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Universal Design: Creating a Learning Space for All Students

Posted on Aug 31, 2012

Over a decade ago, an article published in Remedial and Special Education made the case that a divide was growing between “incrementalists” and “reconceptualists” in the field of special education. As told by authors Susan Baglieri, Jan W. Valle, David J. Connor, and Deborah J. Gallagher in Disability Studies in Education: The Need for a Plurality of Perspectives on Disability, having identified a problem within special education, an effort was made to combine the two positions in order to take advantage of the valid points each side offered. This led to the perspective that the work of special education “is primarily to shape learning environments in ways in which all classroom and school members have access to curriculum and learning opportunities. This boils down to “imagining education as a practice of access.”

The authors argue that a major issue in addressing education for students with disabilities is that there is such a focus on “accommodation and modification” when it comes to providing students with disabilities with educational materials that a) special provisions often mark some students as “different,” leading to problems like social stigmatization, and b) this fosters a mentality in which students with disabilities end up being “extra work for the general educator in the inclusive setting.”

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is useful, then, to the extent that it can be used by any teacher working with any set of students, and would likely reduce social stigmatization of students with disabilities. The authors explain that UDL “was drawn from architecture and engineering and refers to the design of physical spaces that anticipates the diversity among users of spaces and seeks to design them such that they are both functional and elegant for the broadest possible constituency.” This explanation makes comprehending UDL easier, in that UDL strives to create a space in which practically anyone can learn, regardless of whatever strengths and weaknesses any given student might have.

UDL focuses on how a community of learners can benefit, rather than how teaching might need to be tailored for individual students, by offering a variety of contexts for students to understand new ideas. Teachers, then, are in a unique position where they can identify the settings in which each student performs best without needing to do “extra work” on a student-by-student basis.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

Online Learning: Translating the Mathematical Language

Posted on Aug 29, 2012

Some students learn better with hands-on material, others audibly, while others might just be Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. It’s difficult to explain numbers through words; calculations through metaphors; formulas through hypotheticals. At times, math instruction is slowed down by a language barrier. To bridge this gap, online learning provides tools that help create a more productive conversation between the teacher and the student. If teachers want to be effective educators, they need to be as skilled an orator as they are a mathematician. Online learning gives them this option. Pontificate that, for a moment.

As was shown with the hypothetical geometry teacher from Monday (who is entirely more real than you know), the language of math is a vague one. Lowell provides the example:

“If a student is working with a fraction, for example, for a sighted student it’s simply a numerator over the denominator. In Braille it’d be the open fraction indicator, the number, the divide sign, the number, and then the close fraction indicator. The students have to be able to hear every piece of the problem as they’re going through, and they have to keep a lot of the information in their head.”

See what I mean? Online learning gives math a voice. That is extremely important for all students learning arithmetic. Not all people are going to learn in the same way. Lync allowed the WSSB to bring in a teacher who could speak the language while also giving the students the most accessible and productive way of learning it. For me, a literary nerd, I’m pretty envious of that opportunity, which is why I think Lync is an option that should be exercised for all students in all settings. Lowell ties in here nicely:

“We can actually move through things at their pace. That’s the key. That’s the real reason they’re getting an education that would be equivalent to their sighted peers. They’re getting it at the pace they need, with the tools they need, with the teacher who understands their needs. Those are the three things this technology is allowing us–to reach these kids in a way they understand.”

To give students an education in “a way they understand,” instruction and learning needs to be individualized. There must be some element that tailors courses and lesson plans to a student’s needs, method of learning, and comfort of pace. For the WSSB, back in 2010, this was the online and distance learning program they paid for through Microsoft Lync. Nowadays, you can do the same thing for free.

You’re probably squinting at the screen, thinking to yourself, “But how can such an awesomely named product like Microsoft Lync be free?” It’s not. The article referenced the lackluster-named, but equally remarkable product, Microsoft Office 365 for Education – a 100% free service for academic institutions that provides cloud-based e-mail, instant messaging, video conferencing, web-based viewing and editing of Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote to its users – basically a free version of Lync. It’s definitely worth checking out and forwarding along to your school. Lowell caps off my argument for Lync in education well:

“This system allows the best teachers to reach the correct kids–be it a kid who just can’t get to the school or a kid who is really, really good at math and their school doesn’t offer it, where they can connect to a classroom that is the right fit. Getting these kids into the right class is basically just a click away.”

To see what I’ve been describing this whole time, check out these links of the WSSB in action: Part 1 & Part 2

Let the pontification begin.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

Supporting Quality Education through Online Resources

Posted on Aug 27, 2012

I am an English major; a sworn enemy of all things calculated and numerical. I’ll whip out the Pythagorean Theorem every once and a while when building something, but only when I can’t eye-ball an angle. For whatever reason, words simply make more sense to me than numbers do. With that said, close your eyes and look back to your high school geometry class, the one with that old WWII veteran teacher of yours who took pride in being able to draw a perfect circle and said things like, “pontificate, for a moment, the veracity of calculating the area of a decagon with only one given side.” Imagine taking that class, with your eyes closed.

In response to the needs of their visually impaired and blind students, the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB) did whatever they could to bring in a math teacher to their school with a background teaching the blind and visually impaired. After hiring Robin Lowell for the job, an issue came up and she was unable to move within the vicinity of the school. This article details the WSSB’s use and growth of online education.

The WSSB decided to utilize their experimental video conferencing system to bring her to the classroom. Lowell describes her experience with the newly integrated system, “The kids who could see me, could see me. The kids, who could hear me, could hear me.” By 2010, the school put into use a business oriented program with functions that applied to the school setting – Microsoft Lync, which: combines a number of functions, including voice and video, instant messaging, collaboration, and scheduling. This allowed Lowell to teach from the comfort of her home.

The more I look at the Lync website, the more I realize how effective a program it is for teaching students with visual impairments. All through one service, designed in conjunction with Microsoft Office, instant messaging, e-mail, and video conferencing are made available to the students and teachers. The students aren’t slowed down from having to learn how to use multiple programs. On their end of things, the article describes, “The typical student set-up includes a computer (netbooks last year), a headset, a standard QWERTY keyboard, and a Braille display, which converts text into Braille and vice versa.” Online learning brings the WSSB a qualified teacher that they could otherwise not provide, and with Lync, the learning and teaching environment really isn’t that much different than a typical school set up.

Robin teaches from a monitor placed at the front of the classroom and despite this fixed location, mobility is still granted. With desktop sharing, the article notes she can virtually “walk” around the room and view every student’s work. The only other way to accomplish this much virtual mobility would be physically, or with Double’s Telepresence iPad Robot– a video definitely worth watching. In comparison to that, Lync is a much more practical means of achieving full-scale virtual mobility in the classroom, at least for right now.

My favorite feature of Lync is the instant messaging, and not just because I’m feeling nostalgic for AIM’s heyday. I like it so much because it allows students to ask questions in private as if they had walked up to the teacher’s desk or stayed after class. I was terrified of ever being called on in math class and I definitely never put myself in that situation by asking a question, so I rarely did. At face value, the whole, teacher-is-actually-a-TV-monitor thing doesn’t exactly shout “personal, friendly, meaningful environment; don’t fear me.”  But by taking the fear out of asking questions and allowing for private conversations in class, Lync helps promote a more collaborative and individualized environment – one that my math skills and I are jealous of.

On Wednesday, we’ll look at the importance of oration over instruction when teaching math.

Kyle Vineyard is a senior majoring in English at the University of Kansas. He has a passion for the written word and a soft spot for rural America.

What Is Universal Design?

Posted on Aug 27, 2012

In prior posts, the concept of universal design has been tossed around, but we have not yet attempted to explicitly define universal design. Fortunately, in Universal Design: Online Educational Media for Students with Disabilities, author Wendy Sapp explains what universal design is and why it is useful by looking at the Universal eLearner, an “online integrated learning module that incorporates accessible technology, universal design for learning, and best practices for online education,” as a good example of universal design in action.

At base, a product that is developed according to universal design means that “the needs of people with physical and sensory disabilities are taken into account and accessibility features and options are built into the product.” In the past, students with disabilities were given either learning materials that were also used by students without disabilities or materials that did not include content that mirrored the general education curriculum. In both cases, students with disabilities end up receiving a sub-par education. Universal design emphasizes the importance of accessibility, thus prompting the inclusion of things like screen readers or captioning, which can allow students with disabilities to learn the same material as students without disabilities.

Additionally, it turns out that universal design benefits not just students with disabilities, but students in general. Wendy Sapp mentions that “multiple studies have shown that the same options that allow students with physical and sensory disabilities to access materials, specifically captioning and video description, also provide educational benefits for students with other disabilities, such as English language learners, and general education students.” From this, it is clear that universal design is a net benefit for all students.

Key features of the Universal eLearner include two tiers of captioning, two tiers of audio description, and end-of-movie-chapter summary information. Each of these is a good example of the application of universal design.

In the case of captioning, standard captioning can be useful for hard-of-hearing students who are proficient in English, but in the case of students who are deaf or struggle with English, the option of concise captioning allows for the use of a simpler vocabulary and grammatical structure. Concise captioning can also be useful to the extent that the text is easier to read while watching whatever is occurring on screen, instead of feeling compelled to focus primarily on either the video or the captioning.

Audio description is important for students with visual disabilities, and again, two tiers are used to accommodate as many individuals as possible. The first tier of audio description typically involves voice descriptions of text or on-screen actions when there is a break in narration or dialogue. In many cases, though, breaks are infrequent or too short to meaningfully convey visual information. The second tier of audio description solves for this by providing audio that can be played prior to the video in order to familiarize students with concepts that will be handled in the video.

End-of-movie-chapter summary information is somewhat similar to audio description, but in the case of summary information, reviews of the content covered in a section of an educational video.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.

Web Accessibility

Posted on Aug 23, 2012

As with most things that we use on a daily basis, it seems to be the case that we take the Internet for granted and fail to appreciate the variety and complexity that makes up the Web. Consider the number of web browsers available for use. Some of the most common browsers include Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari. Then think about the millions who access the Internet from a mobile device, such as a phone or a tablet. If you have used a combination of the previously mentioned technologies and software, you have probably noticed that websites can look different, depending upon whether or not you are viewing such a given website through Firefox, Internet Explorer, your phone, or a tablet computer. Each technology interprets the information that makes up the Internet a little bit differently, and in many cases, some technologies will not work across a variety of browsers.

In Accessibility and Universal Design, author Mary Lou Santovec shows how the lack of a universal standard for web design can hurt all Internet users, and in particular, individuals with disabilities who rely on various technologies to allow them to access a technology that we so often take for granted.

Frequent users of the Internet have probably been told at some point to use a specific browser because it is the “best” one for a certain service. The fact that there are multiple web browsers available and widely-accepted standards are lacking means that a typical internet user might struggle at times to access content. This is even truer for individuals with disabilities, as the ability to implement technologies that can render websites accessible end up being hit-or-miss.

Ms. Santovec writes that “the premise of authoring tools and browsers these days is that they work in a graphically based medium. Problems occur when that browser won’t support certain technologies.” It is important to remember that all content on the internet is essentially plaintext content with some special codes that tell browsers how to graphically render the content. The emphasis on making websites graphically appealing has resulted in a fusion of content and styling, which has resulted in problems with making websites accessible. The solution, Ms. Santovec tells us, is to “separate structure from style through the use of universal design,” where universal design is “the separation of content from styling and the use of structural markup.”

For those interested in designing accessible websites, Ms. Santovec suggests that a key step in the production of accessible websites is to identify the correct technology for accessible design. If a website is constructed with technology that does not enable accessibility, it can be difficult, and in some cases impossible, to make the website accessible. Programs like “Illinois Accessible Web Publishing for Microsoft Office,” developed at the University of Illinois, are good options for accessible web development because these programs are tailored to support all browsers and to make content accessible so that anyone, including individuals with disabilities, can access it.

Josh Luthi is a computer science student at the University of Kansas and has a penchant for politics.