A Personalized Approach to Engaging with Course Content: Automating UDL Principles with Blackboard Ally’s Alternative Formats

Handouts Media

Presented at 2:15pm in Westminster I on Thursday, November 15, 2018.



  • John Scott, Ally Product Manager, Blackboard
  • Nicolaas Matthijs, Ally Product Manager, Blackboard

Session Details

  • Length of Session: 1-hr
  • Format: Lecture
  • Expertise Level: All Levels
  • Type of session: General Conference


Presenters discuss Universal Design for Learning and the importance of representing course content in diverse formats for learners. Drawing from course content research, we demonstrate how Blackboard Ally activates UDL guidelines by automatically generating “alternative formats” of files, allowing students to choose formats that work best for them.


Universal Design for Learning guidelines emphasize the importance of representing course content in diverse ways, but creating multiple formats of course files can be a challenge for instructors. In our study of course content (20 institutions, 20M+ content items), findings suggest courses contain diverse content types, but many do not meet accessibility standards and cannot be easily modified for diverse learner needs. Blackboard Ally uses machine learning to automatically generate several downloadable formats of a single content item, such as Audio for listening to text, HTML for reading on mobile devices, and Electronic Braille for people with visual impairments. Using recent data collected from Ally analytics and evidence from case studies, we offer insight into the ways students activate different learning modalities through the Alternative Formats, and offer a new take on personalized learning focused on increased student choice when engaging with course content.


  1. Large-scale analysis of course content reveals diversity of content items but many are inaccessible.
  2. By automating the creation of "alternative formats," Ally brings UDL principles to life in the classroom.
  3. Analysis of "alternative formats" suggests patterns about student downloads that can inform course design.

Disability Areas

All Areas

Topic Areas

Accessible Course Design, Administrative/Campus Policy, Alternate Format, Assistive Technology, Teaching about Accessibility in Curriculum, Uncategorized

Speaker Bio(s)

John Scott

John is passionate about supporting teachers adopt new technologies and inclusive pedagogy in their classroom practice. Prior to joining the Blackboard Ally team, he worked on his PhD in Education and New Media at the University of California Berkeley, where he designed, taught, and researched online learning courses focused on collaborative learning, multimodal literacy, and Universal Design for Learning. He did his Masters degree in Education and spent 4 years as a Special Education teacher in New York City public schools, specializing in technology-mediated literacy and learning.

Nicolaas Matthijs

Nicolaas Matthijs is an entrepreneur and product creator with over 10 years of experience in Educational Technology. Nicolaas has worked at several leading R1 institutions such as Cambridge University, UC Berkeley and Georgia Tech, where he developed Learning Management Systems, Academic Collaboration Tools, Learning Analytics solutions and other learning tools. He has contributed to numerous Open Source projects and communities and is internationally recognized for bringing technical and user experience innovation to these communities, for which he has received several awards. Nicolaas was also the co-founder and CEO of Fronteer, developing a revolutionary tool, called Ally, that helps institutions make their course materials more accessible for all learners. Following the acquisition of Fronteer by Blackboard, Nicolaas now acts as the Product Manager for Ally at Blackboard.