Blackboard Ally Overview
Blackboard Ally is an online tool used to change the format of uploaded content from lecturers to your desired format e.g. changing a PowerPoint to an MP3 audio. This is part of City’s efforts to make learning more accessible to all students, including those who may process alternative formats better. Other formats you can choose from include PDF, HMTL, MP3, and electronic Braille.
When selecting either PowerPoint or Word documents, there is an icon with a downward-facing arrow that you can click on, and the alternative formats will appear on your screen for you to choose from. You should be able to select your desired format and the file will automatically appear in your downloads on your PC.
The HTML format is especially useful if you are using your phone and don’t have Adobe Reader installed on your phone. From another perspective, the MP3 version would be a good choice for someone who is visually impaired as it reads the content from the slides in detail. That said, this can also be used by those who may interpret audio information better than visual information and it can nonetheless be used as an additional learning and revision tool.
The PowerPoint was trialled on Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Safari on an Apple phone. The best was Google Chrome as it was the fastest to download and easiest to access. Chrome emerged ahead also when tried on a Windows laptop, hence you might want to make sure you use the best tools you have to optimise performance.
This version is quick to download, however, testing it, uncovered that some parts of the text were missing from the power point which may lead to students missing out on valuable content. This may also be more inaccessible in terms of format, and displaying integrating graphs, tables or pictures may be a problem, so you might want to be mindful of these limitations when utilising the tool.
This format is also quick to download – within seconds in our tests. The PDF version is another useful alternative; however, the text tends to overlap from the slides so it should probably not be used in isolation. That said, the format generally looks good and appears to be easily accessible and navigable.
The MP3 version was probably the best option after PowerPoint in our tests as there are no problems with text overlaps or missing text. That said, if there are important notes under the slides, these are not read aloud by the MP3 player which means it cannot be the sole format you should rely on. If the slides are straightforward with no notes, this is a good option for visually impaired individuals, but if there is any extra material in the footnotes of slides, students will miss this, unfortunately. Despite that, this can also be used by those who may interpret audio information better than visual information and it can nonetheless be used as an additional learning and revision tool.
Whilst Blackboard Ally is an amazing tool for accessing information in alternative formats to optimise these based on the individual needs of everyone, users must be aware that this is still in the early stages of testing, so there are still occasional issues that might arise while using it which you should be aware of. Unfortunately, this also refers to content and text missing in places as well as overlaps which are not particularly helpful for neurodiverse students who might not be able to make full use of the tool by jointly utilising the different formats.
From the personal perspectives of students who have tested it, we think that the general concept is great and the university thinking about further integrating assistive technology into learning resources to remove barriers to higher education is an incredible feat, yet we recognise that further work needs to be done in this area, yet this is laying the groundwork for further developments.
Andrei Rata, Graduate of BSc(Hons) Finance, Bayes Business School – Formerly Cass
Kate McCarthy, Postgraduate Speech and Language Therapy