Monday, June 29, 2009

Access and Equity - Universal Design

Universal design as a concept originated in Social Disability theory and in anti discriminatory ideas. In social disability theory there is no such thing as disability, only a disabling environment. This theory led to making changes in the environment so that services, products, buildings etc were more accessible thus enhancing social inclusion and reducing social exclusion and stigma.

Universal design is defined as
" an approach to the design of all products and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation". (Universal Design Education on Line, 2004). There are seven principles associated with Universal design including;

1) Equitable Use
2) Flexibility in Use
3) Simple and Intuitive Use
4) Perceptible Information
5) Tolerance for Error
6) Low Physical Effort
7) Size and Space for Approach and Use
NC State University 1997

The Centre for Universal Design makes the point that not every principle is applicable to every design and that in practice designers must also consider factors such as economic, engineering, cultural, gender, and environmental concerns in their design processes.

How could these principles be applied in my course;

1) Equitable Use - I think this principle is already applied in my course. The course is open entry and my students consist equally of individuals working within the mental health industry and consumers who access these services. My students range in age from 17 to 60 are generally about 50/50 male and female, include different ethnic groups and come with severe literacy issues and degrees. I work hard to establish a warm and trusting environment where everyone is valued equally for the expertise they bring and where skills and abilities are shared.

2) Flexibility in Use - Again I think this is something that I'm doing well but there is always room for improvement. I work really hard to cater to different learning styles both in the way I present material and in my approach to assessment. By learning styles I am referring specifically to VARK and less specifically to all aspects of a person's character, culture and experiences that make them who they are. I think that as I develop more material online, I will be increasingly able to cater better to different learning styles, needs and learning preferences. I have loved getting material on line for students this year as it means that students can go at their own pace. I definitely think that it is possible to provide students with different means to the same end - choice from a range of activities, readings etc that will take them to the same learning outcomes and I would like to work towards a course site that includes this choice. I am keen to get optional audio's done for all my power point presentations, and I would love eventually to have audio's attached to all the readings and words linked to a thesaurus or glossary of terms. I want more interactive material such as quizzes and games and I am experimenting with online ways of providing creative assessment opportunities.

3) Simple and Intuitive Use - I am making progress with this. I both coordinate my particular course and do most of the lecturing on it so I continue to work at integrating and simplifying course material and assessments and standardising presentation and language which I think considerably enhances the extent to which material becomes simple and intuitive. This has been difficult because my course is unit standard based and external moderators want evidence that every PC has been addressed. I have to accommodate moderators needs which in my experience are bizarrely removed from students needs - I have increasingly prioritised student needs which has meant less positive feedback from external moderators but more accessible material for students and a more healthy sense of integrity for me. One change I have made in preparing assessments is thinking what do the students want to know - I now put the assessment due date first. This is ongoing and up for continual review in the face of ongoing student groups with different needs.

Perceptible Information - As with an earlier response, I think that as I develop more online material I am better able to cater to peoples sensory needs. I have made ongoing changes to my presentation material over the four years I have been teaching. In my first year my overheads were far too many and the writing was far too small. In my second year I re did all of these with much less and much bigger writing. In my third year I added lots of pictures and in my fourth year - this year I have moved to power point and could not go back. I am so mad at myself for not just using power points in the beginning. What was I frightened of? I am strongly encouraging colleagues who are still using overheads to make the change. I love using power points but it is still a challenge to get these right in terms of not making them over stimulating or distracting, making sure writing is readable against backgrounds, ensuring that they have enough material to act as lecture notes and not too much. One thing I have learnt is never to use green pen on the whiteboard or green font in power points as it is much harder to read than other colours. I note that this flexible learning course does not really have any lecture notes just a brief introduction to each topic area and then a bit of a guided tour - I think that is entirely appropriate for a level 7 course but I am sure that a level 4 unit standard based course that is underpinned by industry competencies is different (I'm preempting perceived criticism here and I do wonder if more online material in terms of a guided tour will enable a move away from lecture notes - I suspect it might but part of me is convinced that equitable access requires a set of simple lecture notes for some students - I'm certainly open to other views and to being convinced otherwise on this one!

Tolerance for Error - Hmmm - Although this is not directly relevant I'm thinking about this in terms of an assessment task I developed recently with my colleague Kate Timms. The task was individual but we built in a consultation session where students presented their work to peers and got feedback on their plans. Peers had to provide suggestions and students then had to critically reflect on these and modify their plans accordingly. We wanted the students to experience a consultation process but the activity also provided formative feedback resulting in a higher pass rate accross the board. In an earlier blog I discussed the EDC session with Phil Ker, Otago Polytechnic CEO. One of the things that Phil talked about was removing the stress point caused by Assessment and focusing more on formative assessment and less on summative assessment. Earlier this year Heather Day also got me thinking about this stress point when she asked the question in a training seminar - How do students see assessment? I realised that assessment is infinatetly stressful for students so much so that for many it takes the pleasure out of learning - causing students displeasure and stress is totally out of sycnh with what I aim to do so I am trying to figure out ways of doing this more organically. My sister recently graduated from teachers college and she talked about the idea of 'assessment in situe' where teachers spend more time observing students in natural settings. The teachers 'observations' then become the assessment. Unfortunately this requires that students are present which does not fit easily with the move to more online learning but I guess if you set the students up with an online group task for example then you could observe how they participated in that task and give them feedback on that - the student could work towards group outcomes over a year and assess themself against these. I am working towards more self and peer assessed tasks and more formative assessment as I think this does reduce the hazards for students and staff. One excellent recent example is using collaborative google docs for a group assessment. I became a collaborator with the students - offering feedback as they worked towards their end product - because they have had the feedback as they go, they will pass the assesment with a very high standard. It occurs to me though - that they might not know this!

Low Physical Effort - I'm not sure this one ie relevant - I could change it to low mental effort but that wouldn't be consistent with the deep level reflective learning I encourage. I may have to think more about this one.

7) Size and Space for Approach and Use - I guess this oes have relevace for equitable access but it's getting late and I can't think what.

The principles for Universal Design are definately applicable in my course!

Inflexible teaching is what I grew up with. It is why I spent most of my secondary experience in the corridor. Sounds of "out the door miss McNeill" reverberate in my ears to this day, I still struggle with a stupidity complex and I bring this experience and undersanding to my student group many of whom have has similiar experiences.

Access and equity are the antithesis of inflexibility they are what flexible teaching is all about. Flexible teaching is about practicing this craft in a post modern world where we are aware of diversity and the uniqueness of individuals, where we appreciate the validity of different world views, different ways of being, different learning styles and dfferent learning needs.

Flexible teaching is about ensuring that as many students as possible can access material. Accessability is not just about physical access but about emotional, mental and spiritual access too but I will talk more abouty this under 'Cultural Sensitivity'.



  1. Another mammoth post - but a beauty! Remember you shouldn't be spending more that 6 hours on each topic Jen.. but this is good stuff, so I'll hope you keep going.

    I was thinking as I read.. what about the stuff Jen thinks she has no control over.. like - the enrollment process her students go through.. or referral process if its that too? What about when they want to contact you.. is it an 0800 number? What about the buildings you use to run classes in? What about the information and marketing material that goes out about your courses?

    I wonder how much of this you could gain control over and exercise some design approaches over it?

    For example, some of my course.. all people need to do to enroll is send a txt message or turn up. I think these two options have a pretty high tolerance for error. But then, this course has a very low tolerance with regard to the heavy use of technology.

    The only thing I can say about that is that we use readily available technology mostly - stuff that anyone could access and use from home. We still need to check the accessibility of some of the web services we use for people using screen reader assistive technology though...

    As you say.. there's always room for improvement. And I might add, especially when we start widening our scope and thinking about everything that is involved in doing our course, from the moment someone first sees and thinks about it, to the day they pass and say see-ya-later

  2. Again you are right but you would be surprised how much control a control freak like me can have over standardised processes - I won't go there in this forum but I must say I like your thinking about enrolment made easy - I bet we lose loads of students through this ridiculous standardised paper shuffling nightmare that poly calls enrolment - It drives me crazzzzy!



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