Accessible Online Learning

Be Proactive: Creating An Accessible Online Learning Environment Using Blackboard

JoAnna Hunt, Design Strategist – Blackboard Learn
Jennifer Pope, Copy & Compliance Editor – Northeastern University
Ke’Anna Skipwith, Instructional Designer – Northeastern University
Stephanie Weeks, Vice President – User Experience, Blackboard Academic Platforms

This session highlighted how Northeastern University is being proactive in building accessible online course content; along with the latest accessibility features in Blackboard Learn and Collaborate products. An accessible LMS + accessible faculty course content = student success.

Barriers to accessibility:

  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of Time
  • Challenges with the LMS
  • Lack of Awareness

 Biggest knowledge gaps:


 Some accessibility features in Blackboard Learn:

  • New accessible calendar.
  • Much easier to understand and navigate the discussion boards.
  • Skip links allow users to skip over major navigation sections (such as the course menu) and jump directly to the most relevant content. Skip links are available to both keyboard only and screen reader users.
  • The Quick links tool allows a user to quickly locate any heading or section within any page in the Blackboard Learn application and jump directly to it.
  • Test availability exceptions is a set of new settings on the Test Options page, available only after the test is added to a content area. Select one or more groups of students and make a number of exceptions to the already established availability settings. Exceptions can be used to provide an accommodation to a disabled student, or provide accommodations for technology and language differences.

Why be proactive in creating accessible online course content:

  • Saves time
  • Minimizes course disruption
  • Reduces cost

 Northeastern University’s approach:

  1. First step is mandatory two week training in which the instructor becomes certified.
  2. Second step is readiness / quality
     (2×2 rule – 2weeks of course material ready 2 weeks before the course begins).
  3. Third step is ongoing support for faculty. Instructional designers assigned to faculty members for one-on-one support.

The follow are examples of being proactive in creating universally designed and accessible online course content at Northeastern University:

  • Use descriptive text and alt text.
  • Use CC and/or print transcripts to benefit all students with text reinforcement.
  • Use of the note section in Bb Collaborate Voice board.
  • Provide text based lectures in additional formats such as a PowerPoint that has the material chunked into sections.
  • Use the notes section in PowerPoints to provide additional information.

Can Twitter microblogging lead to higher retention?

Cheryl Boncuore, Academic Director at Kendall College in Chicago
Aurora Dawn Reinke, Assistant Professor at Kendall College in Chicago

Kendall instituted an experiment with faculty to implement social media in pedagogically sound ways. The college allowed the use of social media in class and beyond; tied use to institutional mission, programmatic learning outcomes and class objectives. They conducted the experiment with 10 professors, used 13 hashtags, and 276 students.

Kendall learned from the microblogging experiment that it is a great way to…

  • Prompt student research.
  • Connect with leaders in the industry and build relationships.
  • Engage students and faculty (some students that may not normally talk in face-to-face classrooms, may feel comfortable using social media instead).
  • Affirm student knowledge (followers, retweets, favorites).

Lessons learned and what Kendall will do differently next time…

  • Provide more training for students and faculty; how to use hash tags and mention use.
  • Explain to students better the advantages of using Twitter; only takes a few seconds, short, and to the point.
  • Don’t assume all Gen Y students are not afraid of doing it “wrong.” Encourage them to participate without fear of being penalized for not tweeting correctly.
  • Do not use Twitter to remind students of homework as it will result in a negative reaction from students.

Tips to integrate Twitter into your class…

  • Come up with a list of topics for hashtags to use in tweets and find reliable information.
  • Have students follow you (the instructor). The instructor may also want to also follow the student. Encourage students to create a professional (not personal) account.
  • Encourage students to find great resources and share URL.


Students felt more connected with instructors, peers, and those in the industry.

Useful Twitter tools…

  • Twitonomy analytics is a tool used to see statistics on students’ twitter accounts (number of tweets, replies, retweets, mentions, and even the devices used).
  • is a social media dashboard to manage and measure your social networks. It allows faculty to schedule tweets and have multiple feeds.
  • is one of many sites used to shorten URLs to help meet the limited 140 characters.

Use #teachwithtwitter so that we can learn from each other.

For students using assistive technologies, Easy Chirp is a third-party web-based Twitter interface. It is a web-accessible application meaning that it’s optimized for disabled users.

Free Web 2.0 Applications to Foster Student Engagement

Paulette Comet, Associate Professor
The Community College of Baltimore CountyFree Web 2.0 Applications - Mini Session










Recommended book
“Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World” by Dan Tapscott
Includes guidelines for educators to tap the Net Gen (the first generation to have grown up digital) potential.

Below are free applications to help you foster student engagement for the Net Gen:

    Instead of the usual PowerPoint presentations, try the free Prezi cloud based presentation software to create visually captivating presentations.
    Voki allows you to create speaking avatars as an effective learning tool to motivate students and increase comprehension.  Great way for students and instructors to introduce themselves in the online classroom.
    Animoto utilizes “MTV Style” editing to show brief clips of a specific subject.
    Take advantage of mobile education opportunities by making any web site mobile ready.
  • Jing
    Record up to a 5 minute video free!

College Students Provide Perspective on Classroom Engagement and Digital Content

College students from around the country participated in a panel discussion to share their opinions on digital content, online learning and information accessibility in higher education.

Below are some of the questions asked by the moderator and the students’ responses.

What are you doing in technology today that you were not doing two years ago?

  • Using eBooks rather than traditional textbooks
  • Watching YouTube videos to learn
  • Creating and participating in Blogs
  • Conducting research using Google and Wikipedia

How has your learning style changed due to technology?

  • Taking more online classes so that work and school can be balanced better and for the  convenience of learning at home
  • Listening to  lectures more than once as they’re so often now available online in a recorded video
  • Do not need to miss class and fall behind due to unexpected issues (weather, family, illness, etc.) as material is available online

The students listed what they thought were best practices used by teachers:

  • Continuously updated announcements in Blackboard that tell the student what to do
  • Syllabus always right there and easily accessible
  • Material that is well organized and can be found with just a couple of clicks
  • Timely feedback so that students always know where they stand in the class
  • The ability to interact with peers and the instructor using Discussion boards
  • The use of step-by-step video tutorials
  • Synchronous communication (the instructor is available online at certain times / days in a virtual office)

( Note:  Students now expect teachers to fully utilize Bb and are frustrated when some teachers do not use it or use very minimally.)

When studying, preparing, and doing homework, what other digital resources do you use?

  • CDs in the back of the book
  • Google and Google Scholar
  • YouTube
  • The College library with database resources
  • Wikipedia as a good starting point and to get a quick overview,  then on to more credible Web sites

What is your advice for professors when incorporating digital content, technology, or devices in classrooms?

  • Instructors should use technology in their personal lives (as students do) so that they understand it well and use it more in the classroom
  • Take advantage of faculty technology training to be comfortable with it
  • Use texting to provide information (such as when class is cancelled)
  • Incorporate social media into classrooms to help keep students engaged and connected
    (students use Facebook extensively and teachers can use it to their advantage)

What makes a course standout?

  • Synchronous communication opportunities with the instructor and other students using tools such as Instant Messaging or Skype (the panel of students brought up communication opportunities several times)
  • A variety of available materials in addition to the traditional textbook
  • Lectures that  include real-world examples of how to apply the knowledge


Rubrics: Creating a Level Grading Field

Sinora Dabney
Consulting Specialist
Blackboard Inc

Part of this session included using the Blackboard Learn Interactive Rubrics tool.

  • Rubrics are interactive / gradable.
  • Enables efficient and consistent grading.
  • The instructor can create, copy and edit rubrics.
  • Rubric grading process is integrated into the normal grading workflows.
  • Interactive rubrics can be used for assignments, blogs, Discussions, Wikis and Journals.

Rubric resources

For step-by-step directions on how to create interactive rubrics, samples you can download and import into Bb, and much more:
username and password:  bbw77
(Provided with permission. Available until Aug. 31, 2012)

Best practices and practical examples to improve accessibility in Blackboard

Dr. Jennifer Ellis
Assistant Professor at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Courses incorporate universal design principles, and are accessible to blind, deaf, and mobility impaired students.  Best practices and practical examples to improve accessibility in Blackboard Learn include some of the following recommendations:

  • Record your lectures so that students can review later.  Use Camtasia, Bb Collaborate or some other software to record lectures. Post your lectures in various file formats such as MP4 and Flash. Lectures should include transcripts and saved in various formats such as MS Word and PDFs.
  • When grading and providing feedback, consider audio feedback.  For example, numerous Track Changes comments in Word can be tedious to listen to in a screen reader.
  • Remove unneeded modules in Bb Learn for ease of entry for those with disabilities.  This way the screen reader will not have to go through all the modules to find your course.
  • Ensure students can access all material with a keyboard only. Use keyboard shortcuts.
  • Blogs and Journals are more compliant then Discussion boards. Screen readers interpret Blogs and Journals better than threaded Discussion boards.
  • Organize content folders with clear, short headings for each folder. Do not add additional text underneath each folder as it takes additional time for the screen reader.
  • Label files clearly and provide in numerous formats (Assignment-Instructions.doc,  Assignment1-Instructions.pdf).
  • Make files open in a new window instead of within Blackboard as it works better for screen readers.
  • Use Alt tags for all images and video.
  • Use MashUp YouTube videos that have Closed Captioning.
  • Provide multiple file formats to ensure all users will be able to access the information with their respective technology (*.swf, *.mp4, etc.)