In the past year, higher education around the world has seen a rapid increase in digital learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This digital transformation in education presents both new challenges and opportunities, particularly for students with disabilities. On the one hand, research finds students with disabilities often prefer digital learning experiences because they offer greater flexibility and can be used more efficiently with assistive technologies (Gierdowski & Galanek, 2020). On the other hand, digital content that does not meet accessibility standards creates barriers for students with disabilities that can negatively impact their opportunities for academic success. Failure on the part of institutions in the United States to adequately serve the needs of students with disabilities has resulted in an increase in accessibility-related lawsuits. Tools that can help institutions deliver more accessible digital learning experiences are critical to ensuring all students can benefit equally from the opportunities offered by this digital transformation.
Visualizations to Help Colleges and Universities Understand Accessibility Barriers with Digital Content
Blackboard Ally was designed to help institutions proactively identify barriers to access with digital content to more effectively scale their support for students with disabilities. To communicate these data insights to administrators, we turned to the Highcharts library. Access and inclusion are central to Ally’s mission so we needed to ensure the graphs and charts included in our reports met accessibility standards and worked effectively with screen reader users. Using Highcharts, the people leading accessibility efforts on their campus can access these data for strategic decision-making and benchmarking, regardless of their needs and abilities.
To date, accessibility data for over two billion course content items have been visualized in these reports, bringing a newfound level of transparency and scale to our collective understanding of course accessibility.
Caption: Ally’s Institutional Report uses Highcharts to provide administrators at colleges and universities with data-driven insights into accessibility issues across their Learning Management System.
We’ve also taken advantage of Highcharts in our Course Accessibility Report for instructors to view the accessibility score of their course as well as a breakdown of the different types of digital content. The meter used to represent the percentage score of the course moves from red to orange to light green to dark green as the course becomes more accessible. Instructors have described this effect as a kind of “gamification” tool which helps motivate them to improve the accessibility of their course content to achieve a “green” score. The donut chart with a breakdown of content and tool types not only help instructors organize their accessibility strategy, but also provides valuable insights into their course design.
In 2020, instructors around the world launched this Course Accessibility Report nearly 40,000 times and used it to improve the accessibility of nearly 90,000 course files.
Caption: Ally’s Course Accessibility Report uses Highcharts to help motivate instructors to understand and address accessibility issues with their course content.
Visualizing Accessibility Trends and Ally Impact across the U.S
Ally’s reports track accessibility data such as images missing a textual description (alt text), documents that lack a heading structure, and dozens of other issues affecting digital files and HTML content in courses. As part of our research efforts and mission to increase awareness about access challenges faced by students, we wanted to aggregate Ally data to illustrate accessibility trends and Ally usage across the United States, and include these visualizations on our website research page (ally.ac/research) outside the context of our product. Again, we turned to the Highcharts library to visualize these data in a way that could also be accessed by people using screen readers and other assistive technologies.
We used the honeycomb tilemap from Highcharts to communicate accessibility trends state by state across the U.S. This allows site visitors to apply a filter, and learn about the percentage of digital course files affected by a critical accessibility issue across all the states. We also included the average Files Score and WYSIWYG Score from Ally’s reports, which approximates how closely file content and HTML content respectively meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). From the map, users can quickly determine that a significant percentage, of course, files in institutions around the U.S. are affected by critical accessibility issues that can impact equity and access not just for students with disclosed disabilities, but all students.
Caption: Engage with the honeycomb tile map visualization of accessibility issues across U.S. states at ally.ac/research, powered by Highcharts.
Next, we used the packed bubble chart to visualize Ally adoption, impact, and key usage metrics across each U.S. state. We used colors to organize the states by region, allowing users to easily compare against their neighboring states. Usage metrics include both student engagement with Ally’s Alternative Formats as well as instructor engagement with Ally’s accessibility feedback. We introduced these visualizations at our annual user conference and they have served three key purposes:
- They are accessed by our current users to compare their own data to national and regional numbers to benchmark and track progress.
- They are used by our sales teams with prospective clients to illustrate the extent of accessibility issues they might expect to see when Ally is enabled as well as Ally’s impact on students and instructors in their state.
- They are presented at professional and research conferences to drive thought leadership around accessibility and inclusive education.
Caption: Engage with the packed bubble chart visualization of Ally adoption and impact across U.S. states at ally.ac/research, powered by Highcharts
Increasing Access and Equity in the STEM Fields
One of the critical accessibility issues identified in the honeycomb tile map is the average percentage of images missing descriptions in each state. Overall, over 80% of images in the U.S. have been identified by Ally as missing a description- a number that is pretty consistent around the globe. While these may include all kinds of images, a portion of them are most certainly graphs and charts found in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics subject areas. Our analysis of a sample of STEM courses also found that they generally scored lower overall in terms of accessibility compared to other subject areas. Such a lack of accessible course content in STEM disciplines could certainly be a contributing factor in the reported under-representation of students with disabilities enrolling in these majors in higher education (Moon et. al, 2012).
The need for more accessible graphs and charts in STEM courses presents another opportunity for colleges and universities to take advantage of Blackboard Ally and Highcharts in combination to provide a more inclusive learning experience. Using Ally’s reporting, institutions can work with faculty to quickly identify high-use graphs and charts where providing an alternative description is not an adequate way to convey key information to students. They can then leverage the Highcharts library to replace the inaccessible image with an accessible visualization. Strategically working to address accessibility barriers with graphs and charts would be a key first step toward improving representation of students with disabilities in the STEM field. Given the importance of “data literacy” in our modern everyday life as well as growing opportunities for careers in the data sciences, access to more inclusive tools for engaging with data also represents an important step toward a more equitable and just society.