E-Accessibility, the Mobile VLE and Collaborate Webinars

I was recently invited along to a user research session organised by my colleague Lilian Soon, where we had the opportunity to work with a number of students with varying accessibility requirements to see how well the tools we provide at the University work with assistive technology such as screen readers. Thanks again to the students that joined us, it was an incredibly helpful and educational experience and the students were very accomodating and patient with us. Thanks also to Lilian for organising the event.

My main focuses on the day were the Collaborate Ultra webinar platform and the mobile experience of the Yorkshare VLE (particularly via mobile apps). 

Mobile VLE

One thing that was very quickly apparent was how each student differed in their attitude towards wanting (or not!) to use their mobile device(s) for University-related learning, be it via a smartphone or tablet. We had an even split: 

  • One student used their mobile device for all university work and was very happy to do so, 
  • One used their mobile device for quick content checks ‘on the go’ (eg. checking announcements before bed or whilst commuting) or before a lecture if slides/materials had been shared in advance but otherwise generally avoided using their mobile device for learning
  • Another didn’t want to use their mobile device for “university stuff” at all, instead preferring to keep it as a personal device for personal activities.

In regards to accessibility, we found the following around the mobile experience of the VLE:

Dyslexic/Dyspraxic Student Results:

Student was using an iPhone, and advised:

  • Using the VLE on a mobile web browser takes a little getting used to (the left menus of sites hide automatically sometimes, etc) but once you’re used to how it behaves it works well on mobile.
  • The default VLE layout, colour scheme and general design isn’t too “noisy” to cause distraction when trying to get to materials.
  • Advised It’s a shame the Panopto mobile app for lecture capture doesn’t allow you to change the speed of recordings like the browser player does – is a put off.
  • Thought the most useful sounding element of the Blackboard app was that it made announcement messages from staff become push notifications, but other elements of the app weren’t particularly appealing.
  • They didn’t make use of any their mobile device’s in-built accessibility features nor any third party apps to increase the accessibility of their device.

Visually Impaired (Partially Sighted) Student Results:

Student was using an iPad Pro, and advised:

  • Again, generally the VLE used via mobile browser was a good experience, once you got used to the left menu sometimes hiding.
  • The main benefit of VLE via mobile browser was being able to easily “pinch” the display to zoom in and out of any page element desired, something which the Blackboard app doesn’t facilitate. They preferred this experience to using Apple’s inbuilt “Zoom” or “Font Adjustment” functions, as pinching easier to do ‘on the fly’.
  • Sometimes Microsoft PowerPoint files downloaded onto the iPad from the VLE don’t always display as expected (likely due to Microsoft and Apple technology not always playing well together), but when viewed from within the Blackboard app they can often display better.
  • The student used a third party app named “Voice Dream” for all offline content such as PDFs pulled from the VLE. This app allowed them to easily zoom in on the contents of a file, and also read the files allowed. 
    • App also works well in multiple languages, which is apparently rare.
    • They didn’t use a screen reader for the VLE online, choosing instead just to use the zoom in/out pinching method.
  • Really appreciated that Apple “Face ID” works to allow quick log in to VLE via web browser and app, to avoid having to manually type out login credentials all the time.

Visually Impaired (Blind) Student Results:

Student was using a Windows 10 laptop but using the VLE in the collapsed mobile view (achievable by anyone by simply making their browser window very small), advised:

  • Using the collapsed mobile view of the VLE in a web browser on a Windows laptop allowed the screen reader used (NVDA) to better work through VLE content – Allowed easy access to “Quick Links” functionality.
  • Liked NVDA for many reasons, but main ones included:
  • Uses VoiceOver on their mobile device for general reading of content, but didn’t find it as good or “smart” as NVDA.
  • Navigating the VLE purely through audio cues from a screen reader takes some getting used to initially, but with practice is do-able and tasks like submitting assignments are feasible. The main recommendation here was to practice, practice, practice and ensure that whenever something important was coming up on the VLE (like an assignment submission) that you ensure you take time to find where you need to go – Good advice for any student, sighted or otherwise!
  • One of the most annoying things about VLE navigation via screen reader is when VLE sites have repetitive information in them, eg. all module sites having names starting with “UG Year 1 – Autumn – ….”, or repetitive content items with the same name starts, eg. “Week 1 – Resource -….”
    • Screen reader users can tab through content seeking a particular item or object incredibly fast, and having to sit and listen through a number of seconds of repeated information over and over again is annoying, inconvenient and can be disorientating.
  • Student tended to write their essays using a combination of Microsoft Word and touch typed using laptop keyboard rather than using speech-to-text for speed (very fast typer), then used NVDA to check work back and make amendments as needed.

Final Thoughts – Mobile VLE:

It was great to see how well the VLE worked within mobile web browsers for students with different requirements. It’s very pleasing to see that the mobile-responsive theme that we applied to the VLE in the Summer 2018 upgrade has made a lot of difference in this area and really helped. It’s obvious that our student base isn’t very aware of the Blackboard mobile app and that’s something that we’ll work to improve on in 2020 with a comms campaign. The app isn’t designed to offer all the features of the “full fat” browser version of the VLE, but it is still good for some activities.

Learn more: Blackboard Mobile Apps.

Blackboard (the company that create the VLE platform, “Learn”) have created a number of useful accessibility-related guides themselves, largely focussed on the apps:

The apps don’t have many of their own inbuilt accessibility features, but rather piggy-back off and interact with the existing accessibility toolset built into the mobile OS, eg.

It’s clear that it would be very beneficial for us to learn more about using the VLE with assistive devices, and familiarising ourselves with the inbuilt accessibility tools that mobile devices offer. I’ll be sharing more in this area soon when our next edition of the York TEL Handbook comes out in February 2020. There’ll be a whole chapter on mobile learning, so watch this space!

Collaborate Ultra Webinars

Dyslexic/Dyspraxic Student Results:

Student was using Chrome on a Windows 10 laptop, advised:

  • Collaborate interface was straight forward to navigate, wasn’t too cluttered and was logically arranged.
  • Liked that the text chat pane could be hidden and that notification beeps could be turned off when desired, to help limit distractions and allow focus on the main materials in the session.
  • We found that when a USB mouse was plugged into the laptop (which also had a touchscreen) the drawing elements of the Collaborate whiteboard didn’t work very well.
  • Agreed that receiving any planned teaching material in advance of the webinar session would be really helpful to help process the information shared.

Visually Impaired (Partially Sighted) Student Results:

Student was using iPad Pro, advised:

  • Collaborate responded well to the “pinch-to-zoom” technique, and being able to show/hide menus within the interface at will was really helpful for maximising screen real estate.
  • Agreed that receiving any planned teaching material in advance of the webinar session would be really helpful, to prepare for what was coming in the session.

Visually Impaired (Blind) Student Results:

Student was using Chrome on a Windows 10 laptop, advised:

  • Trying to navigate around the Collaborate interface via screen reader audio cues alone was very difficult. It’s a complex interface with a number of different elements.
  • Student would get “stuck” in some of the pop out menus (particularly the right hand “Collaborate Pane”), with the screen reader never allowing them to tab to the ‘close tab’ button to get back to the main area of the screen.
  • Screenreader would not register that PowerPoint slides had been uploaded and displayed in the room. It would read out the name of the slides and navigation buttons to move slides back and forth, but could not find or read out slide content.
  • The above may be due to the particular configuration of NVDA not being set quite correctly to interact with Collaborate’s interface, but it again emphasises the need to try things out in advance and get used to how a tool works before a real session.
  • Again agreed that receiving any planned teaching material in advance of the webinar session would be really helpful, to prepare for what was coming in the session.

Final Thoughts – Collaborate:

Blackboard (the company that makes Collaborate) do have a number of help pages and guides around using Collaborate with a screen reader and/or using keyboard navigating, but this user research session made it very clear that we would really benefit from doing a ‘deep dive’ into using Collaborate with assistive technology to really get to grips with it (and then be able to more easily assist students with it in the future). It’s not something that can be picked up and understood on the fly, but then that is often the case with most complex tech’ when used with a screen reader.

It’s important to note that Blackboard only support JAWS (used in conjunction with Firefox) for Collaborate screen reader use, so this could be why the NVDA experience was so confusing and difficult. This is another area for us to follow up on in the future.

Blackboard MoCo User Group:

I co-lead an (award winning!) user group comprised of other learning technologists and educators at many institutions across EMEA that use Collaborate and/or Blackboard Mobile; we’re called “MoCo”. Anyone interested in Collaborate or Blackboard Mobile is welcome to join, please come along to one of our online meetings if you want to discuss anything about these tools. 

We run monthly online meetings, and have run a few sessions around the accessibility of Blackboard Mobile and Collaborate already (recordings below), but hope to do more soon. These sessions are proving to be invaluable for insights into the world of accessibility, and we’re beginning to create resources based on the sessions to share with the wider world.

Unfortunately, these recordings are not yet close captioned, but hopefully we should have them done soon. 

MoCo Collaborate Accessibility Content:

MoCo Blackboard Mobile Accessibility Content:

One response to “E-Accessibility, the Mobile VLE and Collaborate Webinars

  1. Pingback: E-Learning Newsletter – February 2020 Edition | Programme Design and Learning Technology Team·

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