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!


JISClegal podcasts about Recording Lectures and Screencasts

June 9, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Posted in lecture recording | 2 Comments
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JISClegal have released a series of seven short videos, orginally presented as a live webcast. They cover the legal, technical and accessibility issues, and include an instructional ‘How To’ segment, panel discussion and Q&A with experts from JISC Legal, JISC Digital Media and JISC Techdis.

Part 1 – Introduction (8 mins)

Part 2 -Basic Recording Tips (4 mins)

Part 3 -Preparing to Record (32 mins)

Part 4 – Your Questions Answered (12 mins)

Part 5 -Making a Recording (16 mins)

Part 6 -Making the Recording Available (16 mins)

Part 7 – Final Questions (10 mins)

Subtitles for videos

February 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Posted in hands-on | Leave a comment
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I’ve just used the new subtitling feature in Camtasia v7 and it really makes it easy to synchronise the script with the video – you just click on a word in the script when you hear it to divide the script into two or three line chunks. So ideally the process takes only a little longer than the video itself.

The test video in question is A guide to making your thesis available online. This 10-minute presentation introduces e-theses, outlines their benefits and the issues they raise and describes the process requird to create and submit them. It is also available as an Adobe Presenter slideshow.

I uploaded the resultant MP4 to EdShare and was disappointed to find that the captions are not supported (I think). A quick dig around Google indicated that FlowPlayer (used by EdShare) can support captions, so I’ll ask if its possible to get that extension installed.

I then uploaded the same file to YouTube, plus the captions in SubRip format (essentially text plus timecodes). Camtasia can export your captions as a SubRip file, so it only took a couple of minutes to create a fully accesible video. Just click CC in the control bar to view the captions.

Voice Recognition done right

February 8, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Posted in software | Leave a comment
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Like many people, I’ve tried using voice recognition software as an alternative to typing, but never really got on with it. It wasn’t the accuracy that was a problem, but the need to adapt my speech to the software’s requirements. I also like to think as I type and this involves editing as I go, changing my mind about how to phrase things. Voice-controlled editing is just awful.

However, I’ve just come across a piece of software called WordQ and SpeakQ which is designed to assist typing by blending it with voice recognition. For example if you want to add a word which you aren’t sure how to spell, just say it. If the recognition engine isn’t sure what you said it presents the likely alternatives as a list and you choose the right one. It will read back what you have typed, making it much easier for dyslexic students or those with shakey spelling or grammar to hear and then correct their errors. Finally, it will suggest  word synonyms to help you vary your vocabulary.

Take a look at the short video and see if you wish this functionality was standard on your computer. Although it is aimed at people with learning differences I think that most users would find it helpful. The only downside is the cost at $200 for the download version; the high price reflects the limited anticipated market size. I wonder how many copies they would sell if it were only $20 and was instead marketed to “anyone who sometimes has trouble spelling”? Or perhaps Microsoft could do a deal and make it standard on Windows 8 – that really would be a unique selling point and a solid reason to upgrade!

New Copyright licence for dyslexic students

June 2, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Posted in useful links | Leave a comment
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The Copyright Licencing Agency HE licence has always allowed the University to create accessible versions of books and journals for visually-disabled students. This would normally be a text file, such as a PDF, that works with a text-to-speech program. The Library could use OCR (optical character recognition) to create these text files providing a suitable file was not already available.

The licence has recently been extended to cover students with any ‘print disability’, including dyslexia – and this is significant since this is the most widespread disability encountered.  More details here.

Changing text and background colours in Adobe Acrobat Reader

October 2, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Posted in useful links | Leave a comment
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Another day, another video – the more I make the quicker it gets. This one is a 4-minute guide for students who suffer from dyslexia or visual stress, and shows how to change the background and text colours to meet their specific needs. Of course it also makes good sense to provide this info visually, rather than on paper.

Higher quality Powerpoint images in Word and PDF

September 29, 2009 at 10:11 am | Posted in hands-on | Leave a comment
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This started with a request to improve the quality of text in a PDF file generated from a Word document. They text looked much heavier, and it turned out that CutePDF was substituting Helvetica for the Lucida Sans.This was solved by using Adobe Acrobat for the conversion, which embedded Lucida Sans in the PDF – and the file was 25% of the size as well. I guess you get what you pay for, and CutePDF is free. Continue Reading Higher quality Powerpoint images in Word and PDF…

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