Can inclusive design help to keep everyone engaged online?

A conversation with Miriam Edwards (Education Designer at the Williams Centre for Learning Advancement) and Ashley Anderson (Melbourne School of Professional and Continuing Education (MSPACE) Learning Designer) discuss the increased reliance on online study and how all teachers can use this opportunity to improve the learning experience for students with functional needs.

Teachers across the world have made seismic efforts to transition their classrooms into a virtual space – Miriam Edwards, and Learning Designer, Ashley Anderson, highlight practical ways for teachers to introduce accessibility principles into their online practice and make a meaningful difference to students with functional needs and how they can have a profound long-term impact.

Building an inclusive online learning community

Ms Edwards has worked in remote learning from its “lonely” early days where printed packs were sent off to remote and often isolated students. She sees the modern online environment as offering a vastly improved experience for students and teachers. With good design, she believes students can experience a genuine “learning community” and sense of collaboration.

Creating an accessible space often comes down to making the online classroom a welcoming, inclusive environment. “Something as simple as making a welcoming statement at the start, letting students know that there are services available if they need, can be a really great first step.”

Simple, effective steps towards creating an accessible virtual classroom

Both experts offer some simple but effective tips which can improve the online study experience for students with functional needs:

  • Chunk information to make it more digestible. Recording small ‘snippet’ style videos to introduce information will help it translate better in online session.
  • Encourage students to learn at their own pace, and replay content if they don’t initially grasp concepts.
  • Use built-in heading styles to aid screen readers.
  • Hyperlink the titles of pages rather than URLs. For example, hyperlink the title ‘Designing for diverse learners’ rather than the URL https://libguides.hull.ac.uk/diverselearners
  • Order captions for videos.
  • Support your students to speak up if they have difficulty.

Designing online experiences for anyone is good for everyone

As we move beyond the most immediate needs of our COVID-19 response, both experts stress the importance of good design when it comes to accessibility. They also emphasise that this approach doesn’t just benefit the few who need it most, it's actually something which benefits everyone.

The more I delved into it, the more I realised that if we create something that is accessible for everybody, it's usually just good design.

– Ashley Anderson

Ms Edwards cites the nine principles of Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) as being fundamental to improving equity and ensuring student success in the new online environment. Even today, this framework provides assistance to teachers thinking about making their virtual classrooms accessible to the widest possible range of students.

The nine Universal Design for Instruction principles include:

1. Equitable Use

Looking for a number of alternative ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge helps to provide equity for students with different strengths.

2. Flexibility in Use

Offering students flexibility in their assessment formats also helps to promote equity.

3. Simple and intuitive

Ensuring goals and methods are clear and easy to understand improves student awareness of expectations. Concept maps can be a great way to communicate complex ideas.

4. Perceptible information

Students perceive information in a variety of ways, so sharing knowledge through multiple avenues helps everyone access content.

5. Tolerance for error

Providing students with asynchronous readings and activities to do at their own pace can support those with varying levels of prior knowledge.

6. Low physical effort

Reducing physical effort where possible avoids student fatigue and maintains alertness.

7. Size and space for approach

Awareness of students’ physical space when they are learning from home, and the adaptation of activities to suit these environments is important for inclusion.

8. A community of learners

Teachers need to be flexible, perceptive and tolerant of different levels of prior knowledge. Teachers’ willingness to learn from students will also help to create a community of learners.

9. Instructional climate

Creating a positive instructional climate is fundamental to success and is crucial to all of the above steps. Teachers can help to create this in everything they do, and they can also empower students to be active partners in creating a positive instructional climate.

For students with disabilities, the impact of incorporating accessibility and the UDI principles into our thinking at the outset can be profound.

“The impact of universal design on students is inclusion. It’s the idea that if we can design in flexibility and choice then some students may not have to ‘disclose’ their condition,”

We use this word ‘disclose’ because, at the moment, if your access needs impact your education, you need to go to a disability support unit, discuss it and provide documentation… ‘If students didn’t have to do that, how much better would it be for them?” – Miriam Edwards

Ms Anderson agrees. “One of the biggest impacts of educators being inclusive in their design is the feeling of being included naturally and not having to fight to be included.

“So, if you log in to your subject and everything is easy to find and navigate, if you're getting all of the information and you're not having to ring up student access and equity and say, “can somebody please make this available to me?”

“What you've got is a sense that the world is as much for you as it is for everybody else. Not that you're in a world that's designed for other people, or that there's something wrong with you.”

The legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be that online learning will play an increased role in all future teaching environments. In this brave new world, the investment of inclusive design from the outset has the potential to return big dividends for every student.