Department of Classics receives $1,000 Accessibility Competition Student Scholarship Award

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, along with eLearning and Emerging Technologies in Information Technology at Grand Valley State University is proud to announce the winner of the Blackboard Ally – College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Accessibility Competition…

the Department of Classics!

The department of classics staff are pictured holding a large poster check with a total amount of $1,000. The memo of the check is labeled: $1,000 For Student Scholarship.

The Department of Classics was recognized on Tuesday, December 3 in a short ceremony in Lake Huron Hall.

Sherry Barricklow, eLearning and Instructional Technology Specialist in the eLearning and Emerging Technologies group in Information Technology presented the award and the a $1,000 student scholarship check. In attendance also from eLearning was Graduate Assistant, Brandon Thompson, Digital Media Developer Hunter Bridwell, and Associate Director Eric Kunnen.

The Department of Classics increased the accessibility of Blackboard class content by 7% during the competition, benefiting 500 students enrolled in their courses.

The eLearning and Emerging Technologies team offers our congratulations on behalf of supporting inclusive education at GVSU!

About the CLAS – $1,000 Student Scholarship Competition

Sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and eLearning and Emerging Technologies in Information Technology, CLAS units and faculty will use Blackboard Ally to compete to create the most accessible content in courses to support student success, inclusive education, and universal design for learning principles. 

The unit with the highest percent improvement will receive a one-time $1,000 student scholarship in their name.

Learn more on the competition website.

Grand Valley Lanthorn article places spotlight on $1,000 Accessibility Competition

Blackboard Ally logo is picture with a gold trophy on a green background. The trophy has a white star in the middle.A recent article by Audrey Whitaker, a staff reporter for the Grand Valley Lanthorn, highlights an accessibility competition sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the eLearning and Emerging Technologies department in Information Technology at GVSU.

The eLearning team is excited about the opportunities that will be brought by this competition – to increase accessibility and students’ learning!

Image Description: “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” - GVSU Dean Antczak

Here are a few recent stats from Blackboard Ally at GVSU.

Fall 2019 Semester (as of October 7):

  • 3,649 Blackboard courses include content
  • 193,051 content items have been analyzed by Blackboard Ally
  • 64% is the current overall accessibility “With Ally” score, indicating improvements made through Ally’s alternative formats and instructor intervention, this is a 2% increase since Fall 2018
  • The top 3 institutional accessibility concerns include: Contrast (31,887), Missing Headers (29,944), Alternative Descriptions (26,554)
  • The most severe accessibility concern is Non-OCRed Documents (11,468)
  • There are 319 files (436 F18) that have been fixed in August/September by faculty
  • There have been 11,564 total alternative file downloads (9,093 F18) from 1,883 courses (1,450 F18)
  • The most popular alternative format is PDF, followed by HTML, OCRed PDF, ePub, Audio

Overall, since August 1, 2018 (to date), 945 files have been fixed in 305 courses. In addition, there have been 24,000+ alternative file format downloads from over 4,000 courses.

Access tips, tutorials, and information for effectively using Blackboard and creating accessible content with Ally at Grand Valley State University.

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:

Blackboard Ally Helps Make Course Content Accessible at GVSU

At GVSU over 1,600 students, faculty, and staff have registered with the Disability Support Resources office for disability related needs. Further, 11% of college students report a disability according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Blackboard Ally was implemented in the summer of 2018 to support the university’s accessibility efforts around equity and inclusion.

Ally scans files uploaded into Blackboard and evaluates the level of accessibility of content by displaying colored “dials”. These indicators are only visible to instructors of the course. Getting the dials to green is the goal!

Blackboard Ally Dashboard Indicators

After Ally automatically scans course content that has been uploaded by faculty, an indicator is displayed that estimates the level of accessibility of the file. The system also provides guidance to assist faculty in resolving common accessibility issues.

3 Steps to Improve Content Accessibilty with Blackboard Ally

“GREEN is the GOAL”

STEP 1 – Mouse over to the dial to view the “accessibility score”.

STEP 2 – Click the dial indicator to view recommendations and make the file more accessible.

STEP 3 – Follow the on screen prompts and guidance to add an alternative description to an image, or to fix the file and upload a new version to improve the accessibility score.

Sample Blackboard Content Area with Ally Indicators
Accessibility Indicators in Course Content
Sample Ally On Screen Guidance
Ally Dashboard Indicator Includes Recommended Fixes

In addition to assisting faculty, Ally automatically creates alternative files types for students, including: OCRed PDF, Tagged PDF, HTML, ePub,  Audio, and Electronic Braille.

Video Overview of File Accessibility with Blackboard Ally

“GVSU is committed inclusive education, and I am focused on ensuring my courses are accessible” said Cheryl Kautz, Affiliate Instructor in the School of Computing and Information Systems and 1st Place Award Winner of the Most Inclusive Classrooms in the United States, “Blackboard Ally will help me ensure that my courses are as accessible as possible for my students, save me time, and most importantly help faculty at GVSU to focus on improving student success.”

GVSU 2021 Strategic Plan Connection 

Blackboard Ally supports GVSU’s 2021 Strategic Plan in the following areas:

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.

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

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

Inclusiveness/Access – 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 Benefits

  • Increases capacity to support faculty in building accessible content and correcting files already in their Blackboard courses.
  • Assists in the creation of high quality levels of accessibility of content in Blackboard through the real-time conversion of files (OCRed PDF, Tagged PDF, HTML, Audio, Electronic Braille, and ePub) uploaded into Blackboard without any faculty intervention or extra work.
  • Provides additional ADA Section 508 due diligence and good faith effort of evaluating content that has been uploaded by faculty into Blackboard.
  • Responds to student needs for accessible versions of content without the extra overhead of development time for our existing staff or faculty.
  • Builds capacity to respond to increased federal and legal requirements for accessibility at GVSU.

Blackboard Ally Support

Get help and access additional support information on GVSU’s eLearning and Emerging Technologies Blackboard Ally for Faculty support page.

“Ally documents evidence of my efforts as faculty to make my teaching more accessible. Through incremental changes Ally guides me step by step to adjust course files.  As I’m learning how to use Word better, all other file formats are generated in my course automatically. Ally uses gamification to indicate my progress in making files student-friendly.  Getting to 100% is an emotional rush!”

– Szymon Machajewski, CIS Affiliate Professor, teaching CIS150 in the School of Computing and Information Systems and recipient of the Most Inclusive Classrooms in the United States.

Helping ALL STUDENTS be SUCCESSFUL #Accessibility

Working to ensure ALL STUDENTS are SUCCESSFUL is a Grand Valley State University (GVSU) commitment. In fact, GVSU’s vision demonstrates this 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.  

In addition, one of GVSU’s value statements is “Inclusiveness”, whereby:

Inclusiveness – Incorporating multiple voices and experiences by valuing identities, perspectives, and backgrounds.  Strengthening and expanding possibilities through technology to increase accessibility and remove barriers.

Accessibility is not new. In fact, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and an amendment to this act in 1998 (Section 508) provides basic rights for people with disabilities along with specific requirements for electronic communication and information technologies. Further, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990.  In the past 28 years, there have been many advancements in technology and education has largely become digitized. The rapid growth of online learning and greater use of digital materials by faculty creates a unique challenge in the support of the accessibility of electronic documents, software, and web-based services.

This challenge is further strengthened by 11% of college students reporting a disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Here at GVSU, over 1,600 students, faculty, and staff have registered with the DSR office for disability related needs as of 2017. 

A few important questions to ask are:

  1. Can all of my students access and review my course content?
  2. To what degree is my course content accessible?
  3. How can I improve the accessibility of my courses?

The importance of these questions is underscored by this video (“To Care & Comply Accessibility of Online Content”) from Portland Community College.

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 campus wide framework for equity and inclusion. 

Focusing on teaching and learning, GVSU’s eLearning team, along with the Disability Support Resources (DSR) office provide accessibility awareness and training for faculty, and accommodation support for students. DSR focuses support on resources and accommodations that enhance the academic environment for persons with disabilities and to help educate the university community on disability issues. While DSR works more directly with students, GVSU’s eLearning team provides services to faculty, supporting their efforts to leverage technology in teaching, and to most effectively and efficiently use technology in an accessible way.

Specifically, the eLearning and Emerging Technologies team supports the use of Panopto and Blackboard Ally to assist faculty in opening the door to education for all students by providing captioning and enhancing course content. In addition, the eLearning team has created a series of “Accessibility Tips for Faculty” to help support faculty.

  • Learn more about using Panopto to increase the accessibility of your videos with captioning.
  • Learn more about using Blackboard Ally to review your course content for accessibility, and to learn how to increase the compliance of  your files.

If you are a faculty member at GVSU, please know that we are here for you. eLearning and Emerging Technologies offers key support and services such as: