, said more accessible content means students have more usable, readable learning materials as well as high-quality alternative formats of content that work better on mobile devices.

“After Ally automatically scans course content, an indicator is displayed that estimates the level of accessibility of the file and a score is provided,” Kunnen said. “The system then provides on screen guidance to help make the file more accessible.”

So far, more than 464 files have been fixed by 138 faculty members in 146 courses.

Kunnen said Ally supports student success through universal design for learning principles and by building capacity to respond to increased federal and legal requirements for accessibility.

“Ally not only provides benefits to students with disabilities, but it also supports the university’s work in recognizing the importance of accessibility as part of our pathway to inclusive education whereby we support the diverse physical and cognitive needs of all of our students,” he said.

The eLearning and Emerging Technologies team offers support to faculty members using Blackboard Ally and has created a webpage with more information,

Learn more about how you can use Blackboard Ally to support diversity, equity, and inclusive education at Grand Valley State University…

EDUCAUSE research zeros in on Accessibility

Recently, the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research released a 2018 Students and Technology Report that zeros in on the need to improve awareness and support for accessibility issues in higher education.

Most noteworthy in this report is that students who have disabilities are often dissatisfied with their experiences at their institutions around general awareness of the importance of accessibility.

“The institutional provision of accessible web content and technologies is not then merely an issue of ethics or morality but one of legal liability.

Institutions that fail to properly accommodate the needs of their students may find themselves confronted with lawsuits, complaints, and settlements.

However, one of the major problems facing colleges and universities is that institutions may SIMPLY NOT BE AWARE of students’ needs.

EDUCAUSE 2018 Students and Technology Report on Accessibility

Blackboard Ally was adopted at GVSU to INCREASE AWARENESS of the importance of accessibility and ADA compliance, to BUILD the CAPACITY of faculty in creating accessible content, and to offer greater INSIGHT at the institutional level.

Looking more closely at the survey results, 58% of students with disabilities have responded that their institution’s awareness of their need for accessible technologies was “poor”. [See Chart Below]

Reviewing the data overall, EDUCAUSE suggests that IT accessibility is an issue for many college students with both physical and learning disabilities.

Also of note is that many students who have diagnosed disabilities do not reveal or register with the university’s disability support resources office for fear that they may be stigmatized or penalized.

To better support creating awareness and to provide better support to all students, EDUCAUSE recommends the following:

  • “Be a collaborative partner in testing and implementing assistive/accessible technologies and the principles of universal design for learning.”
    • At GVSU, the eLearning team works with the Disability Support Resources Office and supports the use of universal design for learning as well as the adoption of Blackboard Ally to encourage faculty to begin with accessibility in mind and to monitor the level of accessibility of their course content.
  • “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…”
  • “Revise informational and course materials targeted to this population to emphasize accessibility, which focuses on inclusion and universal learning,11 to help destigmatize student learning barriers.”
  • “Offer training for faculty on implementing Web Content Accessibility Guidelines13 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.”


“After a difficult freshman year, Lucas realizes he needs help. In high school he was diagnosed with a condition that affects his fine-motor skills, and he received therapy and accommodations that helped him succeed. When he started college, he decided not to register with the campus Office of Disability Services, but the demands of college proved challenging, and he struggled to keep up. Writing in longhand for extended periods is painful and results in illegible class notes.

Using his laptop works best for him, but half of his instructors last year didn’t allow laptops in class.

The Office of Disability Services requires proof of his condition that must be no more than three years old, so Lucas visits his doctor for an updated exam, earns money to cover the medical fees to fill out his accommodation forms (which aren’t covered by his insurance), and registers.

He receives an accommodation to use his laptop in class and notifies all his instructors before classes begin. On the first day of his Intro to Economics course, the professor reviews the course policies, which include a ban on personal tech devices in class.

As the student next to him packs her laptop away, she says,

“Didn’t you hear her? We can’t use our computers in class.”

Even though he has an accommodation, Lucas doesn’t want to talk about his disability with a stranger. He closes his laptop screen and takes out a pen and paper.”

EDUCAUSE 2018 Students and Technology Report on Accessibility

Further, since 2014, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative has surveyed the teaching and learning community to uncover the top themes and challenges facing higher education. Accessibility and universal design has been in the top 10 as a key strategic issue in higher education, and in fact, last year was ranked as #2. This area of concern continues to bubble up and with it challenges such as:  faculty buy in, funding, time for training, expertise, and dedicated staff become areas of focus.

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative 2018 Key Issues in Teaching and LearningAccessibility 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 accessibility and UDL.

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:

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.