Reading two seemingly unrelated blog posts and comments in the Chronicleâ€™s online ProfHacker series got me thinking about distance learning â€“ one was about the lack of universal design, accessibility accommodations in universities, particularly web sites (http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Academic-Resources-and/26497/). The other was about a professor who declared his summer English Lit classroom a technology free zone (http://chronicle.com/article/College-20-Teachers-Witho/123891/). Â Â
The first blog discussed the notion that websites, especially those at universities, should build accessibility into their web design process by embracing the concept of universal design, design to make life a little easier for everyone. Like curb cuts, the author said, quoting Dwell magazine’s article “Introduction to Universal Design,” those dips in the curbs at intersections designed to accommodate wheel chairs. Those dips also make curbs easier for everyone to navigate, from parents with strollers to commuters with rolling briefcases.
The second post, as one might imagine, launched much debate about the general merits of technology in the classroom. One comment noted that it all depends on the user, much like a terrific chef using â€œa pile of sticks and a matchâ€ creates a far better meal than a lousy chef who has the â€œfanciest commercial stove on the market.â€
So what do curb cuts, chefs, universal design, and technology in the classroom have to do with distance learning? Everything. Â If universal design can make something more accessible for everyone, why not apply that same thinking to utilizing technology in the classroom or to designing courses in general? Iâ€™ve since come to find out, that this is not the novel idea I first thought it was â€“ turns out the concept of universal design for learning (UDL) has been around for a while. Â Its principles were developed around 1997 and the term, “universal design for learning, coined by CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology (http://www.cast.org/). Â
The idea is to make courses more â€œuseful,â€ or more â€œaccessible,â€ for all students. Much of the current research related to higher education and UDL focuses on accommodating disabled learners (http://www.ahead.org/resources/universal-design). However, since the term universal design applies to everyone, letâ€™s take it step further to include whether or not students participate at a distance. Many of our courses at IIT are blended: students attending remotely learn right alongside (virtually, at least) students attending the live session. Â What might be considered an accommodation of distance learner, might also assist the student attending the live session, or vice versa. The trick is in intentionally selecting tools to engage all students.
The first step, as with almost everything, is to define the issue â€“identify what needs to be accessible. With courses, I would argue, the answer is the course objectives. What do students need to master in the course? Faculty answer that question all the time. Once the objectives are established, look for the best tools and resources that will help all students. Â Hereâ€™s where we can think outside the box, as it were. Again, intentionality is key. The best tool may or may not be a traditional course lecture. And it may or may not be the next cool thing in technology, like the iPad, or its newest rival. Technology must always support course and program outcomes, not â€œcoolnessâ€ factors. More likely than not, there is no one right tool, but a combination of tools to engage multiple learning styles and environments. IIT has a wealth of resources for faculty in its Blackboard system â€“ every course at IIT has a Blackboard (Bb) shell, whether or not it is designated an internet course. Â Perhaps one Bb feature, discussion boards, graded or not, could be used to reinforce lecture points for both distance and non-distance learners, for all students. Â Interestingly, this is keeping with what that Dwell article identifies as a principle of universal design, making â€œinformation â€¦ available through several senses at once.â€ After all, arenâ€™t learning styles based on senses?
Debating the use of technology in the classroom has gone on and will go on for ages. In the meantime, answer this question, how can technology support all studentsâ€™ mastery of course objectives?Â So how do you use technology to make your courses â€œaccessibleâ€ for all of your students, both those sitting in class and at a distance?Â
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