UP targets ‘inclusive’ digital learning with Blackboard software

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University of Pretoria (UP) selected global edtech company Blackboard Ally software to make its digital courses more accessible to all students.

Higher education institutions have stepped up their digital transformation initiatives to deal with the increase in online learning, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, UP says Ally is being piloted among a small group of students and academics over the next few months.

He adds that academic staff will use the software to improve the accessibility of their digital learning content, noting that it will enhance digital accessibility on all devices, in line with the university’s hybrid learning environment and strategies to improve student success.

“Adopting Ally aims to foster an inclusive learning environment for our nearly 55,000 students,” says Dolf Jordaan, UP’s deputy director of the education innovation department.

Ally software integrates into a university’s learning management systems to make digital course content accessible to a wider variety of students. Using advanced machine learning algorithms, it generates alternative formats, such as screen reader-readable text, ePUB, HTML, audio, and electronic braille, or that students can download and use to support their learning.

In addition, the software provides feedback to instructors so that they can improve the accessibility of their course materials.

The Pretoria-based higher education institution stresses that the solution will benefit all students. Those with inconsistent internet access will be able to use low-bandwidth offline formats, and students with learning disabilities will benefit from downloading an audio file in MP3 format to play and listen to content.

Oleg Figlin, vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Blackboard, comments: “Ally has helped establishments identify and resolve accessibility issues, and have improved the experience and performance. students.

“UP is an important partner in South Africa. The university became the first university in Africa to adopt Ally. This initiative will benefit their students and help their instructors develop courses according to a universal design for learning best practices. We are proud to support UP as it strives to meet the needs of its diverse learners.

Professor Norman Duncan, Deputy Director of Studies at UP, adds: “Our goal is to create an inclusive digital learning environment to honor diversity. We strive for excellence in teaching and learning.

“In the contemporary world, accessibility to digital content is not a luxury but a necessity. Meeting accessibility standards is critical, especially given the growing ubiquity of e-learning technologies.

Along with Ally’s introduction, Dr Alecia Samuels, from the Center for Augmentative and Alternative Communication at UP, developed a course on digital accessibility to educate academic staff on the need to design accessible digital documents and give them the skills to create digital content. more accessible from the start.

“We have around 1,000 students at UP who have declared their disability, but there are many more second language students who could also benefit from better accessibility,” says Samuels. “An example is the text / closed captioning on videos. By making our content accessible to students with disabilities, we are making our content accessible to everyone. “

Professor Gerrit Stols, director of the Department of Educational Innovation at UP, notes that the start of the COVID-19-induced lockdown has made the transition to online learning less intimidating than it used to be. .

“Adding accessibility features to improve digital content will help UP proactively identify barriers to digital content for all students. We want to make sure that no student is left behind in their studies.


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