Universal design for learning

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Wow. Did I have it wrong.

I have been gung ho on researching ways in which the organisation for which I currently work can meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines because it will cater for people with physical and cognitive disabilities as well as mobile device users. I really didn’t grasp the profundity of Universal Design principles until I watched a YouTube video this afternoon.

I went to YouTube seeking answers because I wasn’t in the mood to read the text readings assigned in my Universal Design class. My head hurt and my eyes were tired.

I was fortunate that the Federation for Children with Special Needs have a YouTube channel and that they were kind enough to post a video presentation by Dr. David Rose. In his presentation, Dr. Rose introduced the notion that when we consider disabled people and education, we look at things incorrectly sometimes. We make assumptions that all people who are ‘normal’ have brains that function in pretty much the same way when doing certain tasks.  Yet research shows that multiple areas of the brain fire up when doing tasks and the degree to which particular areas fire up varies like a thumbprint.

We look at ways to fix people with identified cognitive or physical disabilities by providing them with assistive devices. What we should be doing is looking at the four elements of education
  • Standards and objectives
  • Curricular materials and tools
  • Teaching methods
  • Assessment techniques
In fixing standards and objectives, we should be providing multiple pathways to success. Don’t LOWER standards – keep them HIGH. Fixing curricular materials and tools. Don’t dumb down books – smarten them up!

Dr. Rose showed a digital textbook that teaches. It not only provides the option to read out the text (in a human, not robotic voice) but provides the option of mood music for kids with Aspergers so they can get clues as to the emotional subtext, allows kids to choose male or female voices, provides definitions for more difficult words and terms that are linked to popups that show visual as well as text-based ways of defining the term – and in more than one language, and more.  Advice, helps and assessments are all set to the child’s reading, comprehension and analysis level with real-time feedback as to why a choice may or may not be the best one.

What made the most impact when I had time to think about his presentation were some points he made at the beginning about fixing the disabilities of a book or environment. He gave a few examples such as sloped sidewalks at crossings that make it easier not only for people in wheelchairs to cross the road but also for people with visual and ambulatory disabilities.  

He mentioned that in the US all TVs have to have the ability to display close captioning, yet the people that get the most value out of it aren’t the deaf – but people in noisy environments such as gyms, airports or bars who wish to watch television.

So, why am I so excited and what do I think I got wrong? After watching Dr. Rose’s presentation, I thought about the plight of adult learners. People with kids who are tired after a long day and often a long commute. People who might work at organisations that frown on the use of computers for personal use – even education. People who are visual or for whom English isn’t their first language who are asked to read virtual reams of PDFs and web sites. And I thought of me. Today. Who had set time aside to study but due to a headache and back issues didn’t want to sit down and read papers.

Thanks to options, I was able to sift through some videos on YouTube, find a real gem that gave me not only an overview of universal design, but how it applies to all aspects of teaching and learning and how it can benefit all learners. I get now that Universal Design – and WCAG compliance – isn’t just about
  • whether or not there may or may not be people with physical and/or cognitive disabilities or literacy  or language barriers accessing the online learning spaces we create,
  • thinking about whether activities and content can also be accessed from mobile devicess
  • ensuring people with internet connectivity issues can access online learning spaces, content and activities.
Universal Design is about learner-centred-design of education. Hell – it provides a blueprint to make learner centred design a reality! Learner-centred education is why face to face, individual instruction when done by an effective teacher is the most effective way of learning. The effective teacher can adjust choice of materials, teaching methodology and assessment to suit one learner. Having to do that for 30 to 60 plus learners is impossible.

WCAG content standards can help to make that difference online. I love that YouTube provides captioning options (AND SHAME ON YOU IE 9 FOR NOT WORKING WITH THEM) – and that YouTube will even translate those captions. Just that one technology makes YouTube videos available to:
  • people in organisations who have disabled soundcards or no headsets
  • people for whom English is a second language who can translate the audio into their native language (would like to know how good a job YT does of this)
  • people who have to try to listen to YouTube videos over noisy children
  • people who find the speaker of the video might be speaking too quickly
  • people who find it hard to concentrate when asked to passively watch a video
and, oh yeah - people with hearing disabilities. Here is Dr. Rose’s video below:


UPDATE:  IE9 DOES support HTML 5. You just need to ensure that it is not set to emulate older versions of the browser.

2 thoughts on “Universal design for learning”

  1. Universal design is a great idea. Dabbled in it, once, with a dual development for content in a Blackboard course. Challenge is how to prevent development costs multiplying for each modality added.

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