Universal Learning for the 21st Century

Damian Gordon and 
Ciaran O'Leary, Dublin Institute of Technology, School of Computing, Kevin Street, Dublin 8.

Abstract. Increasingly it is recognized that there is a very wide diversity of learners in the classroom, and as a consequence of this teachers must identify approaches to teaching that facilitates learning in the broadest range of students. This diversity of learners can manifest itself in a range of ways; international students may have a language barrier, students may have specific learning difficulties, they may come from a range of educational backgrounds, or they may have a range of physical or sensory special needs. To aid allstudents in their learning it is vital that teachers recognize this diversity and incorporate the principles of universal design in their approach to the task of instructional design.

Keywords: Universal Design, Educational Guidelines, Instructional Design

1. Introduction

The challenge of designing educational environments that are open to all learners and in which all learners can participate is a complex one. This requires the design of systems of provision, physical environments, curricula, teaching methods and procedures that can accommodate the wide diversity of learning needs as result of individual differences in the general student population. But it is also about providing safe and timely access to extra supports, interventions, equipment and adjustments to the environment to ensure inclusion into the life of the school in all respects.

Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose, and Jackson [1] note that most classroom curriculum materials rely almost exclusively on printed text. As a result, full participation and progress in the curriculum is possible only for those students who can access textbooks and other text materials in the form in which they are produced. While some schools and teachers provide adaptations and use assistive technologies to help individual students use printed text materials, "these adaptations can significantly change or water down the concepts and skills of the curriculum, offering in effect access to a different, diminished curriculum" (p. 12). Hitchcock et al. also note that some assistive devices, such as page-turners, are too cumbersome to be readily moved from one classroom to another during the school day.

It is important that teachers embrace the widest range of technologies available to them to help ensure that all learners are able to avail and success in the learning environment. Thus a move towards more online materials may aid a range of students and in the following section we will investigate how online materials can be developed so as to conform to the principles of universal design.

2. Universal Design

Universal Design may be defined as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design"[2] and is generally characterized by seven principles;

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

We will briefly investigate each one of these principles in the context of educational design, and in particular in the development of online materials to aid student learning.

Equitable use: This principle suggests that the design must useful to people with diverse abilities. For example, when developing online materials on a website it should be designed in such a way so as it is accessible to everyone, including students who have visual impairments and are using text-to-speech software to read the material.

Flexibility in Use: This principle suggests that the design must accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. For example, the written online materials may be supplemented by both audio and video Podcasts to allow the learner to choose the most appropriate mode of communication for them.

Simple and Intuitive: This principle suggests that the design must be easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. For example, when adding directions and buttons to various links on the online materials, they need to be clear and intuitive.

Perceptible Information: This principle suggests that the design must communicate all necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. For example, when multimedia is being used with the online materials and is being listened to by students in a noisy academic environment, it is important that it includes captioning.

Tolerance for Error: This principle suggests that the design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. For example, the online materials must provide guidance when the student makes an inappropriate selection.

Low Physical Effort: This principle suggests that the design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. For example, the online materials must not require that the student have to undertake an excessive amount of mouse clicking and typing to access the relevant information.

Size and Space for Approach and Use: This principle suggests that the design should ensure that the appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility. Thus when accessing the online materials in a computer laboratory, it needs to be designed for use by students with a wide variety of physical characteristics and abilities.

3. Inclusive Design

An idea very aligned with the principles of Universal Design is that of inclusion. A number of terms have been coined that reflect the view that it is the education system that needs to consider and adjust to the individual differences of atypical learners. These includeinclusive classroom [3], inclusive education [4] and inclusive schools [5]. One of the shared characteristics of each concept is the view that is possible to design educational systems and pedagogical methods to create more positive mainstream learning environments for students with special educational needs and, as a consequence for all students.

The concept of inclusion implies changes to curricula, teacher's approaches and methods of assessment. Inclusive education practices emphasize active learning and differentiated instructional approaches. It is about recognizing the diversity learning styles and needs in every group of learners and the individualization of instruction. Currently inclusive education is an ideal to which systems, institutions and educators can aspire but there is a substantial distance to travel. Significant change is required to reach a point where the needs of both educators and learners are genuinely at the heart of education provision. But the concept provides a set of values which can inform policy development, a direction to guide curriculum design and a benchmark against which to chart progress.

Inclusive design may be contrasted with universal design as follows; inclusive design suggests the development of individualized learning materials so that each student has access to materials that best suits their learning, whereas universal design suggests designing a general set of materials that suits all learners. In other words they are both aspiring to provide the learner with an environment where they can maximize their learning potential, and minimize their cognitive load, but inclusive design does this in a more bottom-up approach whereas universal design suggests a more top-down approach.

4. The Irish Perspective

In Ireland the body most responsible for dictating the approaches to education is the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland which was established in February 2001. The Authority itself has three principal objects which are set out in the Qualifications (Education & Training) Act;

  • Establishment and maintenance of a framework of
    qualifications for the development, recognition and award of qualifications
    based on standards of knowledge, skill or competence to be acquired by learners
  • Establishment and promotion of the maintenance and
    improvement of the standards of awards of the further and higher education and
    training sector, other than in the existing universities
  • Promotion and facilitation of access, transfer and
    Progression throughout the span of education and training provision.

The national framework of qualifications [6] consists of ten levels and has determined the initial major award-types for each level. This framework sets out a range of standards for knowledge, skill and competence for each level.

Specific objectives outlined in this framework include "to ensure that accurate and reliable information is available to all learners, through a range of approaches and formats that is accessible to a diversity of learners, to enable them to plan their learning on the basis of a clear understanding of the awards available and the associated entry arrangements and transfer and progression routes." Further to this the framework identifies how this objective is linked to providing access to learners who are currently underrepresented in the Irish Education system;

It is considered that the concept of 'access' should apply to all learners, but particularly to the participation of under- represented learner cohorts such as those with special education needs, learners from disadvantaged communities, learners in the workplace and adult learners generally. A more appropriate definition of access for these groups needs to include programme adaptation or the provision of in-process supports or even the provision of new variants or formats of programmes (e.g. Part-time or modular formats).It is more productive for all learners to focus the access concept on completion (the achievement of the award) rather than on entry. Access to a programme of education and training is not a worthwhile aim if the learner is then unable to achieve his/her objective of obtaining an award.

It is clear that the NQAI has seriously considered the need for developing a more flexible approach to education delivery and it will provide a great deal more access to students who have traditionally been unable to avail of further education. And furthermore that the NQAI is suggesting an inclusive design approach, as opposed to a universal design approach.

5. Conclusions

The range of students that are attending all levels of education is expanding on a regular basis, for example, with the influx of non-national students into Irish schools, it is important that teachers demonstrate cultural sensitivity and discuss all matters from a more global perspective. This is being done on an ad hoc basis currently but it requires a more planned and considered approach to ensure such issues are dealt with in a consistent manner.

What is required is as much variety and diversity as possible in the development of learning materials, and that those materials embody the principles of both inclusive and universal design. By providing learning materials in an online environment, it is clear they may embody the principles of universal design and may also be personalized to facilitate the principles of inclusion, and in doing this they may reach the widest learner audience possible.


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  2. Mace, R.L., Hardie, G.J., Place, J.P., Accessible
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