By: Nicolas Peña

With his product, Ally, Nicolaas Matthijs and the Fronteer team are aiming for more accessible course materials and raising awareness of accessibility with instructors.  

“Extremely rare” is the term Nicolaas Matthijs uses to describe the possibility of bringing together a group of people with the knowledge and experience needed by Fronteer, a company engaged in creating technology products and services for education.

The five members of the group bring a series of characteristics that really do make them a dream team: almost a decade of first-hand experience at institutions like Cambridge, Berkeley or Georgia Tech, previous work designing and developing products with teams on the five continents, and recognized consultancy work on educational technology. Ironically, the hardest thing when they got together was agreeing on a name to identify them, after which “coming together on vision and identifying problems to solve and products to build has been really easy and productive,” points out Matthijs.

He believes this is fully reflected in the rise of Ally, a course content accessibility service that seamlessly integrates into the learning management system. “Accessibility, and especially the accessibility of course content, has been a significant problem in education for a long time. It is widely recognized as a big problem, but has required lots of manual work at every institution and is even frequently ignored because of a lack of good solutions,” he adds.

Ally for different needs

Foto AFP Chris Ratcliffe - Nicolaas Matthjis - Cambridge University's Queen's College (17)Instead of being a separate platform that people have to turn to, Ally is integrated into the systems that students and instructors already use such as the learning management system. Ally scans the entire content of the course (documents, presentations, images, etc.) in order to identify accessibility problems, and from this comes a full institutional report that provides deep insight into how the institution is doing with regards to the accessibility of their course content, insight that they currently don’t have access to. This feedback is also given to teachers, with immediate advice being offered so that accessibility problems in the course material can be corrected.

However, its immediate advantage, as far as students are concerned, lies in the product’s automatic learning algorithms (machine learning algorithms), which extract information in order to automatically generate a series of accessible formats, such as epub, electronic braille or audio versions of content, something which previously required a request to be made by the student and could take, in the best of cases, a couple of days. It should be stressed, as Matthijs acknowledges, that “Ally’s goal is not to create new assistive technologies, but generate content that works well with these assistive technologies”.

A right and a duty

Matthijs is blunt when it comes to explaining the great interest the Fronteer team has shown in accessibility, “Education is a basic human right. Ensuring that everyone has access to it and that it’s accessible to everyone is part of that basic human right. Therefore, accessibility should not be considered as something optional”.

In fact, he recognizes that course content accessibility is closely linked to the quality of that content, even if it comes about in a more subtle way. Simple things like having descriptions of images, providing digital versions of articles instead of scanned documents or having a transcription of a video, are of particular benefit to students with some kind of disability but also to the whole course in general. For example, “and image with a proper description will not only allow someone with vision problems to understand what the image is, it will allow all students to better understand how the image relates to its context or a video with captions will not only allow a person with hearing problems to understand what’s being said, it will allow all students to easily go to a particular section of the video”, says Matthijs.

It is for this reason that Matthijs insists that there is a need for a broader perspective of the concept to be adopted. “We believe there’s a need to move away from connecting accessibility to disabilities only. The lack of someone with a clear disability in a class can not become an excuse to not have to worry about accessibility. First of all, having a disability is not an easy yes or no question and there are many people with hidden disabilities. More importantly, though, accessibility is not the same as providing access to people with disabilities only. Accessibility is about providing better access to everyone, and will allow you to improve the quality and experience for everyone”.

Different perspectives

Based on his vast experience on the subject, Matthijs believes that designing more accessible learning management systems should be viewed from two essential angles. The first refers to the design of the system and its interface, while the second relates to the use of the content applied to courses. “This really is the most important part as that’s what the students are ultimately after, yet is the biggest problem with regards to accessibility,” he says. Meaning the system provider has much less control over the education content, while this, in turn, is what matters most to the people taking the course.

Education is a basic human right. Ensuring that everyone has access to it and that it’s accessible to everyone is part of that basic human right. Therefore, accessibility should not be considered as something optional.

It is at this point that one of Ally’s principal characteristics becomes particularly relevant, namely that it can effectively inform teachers of accessibility faults in content and, above all, how this can be improved. “Overall, creating accessible content is mostly about following a set of guidelines that will result in more accessible content. Most of these principles are fairly straightforward, and getting instructors and instructional designers to be aware of these principles is the first challenge that Ally is trying to address,” he says.

With accessibility as one of its cornerstones, the Fronteer team is aiming to create, in its own words, education experiences that are ‘awesome’. For them, it’s not so much a formula as it is a series of factors based on their knowledge, but also in the context of which they work and, above all, the fact that transcending appearances, “is not just creating something that’s visually pretty,” says Matthijs. And he adds that, “It’s about creating an experience that’s understandable and pleasant and avoiding tunnel vision to make sure that you keep the user’s entire experience in mind. It’s not just about your product, it’s about how it interacts with everything else,” something that justifies his broad view of accessibility as a priority for the entire education experience.

For more information visit http://www.ally.ac

*Simon Gaeremynck, cofounder of Fronteer, Nicolaas Matthijs and Anne-Sophie De Baets, UX researcher and designer.

*Photos by: AFP Chris Ratcliffe