Creating Courses Using Universal Design (Accessibility) Principles
Upon being first hired to teach at my university I received these detailed instructions from my dean: good luck, and make sure the students learn. Being a first time-time educator, I quickly accustomed myself to the available resources, the school’s learning management system (LMS), face-to-face and online curriculum, and textbook resources. Then I dove into the typical and popular teaching modalities - lecture and death by PowerPoint. And that’s when I hit a wall.
Students were bored, not engaged, and not fully connecting with the material I was teaching. Eventually, I grew frustrated by the lack of participation and bored with my own lecture-style approach.
Despite this, I hesitated to change my teaching practices. But then came an unexpected realization, a student population that my lecture-focused course was causing even more difficulties for students with disabilities. And the numbers needed to keep but alter and accommodate my lecture-approach didn’t lie: 1.5 or 2x time accommodations on timed activities, online notes for deaf students, recorded notes for blind students, etc. My initial reaction was naturally, holy cow, what was I going to do? Did I mention that my primary course was a hands-on application course? I immediately reached out to the Office of Disability Services on campus for help, who provided an interpreter and note-takers. Unfortunately, that was not enough help because my course was not accessible, so I reached out again, but this time to the university's College of Education. Their response? Simply put, I needed to employ universal design principles in my courses.
What is Universal Design (UD)?
Interestingly, UD resulted from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) for building and street accessibility such as ramps and curb cuts, later being applied to accessible education. UD in education refers to creating courses and classrooms that are accessible to all students. What this means as an educator is I am responsible for creating course content and materials for an inclusive environment. Goodbye traditional lecture and death by PowerPoint.
Cast's (2018) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines notes three guidelines and associated goals:
- Multiple means of engagement, the why of learning produces purposeful and motivated students;
- Multiple means of representation, the what of learning produces resourceful and knowledgeable students; and
- Multiple means of action and expression, the how of learning produces strategic and goal-directed students.
What we do in my classes and courses now:
- Flipped Classroom Design: 10-minute starter lecture highlighting the difficult sections for the day’s work.
- Recorded Lectures (20-30 minutes): Includes transcripts, and audio description.
- Students really like these transcripts because the PDF files are searchable and annotatable, available in LMS and through YouTube. Avoiding a lot of colors and san serif fonts help those with color blindness, color confusion, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and sigh impairments; my LMS site is a basic gray/blue schema.
- Collaborative Work: Students work together, or can opt to work individually.
- Expectations: Both student and faculty expectations are noted in the syllabus.
- Course Syllabus: Contains the full course schedule to develop self-regulation and no surprises.
- Low-risk assessments: Life gets in the way sometimes, preventing assignment completion so missing an occasional assignment is not detrimental to the course grade.
- Scaffolding Content and Assessments: Providing remediation activities for student improvement and content mastery.
- Content Chunking: Provides opportunities to practice the material
- Multiple Forms of Assessments: Quizzes, simulations, and projects.
- Note: There are NO exams; the word exam creates a high-stress level for many students. Additionally, this provides students different opportunities to express what they know as some students may perform better at one form of assessment than another.
- Individualized Feedback: Use the student’s preferred method of feedback wherever possible.
- Real-World Examples and Problems
- Provide a List of Common Shortcut Keys: Create a common list for each application to hand out to students.
- Goal-Setting: Helping students set reasonable goals and stay on track to meet those goals using formative feedback.
By making these changes to my classes and courses, I not only feel better about my teaching but I’ve noticed a higher engagement level with all of my students. e.g. Students are working together, learning from each other and referring back to my video transcripts for their notes. No longer are students bored and using their phones and computers to catch up with friends on social media. Students who were stressed for high-risk exams are relieved and far less anxious because, with low-risk assessments throughout the course, a student can miss one here and there without a detrimental effect on their course grade. Students are learning throughout the course because we have weekly low-risk assessments versus students trying to cram for a midterm and final exam.
These Universal Design principles have not only made my class accessible to all students but have benefited the learning and assessment process for all.
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org