HE/Public Sector Update: Accessibility Allies at the University of Southampton

In this webinar we welcomed a group from the University of Southampton to share its learnings and approach to making accessibility improvements to courses, with the help of students themselves. Joining us on the webinar were:

  • Dr Sarah Fielding, Digital Learning Team Manager (pictured, left)
  • Matthew Deeprose, Senior Learning Designer (pictured, centre)
  • Luke Searle, Learning Designer (pictured, right)

AbilityNet's Education and Workplace Relationship Manager, Helen Wickes, also provided a refresher about accessibility in the higher education and public sectors.

Sarah Fielding, Matthew Deeprose, Luke Searle

Watch the webinar recording and download the transcript

'Accessibility Allies' project

The University of Southampton introduced Blackboard Ally (a tool that provides insight into an institution's accessibility) in Summer 2021. To support the rollout, five student interns were employed over the summer as “Accessibility Allies”.

In this webinar, the University's Digital Learning Team shared how they organised the project and provided information about the work undertaken by the students and outlined how they achieved impressive results.

Students were involved with remediating course content to make it more digitally accessible, and advised academic staff about how to improve accessibility, among other things. Their work resulted in an average 87% increase in course file accessibility score, benefiting more than 6,000 students.

In this session the team shared:

  • The interview, training, onboarding, and workflow processes.
  • How courses were prioritised for remediation work.
  • The promotion and outreach activities used to spread the word about Digital Accessibility in general.
  • How academic colleagues were encouraged to adopt more inclusive and accessible practices.

Attendees also posed questions to the panel.

What the Accessibility Allies achieved

Here's a taster of what the student cohort of 'Accessibility Allies' achieved during their summer internship working on improving digital accessibility (alternative text description of infographic included):

Accessibility Allies    A summer internship with the Digital Learning Team in iSolutions, focused on the roll out of Blackboard Ally and improving the digital accessibility of existing files on Blackboard.     Avg 32% improvement in course overall accessibility score after intern work     Avg 87%   improvement in course file accessibility score after intern work  6000+ students benefitting from more accessible content in their modules Selected modules with 150+ students   and <50% file score     24 modules remediated by interns over the summer holidays  11 weeks  4 days to complete a module (avg.)     10 debrief meetings with module leaders      5 student interns     Find out more at   www.southampton.ac.uk/digital-learning

Webinar FAQs

This webinar will be of particular interest to those who work in a higher or further education setting, those working on learning and development teams and creating online content in the public sector.

A recording, transcript, slide deck and Q&A's are now available below. The panel will be providing their responses to attendees' questions on this page soon.

Find out more about AbilityNet webinars in our webinars FAQs.

Useful links 

Find out about eLearning modules for higher and further education institutions >>

Q&As from the webinar

Helen, Sarah, Matthew and Luke answered many questions on the webinar itself, and for those we ran out of time to address, you can find the answers below: 

Q: Did you create a copy of the course/module and the Allies moved it live, or was it more so, updating  the content and giving that bad to the lecturer?

Matthew: We took a back up of all the files and then made changes in the live course. The instructors were also provided with a copy of all the files that were remediated so they could store these wherever they kept their personal copy of the files. We wanted to be sure that if our colleagues were to update the files in the future that they were updating the remediated version.

Q: Does the ALLY institutional data give you a breakdown of the number of each type of issue highlighted (i.e contrast, headings etc) or do you need to get that info at a course level?

Matthew: Ally gives that information at both a course and institution wide level. So for example we can identify for the whole institution how many scanned documents that are not machine-readable have been uploaded to our Virtual Learning Environment. We can also identify trends or areas to focus on for future workshops. Once we have implemented an “institutional hierarchy” into our VLE we expect to be able to break this reporting down into faculty, school, and department level of detail.

Q: How does the process work - are the accessible documents generated automatically by Ally, and what is the timeframe of them being available to the learner?

Matthew: The documents are generated in Ally by request from a student. Depending on the complexity of the document it can take up to four minutes to create an alternative format. Once an alternative format has been requested for a piece of course material the next time it is requested the alternative format file is delivered almost instantaneously.

Q: Did you have an issue with copyrighted material being shared by lecturers (e.g. scans of multiple chapters of books)?

Matthew: Ally allows us to link to the original online version of the material in the library or on the publisher website. As regards copyright, anecdotally this is a common practice (and challenge) seen in institutions across the sector. In our experience educators adopt this practice with the best intentions of improving the student experience, a lack of understanding of copyright practice when applied to a closed Virtual Learning Environment, and a lack of experience in creating online reading lists (which have recently been rolled out). When our Allies came across such examples, this was an opportunity to work with individuals to rapidly change their practice. We are now working with the Library to enhance the information and training provide to staff about reading lists, and our Centre for Higher Education Practice to raise awareness about the issues around this specific practice.

Q: They mention accessibility checker for documents - what did they use?

Matthew: One of the main features of Blackboard Ally is that is rates content accessibility with a traffic light style set of indicators and explains what the issues are. So documents that required remediation were identified here first. We used the accessibility checker built into Office 365 products during the initial remediation work, and then Ally was used to double check that all the issues it had identified in a piece of content were resolved.

Q: As an institution, have you set milestones to achieve "full accessibility for all"? For example, by the end of AY2021-22, all course have a minimum of an amber score...and by AY2022-23 all courses will have a green score?

Matthew: There is no single institution-wide approach to accessibility at the University. There are a number of programmes happening in this area such as the work we have done, a separate “Education for All” programme that covers inclusion and accessibility, and we also have the Teaching Accessibility Team and ECS Accessibility Team at the University. We are hoping to build momentum toward getting executive level consensus for an intuitional approach, which should then allow us to unlock institutional milestones such as those described in the question. It’s undeniable that while such work is done in a piecemeal fashion our institution is not achieving the full potential of value that could be delivered for staff and students in terms of digital accessibility.

Q: Was the work all done remotely with allies working from home?

Matthew: The Allies worked remotely. Some, who were able to, came onto campus take part in filming for a video promoting Ally to students, or recording a podcast about their work.

Q: How did you deal with STEM subject conversions and modules with a large amount of formulae, maths etc?

Matthew: We felt this was outside the scope of our intern team remit. As a more complex challenge, it would require detailed stakeholder consultation and a review of various solutions, including financial and technical considerations. We have recently begun a dedicated work package on this. 
For STEM subjects it is more reasonable to ensure the original file is accessible and operable with assistive technology. A common issue is ensuring that mathematic formulae are presented in inaccessible formats such as using plain text, we can overcome this by utilising MathML within our documents and providing guidance to staff and students to use this approach as default. 

Q: The Accessibility Monitoring Team told me the following about our Accessibility Statement, “You need to review and update your statement regularly. The statement should be updated when any changes are made to the website, therefore the statement is live and accurate.” Updating the statement everytime someone makes a change is completely unfeasible, what time period do you suggest that we update the statement please?

Helen: Having a quarterly reminder to check nothing has changed and an annual reminder for a full review is going to be sufficient for many websites. That being said, if some good progress has been made to address the accessibility issues listed on the statement it would make sense to update it fairly promptly after the fact. This will ensure that the statement reflects the reality of the site to help users know what will and won’t work for them. If new accessibility issues are being found this could point to some gaps in accessibility skillsets and adherence to accessibility policy by site contributors. Root causes should be investigated and you need to make sure there is a consistent way to capture and work through these new issues promptly as they really shouldn’t be arising. The home page is an area where this can happen as it tends to be somewhere where things are ‘parked’ at speed (urgent updates etc) so worth keeping a close eye on new things being added there. It is also worth being careful to test wholly new features, components or templates when they are added as major changes like this are most likely to have a significant effect on accessibility.

Q: Helen is there an open site with GDS feedback on you can share?

Helen: GDS haven’t published anything about their findings as yet, as I mentioned they do intend to publish a report on the results of the monitoring in December with more detailed info to come in the New Year.

Useful links from the webinar: 


Date of webinar: 
2 Nov 2021 - 13:00