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.

Online Students and Teachers Exposed!

In this session, four students and four teachers were up in front.  The four students were all high school juniors and seniors who were attending Clark County Virtual High School here in Nevada.  The teachers teach English and Science.

While the students are younger than most attending GRCC, their persecutive is interesting because many of our students are in college for the first time and are very close to this age group.

The students were asked what they liked about school online. They mentioned the usual benefits like the flexible schedule and work at their own pace. What was noteworthy, however, was their point that they didn’t have all the distractions that a bunch of teenagers in a room normally have.  That enabled them to focus more on their subject than worrying about everybody and their “issues” around them.

Another interesting comment from the students was that in a traditional setting, they bounce from subject to subject on the hour and it is very hard to let each subject soak in.  It’s a series of jolts followed by a bunch of homework in evening.  With online learning, they can grab hold of one subject for as long as they need in one concentrated block of time, making it easier to stay focused and absorb the material.  It helps especially for their homework.

Students actually found the online format to enhance collaboration because they were less inhibited to share.  They felt safer to participate, and written comments gave them time to compose quality responses.

Teachers and students alike found that online courses require a individual to be self-motivated and organized and scheduled.  Teachers must be available at non-traditional times such as evenings and weekends.  But teachers do find the online format effective.

In fact, the “online is easier” claim is quickly dispelled when a class is done ri, but it shouldn’t be worse if you know how to teach it properly.  Teachers must learn how to do things right or it can certainly be a lot more challenging.

Like it or not, online is here to stay.  Some states are mandating online courses at the high school level in preparation for college.  For some students who must care for others, online courses are the only way they can get an education.

I enjoyed getting the panel’s perspectives.

The Classroom Experience

Rhonda Blackburn, Associate Provost at the University of Texas at Dallas, gave an interesting discussion about improving the classroom experience.  At her university, she facilitated a project where they took a traditional classroom and put new furniture and moving whiteboards into it, making it very collaborative and more engaging for students.

They found that while a few immediately thought the changes were wonderful, the majority of faculty found the changes chaotic and unstructured.  It wasn’t until the faculty were shown how to use the furniture to their benefit that they began to see how it could benefit both faculty and students.  

For example, one professor found that in a row-based room, students who sat in front tended to participate more while those in the back did not.  In the more flexible room, the teacher could easily make the back of the room the front.  That enabled the instructor to challenge and engage those students.

The key to success was the attitude of the faculty.  The students tended to pick up on and follow the attitude of the professor in the classroom.

She then pointed out that when you design a class in blackboard, it’s important to make it similarly open, collaborative, and welcoming to students.

Like furniture in a room, we make a class more collaborative by the use of groups, discussion boards, and a variety of social communication options.  When furniture was arranged in pods versus rows, teams could be put in those pods so they could work together or discuss ideas together.

She concluded by stating that the two most significant essentials to a successful blackboard course is that (1) it has a clear structure so that students can find what they need, and (2) it is collaborative so that students can get help and communicate with the instructor and other students.

Mini-session: Social Media in the Learning Management System

David Lloyd from Georgia Southern University

Unfortunately this session was in far too small of a room! There was a huge line waiting to get in, and I was able to squeeze in with only two chairs left. The presenter was great, I picked up a number of great things – I think it is very possible to embed social media into a course without requiring that your students use and social media themselves!
Google Voice Widget on Course Homepage
Take away #1 – adding widgets into your course such as the Google Voice widget. This will allow students to call you without you having to give out your phone number or without your students having to give you their number!

So many of the different social media tools have widgets you can add right into your course. Another one shown by the presenter was your twitter feed. He added it to the footer of his course homepage – this would be very useful for an instructor to use twitter to send quick updates and announcements to their students who can view the updates in the Blackboard course or on twitter all without requiring students to have a twitter account. With all of the twitter widget options, you can embed various tweet searches for specific topics by specifying hashtags such as #BbWorld11 for Blackboard World 2011.
Embed into Discussion Threads
Another big take away for me was embedding items in the description/instruction area of discussion threads. I had never seen this, but it is so cool! An instructor could embed a specific YouTube video (or any embedable social media widget) into any part of their course in which html is allowed. In the picture I took, David embedded the YouTube video of yesterday’s keynote speaker Steve Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From. The possibilities are simply endless.

Mini-session: 7 Best Face-to-Face Teaching Practices in Blended Learning Environments

Dan Lim & Jinyuan Tao from Florida College of Health Sciences

In the transition from traditional teaching to the blended environment, some instructors succeed, but some fail. Here are the seven best practices as discovered and used by Florida College of Health Sciences.

Best Practice 1: Integrate Laptops into Teaching & Learning

Faculty use their campus laptops, and students are required to have a laptop. Beginning in the Fall of 2011, all students at their college new or returning must bring a laptop. In the first class, they take a quiz to let their instructor know the make, model, operating system, etc… of their laptop. They learned in the past few semesters that even though students bring all kinds of different laptops with them, the support was not as difficult as imagined.

Best Practice 2: Design Interactive Games to Mitigate Challenging Content Learning

Best Practice 3: Administer short quizzes to ensure reading prior to live lectures

Best Practice 4: Conduct Additional Face-to-Face Lectures to Review Challenging Content

Best Practice 5: Implement the Classroom Response System (Clickers) to Give Practice Questions

Clickers became popular quickly, and they have turned to virtual clickers.

Best Practice 6: Divide Students into Groups to Work on Case Studies and Scenarios to Reinforce Content Learning

Be sure to cater to different modes of learning and try not to over use case studies or group work to keep your students engaged.

Best Practice 7: Archive Key Classroom Lectures and Expand to Mobile Learning

This was an enlightening session for me – I do believe that some of these best practices may work well for this particular college because of the content in the health sciences; the need for students to learn a lot of vocabulary and content that can easily be quizzed and lends itself to the use of clickers and so forth. Since my focus at GRCC is to help faculty develop fully online courses, I know that there is another set of best practices for faculty who are teaching fully online. Learning the culture of teaching and learning at GRCC and how to help faculty transition to the online environment will be an exciting adventure.