Monday, February 17, 2014

Universal Design for Online Learning

Last week I viewed the webinar "Using Universal Design to Support All Online Students" offered by Dr. Tom Tobin via Magna Online Seminars (more info here). I did my Ed.S thesis on the topic of online course accessibility, so it was more of a good reminder than new information but still a valuable use of time to reinforce we are on the right track if nothing else. Here is a synopsis of what I got out of the webinar.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is basically a way to design a course that helps all people learn. A key aspect of this is to provide options and choices to students as much as possible, while still accomplishing course objectives. UDL reduces the need for individual accommodations later. This is important, because putting some accommodations into place such as captioning can be very time consuming and can put students with disabilities behind in their course work.

A big difference between universal design and disability accessibility is that universal design strategies help all people, not just those with disabilities. An example I frequently share is that I use captions on TV and movies frequently although I do not have a hearing disability; it helps me understand better primarily when people have accents. In addition, many of the examples provided in this webinar were relevant to mobile devices or for individuals who have slow internet speed.

Dr. Tobin provided five strategies, most of which I agreed with. The first, however, I did not: it was "start with text" meaning read from a script when creating a video. I've found that reading from a script is a skill that most people do not have and it comes out sounding really boring. People learn better from a conversational voice (I know this has been found in research but I can't remember who. I will look it up eventually!). I generally recommend that people have an outline and speak extemporaneously if possible. I think this is ok because I have a student who can create transcripts. However, some people need a script and that's ok!

Another strategy was to "make alternatives." So, stills with text, video, audio, etc. Like in many MOOCs, there could be an option to download the video or watch it online. This is pretty standard.

The next is "let 'em do it their way" which refers to allowing students choice in how to complete assignments - write a paper, make a video, record audio. I have seen rubrics that focus on the content and not the modality so this is do-able. However, sometimes the modality is part of what is being assessed. In the case of business writing, allowing students do to a video or provide audio would miss a key objective of the assignment.

One participant asked later about how to get students to complete activities if they are "optional" which was a good opportunity for the presenter to clarify; this is not about making things optional (i.e., students choose to do them or not) it is about giving options to accomplish the objectives, most commonly in the modality.

The fourth is "go step by step." This means chunk your content into small pieces and help students understand the relationship between the chunks and the progression by scaffolding. I definitely recommend small chunks as well, because it fits better with attention spans too.

The final strategy is to "set content free" - free from file formats and free from the clock, referring to instructional videos that can be watched multiple times, on demand. A common recommendation was to put videos on YouTube for maximum accessibility on different devices, vs giving students a PowerPoint in which case they are required to have Microsoft Office.

At UWEC we are making strides toward universal design. It is a concept that our instructional designers believe in and are going to promote. Our video department is going to provide both a captioned and uncaptioned version of the DVDs streamed for online courses and my student is at least making a dent in captioning instructor-created videos. We are focusing on making pdfs that are screen reader friendly, and are going to explore what other steps we can take within our learning management system to make things as accessible as possible to help all students succeed.
I added another post further explaining the rationale for universal design here.

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