Ally: a game changer for accessibility

July 12, 2017 at 10:55 am | Posted in educational, systems | Leave a comment
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Ally logo

Yesterday I attended a Blackboard webinar about their new system, Ally, and immediately saw that this would be a ‘must-have’ for any institution that is serious about improving the accessibility of their online resources. Ongoing changes to the Disabled Student Allowance have made institutions legally responsible for providing reasonable adjustments for students with learning differences and disabilities, and Ally offers three ways to meet that duty.

Automatic creation of accessible versions of resources

Ally integrates with Blackboard’s normal workflow, so tutors upload their files using the same process as they currently use (which now includes drag-and-drop) and the primary link is to that file (e.g. a Word, PowerPoint or PDF document). A new dropdown menu offers links to accessible versions; HTML, ePub, electronic Braille or audio file. These versions are only generated by Ally the first time a student requests it, and are stored by Ally so do not take up additional storage space on our Blackboard servers. Ally uses Amazon Web Services for processing and storage, and offers institutionally-controlled cloud storage if required.

I was really impressed with the quality of the conversion from original file to HTML. Ally uses sophisticated semantic structural analysis and machine learning to recognise headings, lists and tables and even deals with multi-column layouts, maths and equations. The HTML version is used as the basis for the other accessible formats.

So Ally provides students with accessible versions of documents without any additional effort or input from tutors. That in itself is a major win, but wait – there’s more…

Nudging tutors to improve the accessibility of their resources

When the tutor views the resource item in Blackboard, they see a small coloured ‘gauge icon’ alongside the link. Green indicates good accessibility, orange is so-so and red means it needs improvements. Clicking the icon brings up detailed feedback on what the problems are and what the impact on students is – for example if images embedded in the document do not have ALT text, then students with visual disabilities cannot access them at all. Ally also offers context-sensitive advice about the practical steps needed to resolve the issue (e.g. how to add ALT text in Word). Tutors can upload a revised version of the document and immediately see its improved rating.

Institutional oversight of accessibility data

The final aspect of Ally is designed to help institutions meet their legal duty by providing the data that enables accessibility to be measured and improvements to be tracked over time. It lists the most common issues, and identifies those modules that need significant work. The administrators can drill down to individual modules and resources, so care will need to be taken to ensure that tutors get appropriate support and advice and that this is not seen as a performance management tool.

The three aspects of Ally: 1) alaternative accesible versions 2) instructor feedback and 3) institutional report

It’s easy to see how these three aspects of  Ally work together to enable institutions to make a step-change in the accessibility of their learning resources – and that’s why I think Ally is a game-changer. How can an institution NOT offer this facility?

As a final note, I was really impressed that Ally already works with Blackboard, Moodle Rooms and Canvas Instructure, and will soon be available for stand-alone Moodle and even D2L’s Brightspace (Blackboard’s main rival). That’s the right move – accessibility for all!


A user guide for Common Learning Spaces

November 10, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Posted in educational, systems, useful links | Leave a comment


I represent ILIaD on the Common Learning Spaces Working Group, and provide input on issues relating to technology in those rooms. It is interesting to consider how much technology there is in a modern lecture theatre; the lectern PC, data projector, visualiser, DVD player, microphones, connections for Ethernet, audio, VGA and HDMI video – and of course the touch-screen panel used to control all these devices.

We’ve been putting some thought into how we can help tutors get to grips with all of these; it seems that there is no training provided for new tutors and when I looked for documentation it was hard to find and out of date – no mention of HDMI for example. Over the summer I used WordPress to create a new website that aims to provide ‘just in time’ advice; it is accessed via the simple shortcut:

Laminated A4 posters will be displayed by the lectern that give that link as well as the ServiceLine contact number for urgent problems. The posters have space so that simple issues such as “no black whiteboard marker” can be written down and fixed by the team of room checkers at the end of each day.

The CLSWG regularly reviews a list of the problems encountered by tutors in CLS rooms, and a troubleshooting section on the website aims to help tutors quickly fix simple problems themselves. Of course if the PC isn’t working they won’t be able to access the online advice, but then they need to phone ServiceLine anyhow!

Its important for ‘experts’ such as myself to remember that learning technology includes the common hardware that tutors use every day as well as the online systems we are more usually concerned with.

TEAMMATES peer feedback system – review

November 13, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Posted in systems | 2 Comments
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Diagram showing TEAMMATES features

TEAMMATES ( is a free online system that facilitates anonymous peer feedback between students working in groups. It has been developed since 2010 by academics and students at the School of Computing and the Centre for the Development of Learning and Teaching at the National University of Singapore, and their intention is to keep it as a free service. My view is that it is a well-designed, mature system that offers an excellent user interface and experience. It runs on the Google App engine which provides strong stability and scalability, enabling it to cope with large cohorts and groups.

Tutors do need to have a Google account to use TEAMMATES, but students do not need one and can submit responses and view their feedback without ever needing to login or sign up. However, if they do login to TEAMMATES using their Google account, they can access all their TEAMMATES courses and feedback in one page and create a user profile.

Here is an overview of the process:

  1. Tutor logs in to TEAMMATES, creates a course and enrols the students/teams by simply copying the data from a spreadsheet (team, name, email, comments).
  2. Tutor creates a session and adds the questions they wish to ask. It is easy to copy and then edit an existing session.
  3. When the session opens (at a scheduled time) the students are emailed a unique link that they use to access their feedback form.
  4. The tutor can view the responses submitted at any time.
  5. Students are sent a reminder email 24 hours before the session closes (at its scheduled time). Extra reminders can be sent manually if required.
  6. After the session closes the tutor can review the results and then click publish to email the students with a unique link to view their individual feedback.
  7. The tutor can download the session results as a spreadsheet file. The results could be used to adjust individual student grades for group projects depending on their peers’ assessment of their contribution.

A real strength of TEAMMATES is the range of question types available and the flexibility of the feedback paths and visibility that can be easily assigned to them. For example, the question below asks students to provide feedback to the other members of their team about their ‘contribution to team meetings’ by choosing an option. The visibility has been set so that the feedback is anonymous, and only visible to the recipient (of the feedback).

TEAMMATES question creation 1

However, note that many other visibility options are available, so if the question asked for comments about ‘strengths that the student brought to the team’ then that feedback could be shared with the rest of their team and the givers identified. This opens up many interesting possibilities for generating constructive formative feedback for developing effective teams and team skills.

The rubric question format makes it easy for students to provide feedback on a range of issues using a compact format. The rubric can also be shared at the start of the project so that the students have clear guidance on the behaviours that are needed to get good marks.

TEAMMATES question creation 2

The overall ease of use of the system is also a major plus, as it encourages multiple formative feedback activities during a group project/assignment. For example, near the start of the project a simple session (form) could provide team members with early feedback on whether their performance requires improvement. Later on, another session could be used to help the team keep on track, then a final session could be used to assess effort, contribution and teamwork and summatively use the scores to individualise grades.

Speech to text services

August 23, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Posted in systems | Leave a comment

It’s over a year since I blogged about text-to-speech, when my conclusion was that automated conversion was insufficiently accurate to be useful. A few weeks ago I was contacted by a company called dictate2us which offers a web-based speech to text service, this time based on human transcription. You create an account, add some funds (I used PayPal) and upload your audio file to their website. Turn-around time depends on the length and complexity of the recording, but can be less than an hour for 5 min or less from a single-speaker. The cost is around £1 per minute of audio, so it pays to speak relatively quickly! There is an  iPhone app that effectively works like a combined dictaphone and typist – just the thing for a businessman on the move. You can even upload Word templates that they will slot your text into, so that your letters are ready to send as soon as you’ve given them a quick once-over.

I uploaded the MP3 audio from one of my shorter Panopto recordings as a test – the idea being to see how simple it would be to create fully accessible recordings using Synote. The dictate2us service was smooth and easy, and the text returned within the promised deadline. You do need to review it – there were a few small errors, some of them due to my poor diction and others introduced by the transcriber. For example they missed out the word ‘JISC’ – I said it clearly enough, but it means nothing to most people and so it was omitted. There might be similar problems with transcriptions of many academic subjects that involve specialised vocabulary. Overall, though, accuracy was high and the spelling and punctuation was good.

Of course the chief problem from an academic perspective is funding. It might ‘only’ cost £50 to transcribe a lecture, but who pays, and is it scalable to a module or even a programme?

The next steps are to test a couple more five-minute chunks of  ‘real’ lectures with specialised content – and also to see how much effort it takes to synchronise these transcripts with Synote.

How to import files from your J drive into Teamsite

November 13, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Posted in systems | Leave a comment
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LATEU uses the Teamsite ‘content management system’ to maintain our own website and also the Quality Handbook. The latter in particular is based around documents stored on the J drive, so it was a pain in the neck when Teamsite recently stopped being able to import files from the J drive and would only ‘see’ our personal My Documents and My Desktop folder. OK, so we could copy files from J to our desktop when we wanted to import them, but that is a lousy work-around. ServiceLine were unfortunately unable to offer any advice. Luckily, Fiona Grindey remembered encountering a similar problem a while back which was solved by Dan Smith, the Teamsite guru (who moved on during InEx), and after fiddling around solved the problem. Hurrah! This video shows the fix – I hope you find it helpful (sorry, University staff only).

ERGO – Ethical Research Governance Online

October 7, 2009 at 10:07 am | Posted in systems | Leave a comment

I’ve just had a 30 minute meeting in Adobe Connect with Alex Furr (Psychology) at his home in Bristol – and the audio, video and screen-sharing worked really well with his consumer broadband connection. We were discussing ERGO, a system he has built which enables Schools to manage the submission and approval of ethical consent documentation for research projects.  In the past, this involved a great deal of photocopying and administrative effort, especially if changes needed to be made and resubmitted. Continue Reading ERGO – Ethical Research Governance Online…

Adobe Connect video – how to re-use a meeting

October 6, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Posted in systems | Leave a comment
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I’ve just uploaded a new video to EdShare that shows how you can quickly edit an existing meeting room in Adobe Connect so you can send email invites about the new date and time to the participants. This is useful as the invites include iCal info that enables you to add the meeting to your Outlook diary with the click of a button.

TeamPoll peer review system

September 24, 2009 at 10:34 am | Posted in systems | Leave a comment
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I’ve been involved for a couple of years with a project to develop an online peer-review system. Dr Kenji Takeda of the School of Engineering Sciences developed the system using grants from the University’s Learning and Teaching Enhancement Fund. The aim was to enable students to provide anonymous feedback to the other members of their group projects on their teamwork skills

TeamPoll is now ready for general use – you can find out more by watching the tutorial videos I produced.

ePortfolio demo

August 25, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Posted in systems | Leave a comment

On 20 August I attended the first public demonstration of the ePortfolio system being developed by an iSolutions team led by Alex Furr. The system will be piloted in the School of Psychology, starting this October. In essence is is a portal that provides access to existing systems, so the emphasis is on integration rather than duplication.  Further details and screenshots after the break: Continue Reading ePortfolio demo…

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