Universal Design for All Our Students

It’s easy to forget sometimes, when we’re so focused on our own enrollment numbers semester by semester, that here are more students enrolled in US colleges and universities today than at any previous point in the history of US higher education. As enrollments have increased, so too has the diversity within the college student population. Grand View’s growth has mirrored this larger phenomenon. As our enrollment has grown, our student body has become more diverse. A quick perusal of our class profiles confirms that we have significantly more geographic, racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, and academic diversity than was the case even just a decade ago. So, too, has our curriculum diversified. We’ve developed a new core, new programs, and new modes of instruction to more fully meet the needs and interests of our changing population of students.

As our students have become more diverse, however, sometimes our instructional methods haven’t fully kept up with that diversity. In particular, students come to us with a wider array of needs than is readily apparent. Right now, students who need support because of a learning or other type of disability won’t receive it unless they self-report through our Disabilities Services office in Student Life. But studies also suggest that many student who enter college with a documented disability (this is particularly true for learning disabilities) do not immediately undertake this reporting process, and often struggle as a result of not being able to access the type of support they need. In other words, chances are that we have students in every one of our courses that have “invisible disabilities.” And of course, this has significant implications for our pedagogy, and the ways in which we design our courses and assessments. Accessibility is, now more than ever, a crucial element our work. But accessibility isn’t just an issue for students with disabilities, documented or otherwise. It’s something that has importance for all of our students, because the more accessible our courses are, the better they will be for every learner in them.

This is why Universal Design for Learning (UDL) should be firmly in place on our pedagogical radar screens. To get a sense of what UDL is really about, think about the sidewalk ramps that are at most intersections (including those on our campuses). They were originally mandated by law to make it safer for people using wheelchairs to cross the street. But, once in place, their benefits have accrued to many more people than just those in wheelchairs. The ramps make it easier for parents pushing strollers or carriages and for bicyclists and skateboarders, for example. A modification to a basic sidewalk design, originally done to address a specific disability, ended up benefiting everyone, regardless of ability or the reason they were using the sidewalk. That’s Universal Design: the idea that design can make things better for everyone by focusing on what makes things the most accessible for the greatest number. Applied to education, Universal Design for Learning embraces this principle of accessibility, not just because it can help those students who need it the most, but because it helps all of our students learn better. As this video overview puts it, thinking about UDL has us ask ourselves, “how many doors do [our] students have to go through to reach our instruction?”

Answering that question can lead us to considerations that we might not have undertaken when it comes to our methods and materials. A lot of us use videos either in or outside of class, for example, but are they close-captioned? By law (including the Americans with Disabilities Act), they need to be. This is particularly relevant for online courses, or for blended courses that utilize videos for students’ out-of-class activities. If you use a video provider like Films on Demand, transcripts and captioning are available for almost all of the videos in their collection. Many, but certainly not all, YouTube videos also have captioning available; it’s worth the time to check and see if a captioned version of a particular video is available. If you make your own video (using Panopto, for example), consider writing a transcript to read from, and then post it to accompany your video. Right now, captioning technology hasn’t kept up with the ubiquity of video usage, something that several institutions of higher education have learned the hard way.

Focusing on accessibility can also enhance the utility of our other instructional materials. For lecture-intensive portions of our courses, guided notes are a strategy worth considering. They can help students focus on the most essential portions of the material we present by providing cues and scaffolding with which they can approach the lecture, freeing them up to listen more intentionally instead of feeling like they have to write everything in their notes. So, too, can we take measures to render our visual materials more accessible for students. There are a number of features, for example, in PowerPoint that we can use to promote accessibility. The same holds true for most of the typical document formats we use: Word, PDF, Excel, and Publisher, for example. Using these tools makes our documents more easily rendered by screen-reader technology for visually-impaired students, but it also helps us create more organized documents that all of our students will be able to navigate much more easily. Thus, even though these steps are specific tools to assist students with disabilities, they can end up making our materials more accessible to the entire class, not just a certain subset of students.

If we mean what we say about promoting access, and we want to make sure that we aren’t making our students walk through several doors to learn from our course material, then we need to embrace Universal Design for Learning. It’s more than a matter of assisting students with disabilities; it’s a set of principles that promotes learning for all of the participants in our courses. We have plenty of resources on UDL in the CETL, and the CETL staff would be happy to follow up with you on anything covered here. Just call, email, or come by the CETL to set up a consultation!

[image credit: Universal Design Style on Flickr]

This week, may you find something as enjoyable as this turtle finds his purple ball.



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