2002 Conference Proceedings

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BLACKBOARD & WEBAIM: BUILDING AN ACCESSIBLE E-EDUCATION PLATFORM

Reidy Brown
Accessibility Coordinator
Blackboard Software Engineering
rbrown@blackboard.com 
(202) 463-4860 x236

Greg Ritter
Managing Consultant
Blackboard Learning Solutions
gritter@blackboard.com 
(202) 463-4860 x261

Accessibility is a critical component of online education. As part of Blackboard's ongoing dedication to the accessibility of our e-Education platform, , in 2000 we began collaborating with Utah State University, Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI), and TLT Group in a project known as Web Accessibility In Mind (WebAIM), funded by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) Learning Anywhere Anytime Partnerships (LAAP). WebAIM focuses on educating instructors, administrators, and course designers on how to build accessible online learning environments. Blackboard is participating as the preferred online learning platform for this project and works with experts on the WebAIM team to build out the accessibility features and accessibility standards compliance of Blackboard software during this four-year project.

In the fall of 2000, Blackboard kicked off participation in the WebAIM project with an in-house accessibility audit of the then-current version of Blackboard's e-Education platform, Blackboard 5.02. Blackboard's Accessibility Coordinator, Reidy Brown (rbrown@blackboard.com), trained a team of developers and software designers in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) laid out by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Blackboard 5.02's user interface was audited for Priority 1, 2, and 3 accessibility issues.

The audit produced a series of recommendations for short-term software changes and strategic long-term strategic goals. The short-term results of this audit include:

1. Accessibility requirements. The subsequent version of our software, Blackboard 5.5, included specific product requirements to support accessibility, such as:

* All system images must have ALT tags.
* When using Blackboard's content authoring tools, course developers must be able to add ALT tags to uploaded images and media controls in the content creation areas of the software (with the exception of optional assessment images, which should be described in the question or answer text).
* Framesets must be appropriately titled and will have meaningful <NOFRAMES> tags, describing the functionality of the frames layout.
* Data tables must be optimized for use with screen readers by adding attributes to associate column headings with table content.
* Blackboard must provide online documentation in both HTML and PDF format, which describes in detail the layout, context, and functionality of each Blackboard feature, as well as giving instructions on using these features.
* Much of this functionality was already available in Blackboard 5.02 although not as consistently as desired. Blackboard 5.5 brought these features up to 100% implementation throughout the system.

2. Cross-functional product management focused on accessibility. Until this point, each Product Manager was directly associated with specific Blackboard product lines. Accessibility became the first cross-functional product management project. Reidy Brown was named Accessibility Product Manager. In this capacity, Reidy participated in product management meetings, briefing other Product Managers on accessibility issues, making recommendations on the accessibility of all product lines, and participating in strategy decisions that involved accessibility issues. This cross-functional approach allowed Blackboard to ensure accessibility was a priority in all of our products and implemented consistently throughout Blackboard's product lines.

3. Improved accessibility user testing. In December 2000, employees from Blackboard toured the Assistive Technology Lab at the Helen Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities (KIHd), part of the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Blackboard sat in on semester presentations for the KIHd graduate studies Immersion Program and began discussions of how Blackboard and the Helen Kellar Institute might work together. Blackboard formed an alliance with the Helen Kellar Institute where George Mason University joined the WebAIM partnership and KIHd instructional designers and students with disabilities would perform accessibility user testing on the Blackboard platform.

During the beta release phase of Blackboard 5.5 development, Norm Coombs and Dick Banks of EASI and Paul Bohman of WebAIM visited Blackboard to conduct testing of the new accessibility features. While there, Dick and Norm made suggestions for a few remaining accessibility problems with the software. Another result of these meetings was an agreement between EASI and Blackboard to co-author tutorials on the use of assistive technology in education to make the entire experience more usable.

4. Implementation of Section 508 and other standards. While Blackboard was implementing these short-term changes, the Federal Section 508 standards were published. Blackboard's Product Managers re-evaluated the Blackboard 5.5 product requirements and realized that with a few simple additions version 5.5 would fully implement Section 508. Before the release of version 5.5, Blackboard outsourced the accessibility-related quality assurance testing to an independent company specializing in Section 508 testing. After several weeks of testing, the outside contractor provided documentation indicating that Blackboard 5.5 fully implemented Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. Continued accessibility improvements are released along with subsequent patches and releases.

Blackboard is also collaborating with the Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Global Learning Consortium (http://www.imsproject.org) and the National Center for Accessible Media (http://ncam.wgbh.org) on the Specifications for Accessible Learning Technologies (SALT) Partnership (http://ncam.wgbh.org/salt), also funded by the FIPSE Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships. NCAM and IMS have set up an industry-led Working Group on Accessibility. Blackboard -- along with Microsoft, Sun, Pearson Education, PeopleSoft, Saba, Educational Testing Services (ETS), and the United Kingdom's Open University -- was an initial partner in this Working Group and continues to be represented by Chris Etesse (cetesse@blackboard.com), Blackboard's Director of Technology & Commerce, and Reidy.

5. Increased internal awareness of accessibility issues. In September 2000, Paul Bohman of WebAIM traveled to the Blackboard headquarters in Washington, DC, for development, design, and strategy meetings with project leaders at Blackboard and for training sessions for Blackboard employees. Approximately 40 employees attended these training sessions, including members of the Software Engineering, Product Support, Learning Solutions, Sales, Client Relationship Management, and Product Management departments, as well as the Blackboard Executive Team. Additional internal resources include an intranet-based resource to keep the company current on accessibility issues as well as internal accessibility product management mailing lists.

6. Increased awareness of the WebAIM initiative and its goals. Blackboard and EASI co-authored an assistive technology in online education tutorial, released in the fall of 2001. Dick Banks and Norm Coombs interviewed Reidy on accessibility in online educational software for an EASI webcast (http://www.easi.cc/media/reidy.htm). Reidy wrote several fact sheets on Blackboard's Section 508 implementation and on how instructors could use these new accessibility features to create more accessible courses. These documents and others related to Blackboard's work with accessibility issues are archived in a new section of the corporate web site devoted to accessibility (http://access.blackboard.com). In addition to Blackboard's accessibility documentation, the site contains resources for using 3rd party products and plug-ins accessibly with the Blackboard platform. It also serves to reinforce the link between Blackboard and the WebAIM project, cross-hosting and linking to several WebAIM articles.

These results of the 2000 audit made up the initial phase of Blackboard's long-term strategy to address accessibility issues.After analyzing the audit results, Blackboard implemented a series of accessibility enhancements, mostly accomplished by retrofitting the well-established 5.02 platform. This allowed the Blackboard 5, release 5.5 platform to fully implement the US Section 508 guidelines. Moving forward, later phases include the continual review of existing user interfaces for both technical accessibility and for usability. As accessibility testing and user feedback indicate areas for continued improvement, the Blackboard Accessibility Coordinator expedites accessibility requests by flagging them as high priority, conducting an integrated software scoping analysis, and providing the results to the Product Management team. New software features are reviewed by in-house accessibility experts in the design phase, and are aggressively tested for accessibility by members of the WebAIM team during beta phase of software development.

Blackboard continues to build out the accessibility of its platform via the Building Blocks (B2) Program , Blackboard's initiative to provide clients and partners the ability to extend our platform through open APIs. Building Blocks provides clients and partners the access points to extend Blackboard core capabilities by developing and incorporating new system extensions to promote accessibility. Blackboard and WebAIM are developing a program using B2 technology to encourage software developers to create and test accessibility extensions for the Blackboard platform-allowing for even greater accessibility innovations in the future.

RELATED RESOURCES

Blackboard Inc. (http://www.blackboard.com)

Create a free Blackboard 5.5 course site (http://coursesites.blackboard.com)

Blackboard Accessibility (http://access.blackboard.com)

Blackboard 5.5's Section 508 Implementation (http://products.blackboard.com/cp/bb5/access/bb508.cgi)

Recommendations for Using Bb 5.5 under Section 508 (http://products.blackboard.com/cp/bb5/access/508coursebuilders.cgi)

Blackboard Accessibility FAQ (http://products.blackboard.com/cp/bb5/access/faqs.cgi)

EASI/Blackboard Assistive Technology Tutorial (http://products.blackboard.com/cp/bb5/access/screen_reader_tutorial.htm)

WebAIM (http://www.webaim.org)

WebAIM's Internet Accessibility course site (delivered via Blackboard, click on the Preview button on the Login page to access as a guest) (http://coursesites.blackboard.com/courses/1/INST5320)

EASI (http://www.rit.edu/~easi)

EASI webcast with Reidy Brown, Blackboard's Accessibility Product Manager (http://www.easi.cc/media/reidy.htm)

Helen Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities (http://chd.gse.gmu.edu/)

SALT (http://ncam.wgbh.org/salt/)

Access Board (http://www.access-board.gov/)

W3C WAI (http://www.w3c.org/WAI/)


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