BCcampus pilot projects: Experimenting with Blackboard Ally

Education technology is evolving quickly, and to help our system partners across the province experiment with the new tools, we’ve developed a testing environment: the sandbox pilot project. We’ve just wrapped Blackboard Ally, the most recent project we’ve shared and tested with local institutions.

Post by BCcampus’ editorial team

Recognizing the interest and need to investigate imminent technologies with the potential to improve the Teaching and Learning landscape for post-secondary institutions in B.C., we’ve developed a sandbox pilot process. The process enables our system partners to collaboratively participate in a testing environment to evaluate new education technologies, typically over a six-month period with participation from multiple post-secondary institutions.

We’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of sandbox pilot projects, including the video platform Kaltura; Big Blue Button; Guide on the Side; and most recently, an evaluative experience with Blackboard Ally to automate accessibility.

Blackboard Ally is a unique product and outside of the range of software we typically focus on,” said Clint Lalonde, Manager, Educational Technology, BCcampus. “In the first part, it’s a commercial product, and our normal focus is on open source solutions. Secondly, it’s not an educational technology by our normal definition – it doesn’t focus on teaching and learning. Our sandbox projects usually look at assessment platforms, Learning Management Systems (LMS), and multimedia communication tools. Since Ally is designed to make accessible learning content and works closely with the key educational technology used at all institutions, the LMS, we wanted to find out more about how it worked.”

Typically, our sandbox projects are intended to test open source software, which often doesn’t have much of a support system. Working with our partner institutions and drawing from the open source community, we can usually identify and overcome any of the obstacles to the implementation or operation of a given tool. This was the first time we’ve tested a commercial project, and the support system from the vendor was responsive and productive.

Collaboration is key

To get a true sense of what software can do in different institutions, it’s important to have as many samples as possible. We’ve had the opportunity to work with many institutions across the province, which has led to substantial learnings through the application of different setups, platforms, and technical experience. For the Ally project, we were able to work with teams from Camosun College, Langara College, North Island College, University of British Columbia, and Vancouver Community College.

One of the big successes with the Ally project was the opportunity it provided us to work with BCNET and CAPER-BC,” shared Clint. “We had excellent participation between the five institutions, and the information we’ve gathered through their individual evaluations of the software will be something that BCNET and CAPER-BC can use to make informed decisions moving forward.”

Reporting the experience

Sharing their findings is an important part of every pilot project, as it allows future researchers to learn about what worked, what didn’t, and who might benefit from a future iteration or further testing. Feedback on the Ally project was overall positive, with detailed reports from each of the participating institutions to share their findings.

Sue Doner and Emily Schudel, Instructional Designers at Camosun College, shared “what we are most excited about with Blackboard Ally is the potential it offers for immediately and significantly increasing our capacity to deliver accessible content to students. Specifically, the fact that the tool gently and contextually educates instructors about what they can do better as they create and add content to an online course is an enormous benefit, creating awareness and fundamental literacy around “how do I make my course accessible?”

Read the full reports:

Notable quote:

 “Given the results from our pilot, we feel the top benefit is how just the availability of Ally seems to raise awareness of accessibility in a positive and productive function, with a focus on empowering our users to increase the accessibility of their materials with timely and in-course guidance. Couple this with the extensive reporting features, which will allow the University to better react to legislative expectations and monitor our progress in improving students’ access to course materials across the institution, and Ally would clearly be a valuable tool across a wide spectrum of educational users.” – Kalev Hunt, Project and Services Manager, University of British Columbia

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