July 2015 Issue  Volume 16  Number 7

Access to Education

The Blackboard Online Coursework and Learning Environment: Accessibility Reports from Two College Students and One Instructor

For most everyone, summertime conjures up images of grilling hot dogs, swimming in the pool, and spending quiet evenings with friends and family. For some of us, even as we make the most of the summer months, we are already beginning to think about autumn. As the temperatures cool down and the air becomes crisp in the early morning, many will be heading to college. Some will be leaving home for the first time, preparing to make their way in a whole new world, jumping headlong into studies of one sort or another. Others of us will teach in front of a group of new students who are eager to learn about music, sociology, history, or a host of other subjects. Students will move belongings into dorm rooms and purchase books, while instructors will revise the syllabi, update study guides, and prepare exams for the semester.

Historically students with visual impairments have had to figure out where to obtain accessible textbooks, and determine in which formats they were available. Some students had exams provided in braille, but most needed someone to read exam questions aloud and possibly write down their responses. Instructors with visual impairments had their own issues to deal with. When I first began teaching a music appreciation class at a local community college in 1993, I prepared my class notes using a Perkins Brailler, and wrote exams using an electric typewriter. Over the past 20 years, the landscape has changed a lot. Books are now available in electronic format, and exams are often administered online. For blind people, the changes mentioned above are both a blessing and a curse. Many services are barely accessible with screen reading technology, and many institutions don't even know what accessibility means for a visually impaired person.

In this article, we will take a look at Blackboard, a Web service used by many colleges to provide course materials, send out announcements, post grades, and administer tests. We will look at Blackboard from the perspectives of two students and one instructor, all of whom are blind. The perspectives consider what works and what needs improvement. If you are a student or teacher reading this article, perhaps you will gain some understanding of what Blackboard is, and what questions you need to ask your college or university in order to make your experience using Blackboard as rewarding as possible.

Blackboard from the Student Perspective

Ali Krage has matriculated in August of 2013. At the first school she attended, her experience with Blackboard was not positive. JAWS, her screen reader of choice, lost focus a lot and she found it difficult to use the Blackboard website. At the College of DuPage, a community college in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, where she is working toward a degree in Criminal Justice, Krage's experience with Blackboard has been quite different.

She is now able to view course materials such as the class syllabus with no problems. Announcements from her professors go to her e-mail inbox as well the Blackboard website. Quizzes and exams administered through Blackboard have proven to be a bit more problematic. Sometimes, it is necessary to physically drag the mouse in order to choose an answer to a test question. Krage's instructors allow her to read exam questions on Blackboard, and write the correct answers in a Microsoft Word document. Since she uses JAWS at the default speaking rate, timed exams are a challenge as well.

Krage did not receive specialized training in the use of Blackboard, but she feels that knowledge of the navigation commands built into her screen reader are all she needs to find her way around the service. Her college understands that she sometimes has difficulty using Blackboard, and provides alternate methods for her to complete assignments when extra assistance is required.

Paras Shaw has been in college for five years. He is currently taking online classes, and hopes to someday work as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. His experience with Blackboard has been generally very positive. Like Krage, Shaw has not had training on the use of Blackboard with a screen reader, but he also feels that a good grasp of screen reader navigation commands is generally sufficient to successfully use the service. That said, he does believe that specific documentation regarding the use of the Blackboard service with a screen reader would be a good thing. Shaw generally uses JAWS for Windows when using Blackboard, and believes that JAWS provides the best experience (NVDA works fairly well, but not as well as JAWS). Shaw is surprised at this, since the Web is often considered one of NVDA's strong points. Safari on the Mac works pretty well with Blackboard, but not as well as JAWS and NVDA.

Using Blackboard, Shaw is able to participate in discussion forums and take exams, and was even able to read alt text descriptions of pictures associated with an art class he recently took. The one area where he has difficulty is in viewing class grades after his instructors post them to the site. Shaw feels that the more familiar an instructor is with Blackboard and the accessibility challenges encountered by blind students, the better the Blackboard experience will ultimately be for that student. Good communication between student and instructor is essential.

Blackboard from the Instructor Perspective

As mentioned earlier in this article, I have been teaching a music appreciation class at North Central Missouri College. A couple of years ago, when I learned that all instructors at the college would be required to use Blackboard as a part of classroom instruction, I was both excited and apprehensive. If all went well, I could pretty much do away with hard copy course materials. If not, I wasn't sure how I would effectively continue to teach the class. The director of the IT department at our college was an invaluable asset to me. He wrote several short, step-by-step documents on how to accomplish tasks such as adding grades to the grade center, posting announcements to Blackboard, and the like. Although he was not using a screen reader, he went as far as to use the keyboard and tell me how many presses of the Tab key were required to get to certain parts of the site and what my screen reader should announce when I got there.

I purchased a couple electronic books on using Blackboard, but I found that they were not particularly helpful. Many of the screen shots were not well labeled, and Blackboard changes from institution to institution, depending on how the college, and individual instructors, choose to configure it. I found that Googling very specific questions helped me accomplish tasks as needed. The IT director helped me set up my first class, and I was able to look at his example and figure out how to accomplish the same task in the future. Although JAWS read the website with few errors, I found that navigating Blackboard was a bit like navigating Amazon. It was doable, but painstakingly slow until I became familiar with the site. When entering grades into the Grade Center area of the site, I found an option to "turn screen reader mode on." This caused previously unusable tables to read as they should. Neither Krage nor Shaw were aware of any screen reader mode option being present on the student side of their Blackboard environments. Perhaps it was unavailable to them, or maybe they simply weren't aware of its existence. Ironically, one area of Blackboard that gave me some real trouble was the checkbox needed to make the course available to my students once I got it configured the way I wanted it. None of the four screen readers I tried read the radio buttons in any order that made sense to me, and I had to resort to asking my colleague in IT to make the class available to students for me. I continue to provide study guides and exams to students in traditional hard copy format, so I have no experience with submitting and grading assignments on Blackboard.

The Bottom Line

In our discussions, Krage, Shaw, and I all agreed that Blackboard was definitely accessible to blind users. Because there is a lot of configurability in the Blackboard service, no two experiences will be exactly the same. All three of us required assistance from our institutions in using various aspects of Blackboard. Several screen readers were tested and all were able to provide varying levels of access to the site. The three of us all found that JAWS had a bit of an edge over other screen readers, whether it was in setting place markers in various parts of the Blackboard site, properly announcing whether menus were collapsed or expanded, or reading tables correctly.

If you are a student who needs to use Blackboard for your studies, or if you are an instructor who is about to teach a class using Blackboard, be prepared to spend some time learning the service. Don't give up, and by all means, ask for help from your institution if you run into trouble.

Blackboard has an accessibility page that talks about the developer's commitment to accessibility. Included are a set of audio demonstrations of students and instructors performing specific tasks on Blackboard with JAWS for Windows. These demos only provide audio feedback from JAWS as the tasks are performed, but do not contain any audio commentary on how to actually perform the task. Finally, when visiting the Blackboard help page, do a search for the word "accessibility" in order to view a list of keyboard commands for use with Blackboard and to gain an understanding of how headings are used to make navigation of the site easier with a screen reader.

Although there is bound to be room for improvement, it appears that Blackboard is committed to accessibility for screen reader users, and I, as a college instructor, applaud their efforts.

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