Making learning spaces and resources work for users is an ongoing challenge. Everyone has different needs and learning styles, and there is definitely no one-size-fits-all.
But one thing we can do, is raise the bar, so that from the outset, our ways of working and the presentation of our resources is the best that it can be.
Universal Design for Learning and Design for All
Two approaches to learning are gaining momentum in education. In the US, Universal Design for Learning is beginning to become a touchstone for education departments looking to underpin ways of working that are more inclusive. In Europe, a similar approach known as Design for All, is cutting a similar path, and which also places an emphasis on the need to collaborate with a cross-section of users in the design of environments, resources and services.
The retro fit
Underpinning both approaches is the belief that, if we consider the needs of all users at the outset, rather than an “illusory” group of homogenous mainstream users, we can avoid a massive effort in retrofitting environments and resources for individuals. This approach doesn’t negate the need to personalise environments for very particular needs, but we may have to make many less adaptations if we have planned for diversity in the beginning.
In education, one obvious example, in a property context, would be the inclusion of wheelchair access to all parts of a new school when it is first built, even if there are no members of the first cohort of learners who use a wheelchair for mobility. The rationale underpinning this design decision would be the understanding that parents, whānau, a staff member or visitor to the school, a new student or a current student following a sporting accident may at some point use a wheelchair.
E-learning and eAccessibility
Avoiding the retro fit is also applicable in the area of e-learning. Our use of ICTs in our classrooms and learning-communities is increasing, and there are great examples of schools using technology to improve outcomes for learners. Also, many teachers are confident in their ability to differentiate learning activities. But the concept of eAccessibility may still be unfamiliar.
Yet, if we are going to avoid having to retrofit resources, we need to collectively get our heads around new ways of thinking about access to learning. Again, it is the planning at the outset that makes a difference.
A tangible example of where we can make a difference and model eAccessibility in teaching and learning is in our use of video. When working alongside students or colleagues who are making a video, initiate a discussion around audience and purpose. If the intention is to share the video publicly, draw into the discussion the need to make a resource that will be meaningful to an audience with a range of access preferences. Some people can see but not hear; some people use only their hearing. Some people read more slowly than others. The video needs to work for everyone.
Use of captions and transcripts to assist users who have a hearing impairment to have access to the same material as sighted learners seems like common sense. But captions and transcripts also provide access to the video content in an alternative visual medium and provide opportunities for increasing understanding for all users. For learners who may have cognitive or second-language needs, a transcript provides an opportunity to access the content at their preferred pace, or pause on unfamiliar words. As a sighted user, I will often scan a transcript for a quote, or re-read something I want to clarify.
Both in and outside education, the awareness and the ability to create more inclusive video is increasing. In New Zealand, the Curriculum Stories on NZ Curriculum Online site provide a sophisticated example of how to provide a range of access options for users. Each video is captioned, and has the transcript placed below the video—the preferred option, so that users don’t have to jump backwards and forwards between pages.
YouTube and Blip TV also now enable video producers to add captions to uploaded movies. Both services are a little clunky, but it is worth honing some captioning skills now, and passing them onto your colleagues and students.
Useful links for further reading
Universal Design for Learning – the website for the National Centre for UDL in the US
UDL examples and resources – link to implementation support page at the National Centre for Universal Design for Learning (CAST).
Design for All – the website for the European Design for All e-Accessibility Network.
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