Many principals preparing their open evenings for post-primary schools over the last few weeks have had to describe "universal design for learning" to parents and students for the first time. This is a direct consequence of many schools having to migrate to digital platforms such as Edmodo, Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams during the pandemic.
So, what exactly is Universal Design for Learning, or UDL? When designing learning materials, especially digital learning materials, we need to involve those for whom we are designing.
It is only once this group’s diverse needs are established that you can start to design and develop optimal learning resources (both traditional hard copy and digital). Accessibility, inclusion and UDL cannot be treated as add-ons. They must be factored in from the very beginning of the design process. The rapid adoption of ICT calls for rapid adoption of accessibility principles.
While there is an EU web accessibility directive in place, how this is implemented varies hugely from country to country. The EU-funded project Lead-Me involving 28 countries is exploring the guidelines and curricula for teaching and training media accessibility. The project is exploring the optimal use of subtitles, speech recognition software and easy-to-understand language.
It is difficult to differentiate between accessible and inclusive. Accessible tries to cater for the widest range of user needs whereas for a resource to be inclusive we are designing something that everyone can use.
Accessibility is not possible without inclusion. Some digital resources carry a high risk of cognitive overload. There may be many elements competing for attention on the screen including text, images, sound, moving objects, navigation, individual students capacity varies widely.
Regarding UDL, the school environment can be defined in terms of academic, administrative and wider community contexts. When designing with UDL in mind, we include the creation of learning materials by teachers and students and the potential of good practice to maximise the communicative impact of the resource.
UDL principles can also be applied to administrative environments such as the design of teacher and student journals. Learning management systems, which are easy to use, and generate clear student reports and certificates are another example.
Last, resources designed to support communication within the school community also play a key role. School apps which relay school news as well as providing authoring tools for parents to write sick notes should conform to UDL guidelines. Schools may consider using alternative text on websites and social media accounts to describe images as well as including multilingual sound files for textual information on the web page. This creates a more inclusive and accessible experience for parents, students, and teachers.
The new junior cycle has triggered the emergence of new forms of assessment, including oral communication supported by written slides.
These alternative assessments have emerged as viable tasks within subjects such as business, science and geography and it is probable that this type of assessment will also continue through to the new senior cycle experience for students.
Therefore, it is really the responsibility of educators and other stakeholders to ensure that students are equipped with the appropriate skill set. It is also critical that students form good habits when preparing presentations that will allow them to transfer these skills from senior cycle to third level or to a workplace.
During the pandemic many students were, and are, continuing to use mobile phones to create these presentations; this can be quite challenging and can impede the quality of the resource that is being produced.
We are now at a pivotal moment regarding reform of senior cycle. It is important that as we explore alternative and different forms of assessments that we equip students with appropriate skills to maximize their learning potential within these possibilities that may be afforded to us in the future.
For students producing work by hand, it is important that they also adhere to the principles of UDL. Many students use a digital pen for both homework and individual note taking and revision. It is important that they understand how to produce digitally handwritten notes correctly, such as selection of font colour, nib size and organisation of content.
Accessibility awareness of the student’s own needs for revision as well as the teacher’s needs for correction of work would be key components of implementing UDL into daily classroom tasks. Teachers are exploring alternative ways to provide feedback via audio voice notes as well as correcting with a digital pen. Applying the principles of UDL to the design for feedback templates (written or audio) may also enhance the learning experience.
There is an optional short course provided by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment on digital media literacy, but there is a need for some instruction in key design principles. Such principles should include some instruction on choice of typefaces, colour choices for text and graphics, data visualisation and information design. Such instruction would allow for a more clear and coherent communication of material in text and audiovisual format.
Excellent digital teaching and learning materials that comply with the key principles of UDL need to be available to students at all schools, across all social backgrounds, not just schools that have the resources to create excellent learning materials.
- Dr Triona Hourigan is a secondary teacher at Laurel Hill secondary school and Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn is lecturer in technical communication and instructional design at University of Limerick