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UP targets ‘inclusive’ digital learning with Blackboard software

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The University of Pretoria (UP) has selected global edtech firm Blackboard’s Ally software to make its digital courses more accessible to all students.

Tertiary institutions have been ramping up their digital transformation initiatives to accommodate 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 for the next few months.

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

“The adoption of Ally is to foster an inclusive learning environment for our nearly 55 000 students,” says Dolf Jordaan, UP deputy director of the Department for Education Innovation.

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

Additionally, the software provides feedback to instructors so they can improve the accessibility of their course material.

The Pretoria-based tertiary institution points out the solution will benefit all students. Those with inconsistent internet access will be able to use the offline, low-bandwidth formats, and pupils with learning disabilities will benefit from downloading an audio MP3 format file to read and listen to content.

Oleg Figlin, vice-president for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Blackboard, comments: “Ally has helped institutions to identify and resolve accessibility issues, and has boosted student experience and performance.

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

Professor Norman Duncan, vice-principal for academics at UP, adds: “Our goal is to build an inclusive digital learning environment to honour 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 are a must, especially given the increasing ubiquity of online learning technologies.”

Alongside the introduction of Ally, Dr Alecia Samuels, of the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication at UP, has developed a digital accessibility course to create awareness among academic staff of the need to design accessible digital materials and give them the skills to make digital content more accessible from the beginning.

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

Professor Gerrit Stols, director of the Department for Education Innovation at UP, notes the onset of the COVID-19-induced lockdown made the transition to online learning less daunting than it may have been before.

“Adding accessibility features to enhance digital content will assist UP to proactively identify barriers to digital content for all students. We want to ensure no student is left behind in their studies.”

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