5a: Specialist area 1 – Accessibility
This is a new choice for Senior CMALT, and therefore there is no comparison to make with my CMALT portfolio, although it was included in other areas.
Beyond the Ulster University legislative work and my own adherence to guidelines which I discussed in the Wider Context area, accessibility has infused my career in wider ways and yet has rarely been one of my prescribed formal job roles. I am limiting my example to my work at Ulster University in bringing accessibility to the strategic goals of the institution resulting in the purchase of Blackboard Ally and a new position of Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
Awareness raising & training
In any session that I give whether a one-to-one or a larger seminar I introduce some elements of digital accessibility, emphasising that it is an issue to be addressed for all students not just those who have declared a disability. I also raise it within meetings where relevant lobbying for institutional awareness.
I create supporting materials and incorporate open education resources, such as the University of Hull’s accessibility posters. These include asynchronous materials as well as live sessions and group training.
A key moment for me in my learning journey was at Ulster University when I started to reach out to different experts and departments internally which led me to partner with an expert on assistive technologies that I only knew about from reading and co-delivering accessibility sessions which increased the impact so much more than when I did them on my own. This was because they were able to demonstrate how poor the experience could be for users accessing inaccessible content. Through these connections I also provided direct support for disabled students on the use of the VLE and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra which also provided me with insight into what worked and what didn’t for them which was so much richer than the text based statements from web pages. This included sessions for physical impairments and neurodiverse learners.
During the pandemic the impact of this partnership scaled beyond teaching and learning with my colleague and I going on to deliver sessions for professional support departments and therefore improving the access to digital resources for potential students and staff, through better marked up documents and web pages and provision of captions for video.
Application for Blackboard Ally Funding
I was aware of Blackboard Ally and the benefits it afforded students as they were able to generate resources within the VLE in the format of their choice; from PDF to audio (mp3) through the sharing of practice at the ALT 2019 conference. Whilst I knew this was not a panacea to replace staff making accessible content in the first place it was certainly a pragmatic response to the issue of thousands upon thousands of resources in the VLE lacking in accessible features.
Upon return from the conference I lobbied for Ally, including emphasising the limitations. I connected with the Student Union VP of Education to get the backing from students to support my case. However, before this work could be fully worked up into a business case COVID-19 interrupted it. Given the irony of the situation, that I had no time to pursue the case yet now the entire student body were needing access to ALL their teaching and learning online. Blackboard resolved this issue for me by releasing a COVID-19 free version of the tool, which allowed students to upload a resource they wanted in an alternative format. This link remains active as of now – May 2023. I publicised this wherever possible including adding it into the institution Blackboard template to ensure its visibility to all students.
After the first wave of pandemic teaching applications opened for internal funding and I put in one for the purchase of Ally for a year on a pilot basis and supporting money for evaluation. This was successful and after I completed the business case, we went on to integration and testing ready for release for a number of pilot modules. However, to ensure that we were not adding to the high levels of stress of teaching colleagues we did not want to turn on a feature which would show how inaccessible their content was. Therefore, myself and my colleague carried out what could be called canvassing where we demonstrated the tool and emphasised that it was for students’ benefit and there would be no policing of modules with regards the reporting of levels of accessible content. Following this it was decided that given the loss of time the tool would be turned on across all modules for pilot purposes rather than the original small number of courses.
The statistics for these three months were overwhelmingly high given that it was during the end of semester 2 and these were enough to support further institutional funding for Ally.
Data 30 May 2022 to August 2022
- 609 courses: with students who downloaded alternative formats
- 1872 unique students
- 11, 884 alternative format downloads
- 5,858 (PDF); 3,047 (ePub); 2,099 (HTML); 324 (BeeLine); 161 (OCRed PDF)
External work & connections
As lead for accessibility in ODL I was asked to participate in work beyond my team such as an Inclusion Series by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Practice (CHERP) and externally as a keynote speaker at the University of Cork.
Once Ally was turned on for staff I utilised my networking skills to invite experts to come and present at a series of guest talks in support of the Ally roll out. Their contributions can be found on the Accessibility Website.
As an open practitioner I try to model what I say and one of the activities I do on Twitter is to provide ALT text for images in other Tweets to support an account run voluntarily, @womensart1. This helps me improve my skills for creating meaningful ALT text and an example is included in the evidence below and I received positive feedback on my Tweets.
In some ways, I am finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate between inclusion, engagement/socialisation and accessibility as they are all built upon the same values and many of the activities overlap with one another. Being able to go beyond a digital learning silo and work across the institution with the Student Union, Student Wellbeing and CHERP (Centre for Higher Education Research and Practice) was the most rewarding aspect of my work during the pandemic. It also informed my work on care, and why I have critiqued the current narrative around resilience and wellbeing after reading a blog post by David Walker, with Kate Molloy. I have learned significantly from the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), inclusion and trauma-informed teaching communities; from Twitter, articles and live online sessions, AbilityNet, AHEAD Ireland and will continue to advocate for inclusion with regards to both staff and students throughout my work (CV3).
When I first started to research digital accessibility I relied on the W3C guidelines and support as I had no access to any formal training in the company I was working for. I read everything I could get my hands on including work by Jacob Nielson on usability and accessibility. From the earliest point I remember thinking how much it helped all users and not just disabled users and this has been the hook that I use when advocating for everyone to ensure their content is accessible (CV1).
Securing funding for Blackboard Ally was a huge achievement under the pressure of pandemic work and despite my frustrations at the delay in turning on the functionality for students I could understand the need to get staff buy-in and support. The worry that I am adding to their workload burdens by adding ‘yet another thing’ is something that I address at the beginning of my talks and I focus on the benefits for them as well as students as good course design will reduce student queries and by not changing colours etc time can be saved. Since leaving the institution I am not sure if anyone is continuing to support this work within the team but I hope that the Ally impact and subsequent work of the new Dean will continue to see change.
I was able to improve my skills for presenting a strong need in the application, then the business case and then in the interim and final reports that convinced senior management of the importance of this financial investment (CV4). Collaborating with a wide range of colleagues was crucial to the success of these, especially from the student voice perspective, which is something I will take forward (CV3).
The improvement in technology is something that I personally find incredible and having captions generated instantly for an hour long video is something I only dreamed of years ago (CV2). Being able to promote accessibility with the support of built-in checkers in Microsoft Office apps and VLEs is so much easier and has visible impact immediately for colleagues. Whilst I have made massive inroads with raising awareness there is still a long way to go before the required digital skills are ubiquitous. I will continue my advocacy work and hope of an accessible for all future. Going through a bottom-up route proved effective and it was during a global crisis but when reflecting back I wonder if a top-down approach from senior leadership would have been just as effective but in a more accelerated time line? This is an area of my leadership practice that I will need to seek support and mentoring around in the coming years.
“An example of a strategic change project was Clare’s work on Accessibility and Inclusivity where her involvement started from a personal, and professional, interest. Clare developed resources, and delivered sessions, to improve digital accessibility of learning materials.
This work developed into a community of practice within the University which resulted in a strategic bid to procure Blackboard Ally. Clare was able to draw on her external networks to run several events to support wider discussions within the organisation about accessibility.
These conversations were the catalyst for wider institutional discussions about the governance of accessibility and inclusivity resulting in a new Dean role to support this work. Clare’s contribution to this institutional change cannot be underestimated and the impact of her work could not have been more strategic.” – Head of the Office for Digital Learning, Ulster University
“Clare had a lead role in advocating for and progressing ‘Digital Inclusion and accessibility’ at Ulster University. She skilfully enabled staff capacity building through development of digital training and staff guidance, worked collaboratively in partnership with academic research, academic community and Student Wellbeing service, co-training and facilitating seminars. Clare’s gentle enthusiasm, passion and skills will be an asset in her future work environment and will be missed at Ulster University.” – Student Mental Health & Wellbeing Strategy Project Manager, Ulster University
“Many thanks indeed. Yesterday’s session [Digital Accessibility and Blackboard Ally webinar] was very helpful. It raised many issues that I hadn’t really considered before. Thanks for opening my eyes yesterday morning. I’m truly grateful.“, Lecturer, Ulster University
Ulster University Inclusive Seminar Series – Recording of my session available under heading 4
What a day, thanks so much to all who attended our Symposium to celebrate #GAAD
We had an epic day of it, with wonderful speakers, powerful staff and student panels.
Great to have @johbees give the opening address to set the tone of the day. @StephenUCCPharm @UCC pic.twitter.com/nsGxcJYbGm
— Inclusive UCC (@InclusiveUCC) May 20, 2022
Example ALT text for an piece of art
Alt text for the above image: pic.twitter.com/pER2c3AuSX
— Clare Thomson (@slowtech2000) June 5, 2022