Reflections on strategies of inclusive and engaging learning courses

student

1. Disruptive education – new ways of teaching and learning

Getting access to information, developing new concepts of thinking and creating new approaches and scenarios to solve problems is en vogue – but living in a society that puts their focus on knowledge can sometimes be difficult. What can a student do, what a teacher, to survive in such an environment? Back in the day, the answer seemed to be easy: read your books and do your homework – and: teach your subject as best as you can.

Today, we have reached a point where the understanding of teaching and learning has structurally shifted from a rather traditional concept of education towards a collaborative teaching and learning environment to the benefit of students and teachers. And another change started to get stronger: students became able to find their own path through a growing amount of information they have to process and teachers were not limited anymore to only use one particular teaching style. Progressive education, as it was coined in the 1970s, as well much older schools of thought have contributed many practical approaches backed up by academic research that provided a huge body of publications and case studies. But how do we get there at an individual level? And more importantly, how do we keep students and teachers walking on that track and stay interested in subject areas they have to do to be successful at school, at the university, as an apprentice or trained employee at the workplace? One option to consider is to “create” engaged teachers who are actually interested and trained in their subject – but that should be the premise anyway. We could think about how to get interested students, but shouldn’t that be the task of parents or the family in general?

Learning and teaching is a social endeavour and requires mutual understanding of and empathy for the people involved. Communicating needs and wants is another crucial prerequisite to make teaching and learning easier and more rewarding for both students and teachers. Can the current educational technology be of support? Yes and no. No, because learning social interactions works best through developing those in real-life settings – and yes, because current learning technologies that provide ways to communicate with teachers and students can strengthen already developed skills and create a valuable forum to share ideas, thoughts and to collaborate with others.

Delivering learning content and preparing information in various ways is the major strength of digitally created and disseminated e-learning courses. The reasons are evident. Whereas prior to the e-learning era, teaching and learning was limited to the written and spoken word which corresponded with the notion of “read your book and do your homework”, now we are able to create learning materials tailored to the needs of students because we can

  1. create learning assets which cater for those who learn more easily if they have dynamic visual or auditory input and are not limited to “static” books,
  2. individualise learning content depending on the student’s needs and
  3. provide teaching regardless where the learner is located and when they can commit to learning sessions

much more time efficient than before as we did in analogue times.

Who is in and who is out? This question requires a complex answer. But in short: It depends how teaching and learning – and education in general – is regarded in the societies we live in. Access to education for everyone is of high priority on political agendas, it is defined as a human right and we find highly detailed concepts in all kinds of policies (by governments, educational institutions and corporate bodies), so education is highly valued and therefore, no one is out. However, it remains, people live in different circumstances which demand specific responses.

What, then, is our part as e-learning developers if policies and law can’t ensure full access to education? We are digital disruptors who can question strong traditional systems. With our knowledge and skills we can make change happen as we can open-up new avenues for a new style of learning and teaching and make education for everyone a reality.

 

2. How we can do better – a new concept of inclusive and engaging teaching

The answer is complex but it all starts with the fact that information has to be prepared in a way that everyone can have access and the opportunity to understand what the learning content is about. A lot of research has been done [Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age by Rose & Meyer (ASCD, 2002), The Universally Designed Classroom by Rose, Meyer, & Hitchcock, Eds. (Harvard Education Press, 2005), and A Practical Reader in Universal Design for Learning by Rose & Meyer, Eds. (Harvard Education Press, 2006)] and these results have eventually been transferred into legal requirements and policies by governments and institutions of formal learning such as schools, universities and corporate learning departments.

2.1 Universal Design for Learning

Universal design for learning is about minimising barriers as students are individually different in various areas, it is also about equal opportunities for everyone who has decided to learn regardless of these obstacles. Ultimately, it is addressing the need for flexible learning opportunities. Research shows that the process of learning and the success rate can be affected by

  • personal barriers: time constraints, distance to learning venue, lack of basic skills
  • mental barriers: lack of motivation, low level of confidence, fear of failure, earlier negative learning experiences
  • physical barriers: disabilities such as low vision

Digital learning modules and utilising the internet are perfect to support the goal of accessible learning no matter who you are, where you are, what kind of device you will be using or what you are going to study. In this blog post I want to focus on the three basic principles which define the backbone of the “Universal Design for Learning (UDL)” and how they can be applied when it comes to the development of online learning modules (http://www.udlcenter.org/sites/udlcenter.org/files/updateguidelines2_0.pdf):

 

Principle I: Provide Multiple Means of Representation

the-what-of-learning

Principle I is about the representation of information in different ways. Why? To give students the chance to become resourceful and knowledgeable.

  • Principle I 1.1-1.3 refers to how to exhibit textual, visual and auditory information
  • Principle I 2.1-2.5 constitutes how to use language, mathematical expressions and symbols
  • Principle I 3.1-3.4 gives examples how the process of learning and understanding can be supported

Principle II: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

the-how-of-learning

Principle II is about helping students to become active and expressive. Why? To give students the opportunity to develop strategies and goals.

  • Principle II 4.1-1.2 focuses on providing different options of physical actions
  • Principle II 5.1-1.3 suggests effective ways of expression and communication
  • Principle II 6.1-1.4 gives ideas how to take action in order to support goal-setting, develop strategies and manage information

Principle III: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

the-why-of-learning

Principle III is about students’ engagement while learning. Why? To support students to become motivated and purposeful learners.

  • Principle III 7.1-7.3 refers to designing concepts how to support students to create interest
  • Principle III 8.1-8.4 defines ways to encourage students to maintain their efforts and perseverance
  • Principle III 9.1-9.3 clarifies options to focus on individual strategies for self-regulation

2.2 Engaging and inclusive course development in practice – an overview

What do these three principles mean for our efforts to design inclusive learning courses that help students in their learning, to have positive learning experiences and to complete their courses successfully? At this point just a few possible approaches:
  1. UDL as a theoretical guideline why to choose a particular navigation
  2. UDL as a starting point to define reasons why e.g. to develop branching scenarios, micro-learning modules, multi-culturally sensitive content
  3. UDL as an explanation why to use a specific colour schemes, images, data visualisations etc.

However, the application of UDL principles and particularly their effects on our learning design projects are numerous and gives us an very helpful and reliable concept when we are in situations to explain clients why we do things the way we do. Examples:

  1. the design of player skins,
  2. specific applications of learning interactions,
  3. skipping content depending on screen size (contextual design considerations) etc.

By experience, I strongly recommend to use a theoretical framework such as UDL as it provides an extensive body of educational research backed up with qualitative and quantitative studies. Also, applying UDL principles sharpens our minds in terms of web accessibility. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 should be another reason to consider the importance of UDL principles. The comparison of these with WCAG 2.0 standards – perceivable, operable, understandable and robust – shows remarkable similarities. Just two quick examples: It should be common sense to create readable and understandable content. With regard to content and language, we have to think in favour of our audience – students attaining a Masters degree or students enrolled into a BA programme. In terms of typography and perception, we have to make sure that content is visually structured (headings, paragraphs, fonts etc.) and easily perceivable, and – equally important – accessible for visually impaired people or someone with a loss of hearing. Just compare and you will find many more interesting cross-overs.

One other closing comment: The W3C consortium seems to endorse principles of UDL and equally surprising, principles of social values which are obvious in the Universal Design for Learning: The W3C consortium describes the social value of the web as “it enables human communication, commerce, and opportunities to share knowledge. One of W3C’s primary goals is to make these benefits available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability” (https://www.w3.org/Consortium/mission). Have you ever wondered why to compress your learning module during the export process? The social value of the web and equal access for everyone in areas with a low bandwidth is one reason.

Let’s become aware of the importance of creating well-designed and engaging learning modules based on a reliable concept or theory of learning design principles and our role as digital disruptors, prepared to shape and support an emerging progressive educational landscape.

 

3. Resources

Here are a few very interesting resources:

3.1 Videos – what is UDL?

3.2 Books

Burgstahler (Ed.), Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, Harvard Education Press, 2015
Gordon, Meyer & Rose, Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice, CAST Professional Publishing, 2016
Rose & Meyer (Eds.), Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age, ASCD, 2002
Rose & Meyer (Eds.), A Practical Reader in Universal Design for Learning, Harvard Education Press, 2006
Rose, Meyer & Hitchcock (Eds.), Universally Designed Classroom, Harvard Education Press, 2005

3.3 Online resources

Do share your thoughts & drop your comments below.

Responsive course design with Adobe Captivate 2017

As I have worked with Adobe Captivate to develop online learning modules I am very excited to see how easy it has become to create responsive courses. Whereas previous versions of Captivate made it very time-consuming to achieve accurate designs for the whole range of screen sizes, the new version has considerably improved. From a project management point of view, the new version with its new fluid box feature not only shortens the production time immensely, the improved workflow also guarantees a high quality of responsive course designs which contributes to better and more user friendly products – and students with more positive learning experiences. Thank you to the Adobe Captivate development team.