ATU321 – BlackBoard Ally with Nicolaas Matthijs |


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321-07-21-17 – Blackboard Ally – BlackBoard Ally with Nicolaas Matthijs | –
Show Notes:
Accessible Textbook Options for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired – AccessWorld® – July 2017
Ally website:
Ally User Group:
Blackboard Website:
——-transcript follows ——


NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  My name is Nicholas Mathis, product manager for Blackboard Ally, and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

WADE WINGLER:  Hi, this is Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals crossroads in Indiana with your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Welcome to episode number 321 of assistive technology update. It’s scheduled to be released on July 21, 2017.

Today I have a really interesting conversation with Nicolaas Matthijs who is a product manager for a thing called blackboard Ally. If you’ve been a college student in the last decade or so or taught college, you are probably familiar with blackboard and their platforms. We are going to spend some time talking about some pretty interesting stuff that they are doing to make that platform more accessible to students who need assistive technology or who have accessibility needs.

We also have a story from our friends at AFB access world magazine about accessible books for folks were blind or visually impaired.

We hope you’ll check out our website at, give us a call on our listener line at 317-721-7124, or drop us a note on Twitter at INDATA Project.


Do you have assistive technology questions?  We have answers. For example, next week on ATFAQ, our frequently asked questions show, we are going to talk about Amazon echo and how you can use that to control a thermostat or send a text message. You can find that podcast at or anywhere you get your podcast. If you like this show, you’ll probably like that show.


Our friend Jamie Pauls at access world magazine has a great blog post called access education:  accessible textbook options for students who are blind or visually impaired. Jamie spent some time breaking down the options that are available to help students who are blind or visually impaired now that it is back to school season in the United States. He talks about resources like learning Ally and how they have been working to make textbook more accessible for 70 years. He even talks about accessible textbooks in PDF format, some of the ways that can be done. He talks about the value of trying to get textbooks from book share, and although there is a cost how it is a viable service. He breaks down some issues surrounding the Daisy electronic braille format as well as EPUB and provides some online resources that help you find those electric textbooks. If you are heading back to school sometime and accessible textbooks are important and you need those things for somebody who is blind or visually impaired, I would encourage you to check out Jamie’s blog post. I will drop a link in the blog post to, their access world magazine July issue. Check our show notes.


I think I’ve mentioned this on the show a few times before that in addition to my role at Easter Seals crossroads, I am also an adjunct faculty member at three universities here in the state of Indiana. Usually when I am teaching, I’m teaching about assistive technology and accessibility. Sometimes is to graduate librarian students, sometimes to educators, sometimes two people in the psychology programs. I really enjoy my role as an adjunct.

Interestingly enough, most of those jobs now involve an LMS or learning management system. I do a lot of instruction online. As somebody who is very interested in assistive technology and accessibility, it breaks my heart when I find accessibility challenges on the learning management system or the content itself. It makes me crazy when I’m trying to teach about accessibility and I run into accessibility barriers. You can imagine how excited I was when I learned about a new thing called blackboard Ally, which is really designed to sort of help with this issue. We are very excited when Nicolaas Matthijs who is a project manager for blackboard Ally agreed to talk with us. We have him on the line here today. How are you?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  I am very well. Thank you.

WADE WINGLER:  Thank you so much for taking time out of your morning to talk with us a little bit. I’m excited about blackboard Ally and I really do want to learn more from a lot of perspectives. Before we jump into blackboard Ally, tell me about you, your background and why and how you became interested in accessibility.

WADE WINGLER:  I’m actually Belgian or originally, but I moved to the UK about 10 years ago. I’ve been active in educational technology for the last 11 years roughly. I’ve been doing that in a variety of different roles. I worked for a number of big universities like Cambridge University, Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley. I’ve been a self-employed educational technology consultant and was also one of the cofounders and CEO of a company called Frontier, which is the company that started the Ally product and was then acquired by blackboard. I definitely didn’t start off as an accessibility expert and I still don’t consider myself to be an accessibility expert, but accessibility is something that I kept coming back to throughout the years and was always a part of the requirements, part of something we had to do. Over time, I started to get deeper into it and become more experienced with it.

As we were doing our startup in getting started, there was a very obvious gap. A lot of the institutions we were working with were struggling with the accessibility of their course content and the accessibility of the content that the instructors create and make available to their students. They didn’t have a good way of knowing how they were doing. They didn’t have a good way of interacting with the instructors and getting some responsibility around this. They have is incredibly manual processes which basically meant that there would be someone at the institution or a team at the institution that would basically manually go through course content and make it available in particular format for students that requested it. In many cases, it actually excludes quite a few students because not everyone is aware of this. There were a lot of challenges on the institution sides. There were some manual things that are going on that and quite skill as they should. There was this huge challenge on the institution side.

On the other end, we were seeing legal challenges around this where institutions were being basically sued over this thing they had very little insight into and little control over. That’s what got us started on Ally and trying to create something that would help those institutions make their course content more accessible.

WADE WINGLER:  That makes a ton of sense. I’m going to back us up for a second because there may be some folks in our audience who aren’t familiar with blackboard and LMS. Can you give us a quick elevator talk about what blackboard is and what an LMS is?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  Absolutely. Blackboard is an educational technology provider. They are essentially the biggest one in the world. They are present all around the world. They actually have a very impressive portfolio of different products. They actually have two learning management systems. I’ll talk more about what a learning management system is. They’ve got two. One called blackboard learn which is been around for a long time. They are in the process of launching a next-generation version of that. There is also something called [Inaudible] rooms which is based on the open source [Inaudible] learning management system. They provide both of those but then they have a whole range of other products as well, things like that board collaborate which is a synchronous classroom and web conferencing tool. They can provide help desk services to institutions. They have products to help with building the website of the institution or an entire district. They’ve got a very wide portfolio of different products.  Ally has become one of those products. It was acquired last year in October, so we’ve been with the company for a good 10 months.

As I said, they currently provide two different learning management systems depending on what you prefer as an institution. The learning management system is – you can think of a learning management system as an operating system for your classroom. It’s a place where you can provide the digital equivalent or the digital version of your classrooms. You can post announcements, share resources, provide online quizzes or tests; it’s a place where students can create assignments, submit assignments, see their grades. There’s a whole range of things that are brought together into the central space where the students and instructors can manage a lot of their course work.

WADE WINGLER:  It’s funny that you mentioned how worldwide and ubiquitous blackboard is. As you were talking about the products, I thought yes, I use that, I use that. These are tools that, in full disclosure, I deal with on a pretty regular basis in my role as an adjunct. When I think of LMS, I think about college typically, of these are used in high schools and other learning environments as well, right?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  Absolutely. It goes all across K-12 but also professional education, industry training. They are pretty well established across all different types of education.

WADE WINGLER:  When you think about accessibility issues that have traditionally been involved with LMS and blackboard, what have been some of the major challenges related to accessibility?  Then we will talk about how Ally works to address some of those.

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  If we backup about 10 to 15 years, a lot of these LMS have been around for quite a while. I think blackboard learn was started in 1999. About 10 years ago when digital accessibility started to gain traction, the first thing that happened was people notice that these platforms themselves – the LMS itself – weren’t that accessible. This was true across most of the learning management system that were available. A lot of the effort has been spent since then has been spent and focused on making those platforms themselves as accessible as possible. I’m pretty excited that we are now in the industry and a place for those learning management systems, all of the major ones that are currently available, they are pretty accessible. There is always room for improvement, but they are doing a pretty good job. We are now at a point in time where the attention starts to shift a little bit from trying to make the core platform or base platform as accessible as possible down to making sure that the content that instructors put into those platforms as accessible as well. Ultimately, the system is only as visible as the content you put into it. From a student point of view, that course content that you access through the learning management system, that is ultimately the most important, most relevant content from the students point of view. This is also where the vast majority of the accessibility issues exist today.

That’s where Ally comes in. Ally recognizes that these LMS are doing a somewhat reasonable job of making sure the base platform is accessible. Let’s try to focus on helping the institution, the instructor making their course content as accessible as possible.

WADE WINGLER:  The analogy I like to use is that LMS are pretty good. The ramp is built to the house, now there is a bunch of furniture piled in front of the front door. We need to make the stuff inside the house work well.

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  That is a really good analogy. I like that.

WADE WINGLER:  Tell me about Ally. How does it work in these issues?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  The design philosophy behind Ally, Ally is not a separate system or separate platform you have to explicitly go to. It’s rather something that very seamlessly, very closely integrate with platform that already exists. Instead of creating something new, get another system that students and instructors have to be aware of that they have to especially go to, we want to bring our accessibility features into the platform that they already use in a very seamless way and use as a way to really make it part of the workflow, make it part of their experience and use it as a way to increase accessibility, increase awareness. We think of a close and seamless integration strategy.

The learning management system is our initial target. It is a logical starting point but it is only a starting point, because it is an important player, and a lot of this contains course content. We are currently entirely focused on providing that close and seamless learning management system integration.

One of the things I really like – and this is quite interesting – it’s also one of the main reasons we started to join forces with blackboard, is that we are committed to providing the Ally integration to all of the major learning management systems including those that are not provided by blackboard. I think that’s significant because, in my mind, it shows commitment to our accessibility in general which is important to me. I also think it has some practical benefits. There are lots of institutions where there is one department that is using a different LMS. By taking this agnostic LMS approach, we can allow the institution to take a consistent approach or consolidated approach. If you work with other institutions at the state or system-level, they use different LMS. You can still work together to take a consolidated approach.

We are in the process of providing integrations to all those major learning management systems. Going forward, we will be looking at other types of integration, things like a public website or content collaboration system or something along those lines. Those are things that are to come in the future.

In terms of functionality – and this is specifically for the learning management system integration – there are three main bits that Ally does. It starts with the instructor creating content in the LMS, adding content to the LMS. That works the same way as it does today or before Ally was enabled. We try to be very unobtrusive. That is a very important thing in all of this. As soon as that content is added, Ally will pick up on it in the background and will do a number of different things to it. It will run it through an automated accessibility checklist which will check for content accessibility issues and the type of content. There is a wide range of different checks it runs through, ate in total. That could be anything from high-level checks like is this a scanned document, down to some fine-grained checks, like contrast checks at the individual character level. That’s one thing it does in the background. The second thing it does in the background is essentially where our secret sauce is, is a set of machine learning algorithms we’ve developed to essentially extract the documents semantics, things like reading order, where headings are, where list are, where tables are.

Ally is going to use the information it attracted from those two background processes to do a number of different things. That’s where we get into the user facing features of Ally. The first thing it will do is automatically generate a number of more accessible alternatives to the instructor’s original. In order to do that, there are a number of different format that will generate. It will generate a semantic HTML version, an audio version, and EPUB vision, electronic braille version, and a bunch more depending on what kind of content it is. Then it takes those alternative formats and essentially do as much as we can to provide a more accessible starting point, it will make those available to both the students and the instructor within the learning management system. That’s always available next to the instructor’s original and then an immediate way and gives the student an immediate access to more accessible starting point, something that they can get started with, but also give them access to a different modality, something that can enrich their learning experience.

That’s the first part. The second part is where, based on what we found in the checklist and the algorithms, we also provide a feedback loop to the instructor where within the context of the LMS, we would give them feedback on how accessible their content is as well as detailed guidance on how they can fix some of those issues. The entire point of this is to inject ourselves into their workflow and give them some feedback and guidance within the context of where they are already doing some of their work and trying to embed some of those accessibility best practices into their workflow, try to change behavior a little bit over time.

The main goal is we really want to engage with the instructor, try to get them to make their original as accessible as possible, and everything down the line becomes easier, more accessible as well.

That’s the second part. The last part is we do this across everything inside of the learning management system, all of the content that an institution has. Based on that, we can provide a feedback loop to the institution where it will generate a full institutional course content accessibility report which will give the institution some very detailed insight into how they are doing from an accessibility point of view which is currently very difficult for them to get just because of how much content there is and how much is being created all the time and different types of content. Now we can give them some insight into how they’re doing, give them a way to keep track of that, identify what else they can do to help further improve things.

That’s basically the three-step approach that Ally is trying to take. Start off by doing as much as we can automatically. Then engage with the instructor to make their originals more accessible. And also provide the institution-wide insight which can influence what the incision does to improve it which can influence policy, priorities and so on.

WADE WINGLER:  I can’t tell you how much I love that three-pronged approach. Automatic checks, there are things I miss about sometimes and those automatic checks can remind me. In that learning process with the instructor is super important because they are going to get better at it. I was particularly struck with the institutional reports. I’ve been hired as a consultant before to work with universities on their arm and accessibility. My only option was to do some random samplings of content and try to stay with an N of five courses, here’s what we think you are doing in terms of accessibility. Having that real data is critical.

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  I fully agree with that. When people ask me which of these is most important, I would probably say the instructor part of it because that’s where you start to build sustainable change. But you do also need that report to be able to diagnose the issue.

WADE WINGLER:  There is a lot of stuff I want to get into. A quick question I want to ask is are there areas they can address, especially when we get into more complex content, things like STEM content and diagrams and statistics?  Are there gaps?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  There are limitations period the more complex you go, there are some limitations. There are a number of things that Ally does do today, things like it will try to detect where math formulas are within the document and convert those to MathML. There are a number of different things it does to make that STEM content more accessible and more standards compliant format.

There are obviously some limitations. I think the biggest limitation or biggest thing that is still on our to do list is video support. Obviously that is very important. Video is often a from an accessibility point of view. We have a pretty advanced plan to increase how much support we have for audio and video content. We will be adding additional checks so we can check and report on these issues. We will provide tools for the instructors so that it is easier for them to add captioning or at a transcript. We will look at automated processes we can put in place to do auto captioning and integration with captioning providers. There is a lot we have planned. I would say that’s the main – I don’t want to call it a limitation, but that’s something we still need to get to.

There are some boundaries to what you can do and an automated way. For example, if you really want to look at the pedagogy behind certain courses or material and whether or not the approaches being taken or the tests that are being asked from the students are really inclusive and diverse enough to be suitable to all students. I think that’s something for the future to start to analyze some of the softer things behind it, the pedagogy side of it. That’s further down the horizon.

WADE WINGLER:  In the time we have left, what other things are in your crystal ball for blackboard Ally?  What kind of things are coming up?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  We have a pretty exhaustive roadmap of additional development we want to do. There are two things I’m very excited about. The first one is more of a long-term one. I take it very inclusive, very universal approach around accessibility where I think accessibility can be beneficial to all students and can lead to better quality, higher quality, more usable course materials. That’s something I think is very important. There is currently not much research that essentially shows that improved accessibility can lead to improved student success, better student outcomes. That’s something that using data and things we do through Ally, I would like to fund research that would try to establish that there is a link between better accessibility and general improved student success. That is our ultimate goal. That’s a bit further away but that’s our ultimate goal, to show that is the case. That will help bring accessibility out of that disability corridor and make it more than really applicable, that makes it harder to neglect or ignore. That’s one thing.

The other thing I’m excited about is with all of these institutions that are starting to use Ally, we’ve got a huge opportunity. In light of these institutions have people at the institution that are dedicated to doing manual remediation. I see it over and over where someone at the institution will take – for example, publisher content will go through all of the images, all of the diagrams, will properly describe them, make alternative descriptions available. I see that being replicated all over the world. I think there is a huge opportunity for these institutions to start sharing some of the work they do and start to remove some of that redundancy. That’s something I think Ally can help with. I like and start to connect those. It’s probably something to be optional. We don’t want to force them to do this. But we can start to introduce the possibility for something that was at one institution to then be made available to other institutions. That can be as simple as someone providing an alternative discussion for an image and that image was used elsewhere, where someone else described it but you want to use it. It could be much more advanced, like if someone did a full manual remediation, a very high-quality thing, there is the reason why that shouldn’t be made available to other institutions. That’s another longer-term goal that I’m very excited about.

WADE WINGLER:  We have about a minute left. I saw on your website you think about user groups in the community I could become involved in as an adjunct. Tell me about that.

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  We have something called an Ally user group. It’s essentially a space where you can participate in our product development process and really helped influence and shape the direction of it. It’s available at You can sign up for it and find general news update about Ally. What’s important is that it’s also where you can participate in some of our UX research, usability testing, feedback sessions, roadmap prioritization exercises. All of these are optional see you can pick and choose the ones that you want to be engaged in, what you want to be involved in. It’s a great place, especially if you’re passionate about this topic and be involved, it’s a great place to contribute and provide feedback and help shape the future direction. I would definitely encourage you to join in.

WADE WINGLER:  If people wanted to continue the conversation with you or learn more about what is happening with blackboard Ally, what website or contact information would you like to provide?

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  The easiest starting point is, which is the website for the product. I would also say that the user group is a great place to keep track of any recent update. It’s also a place where you can communicate with the wider community around us. That’s a great place to hang out. Either, our main website, you can request a demo from there, or jump into the user group.

WADE WINGLER:  Nicolaas Matthijs is a product manager for blackboard Ally and has been a very delightful and informative guest today. Thank you so much for being our show.

NICOLAAS MATTHIJS:  Thanks for having me.

WADE WINGLER:  Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? Call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Looking for a transcript or show notes from today’s show? Head on over to Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. Find more shows like this plus much more over at That was your Assistance Technology Update. I’m Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana.

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