Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is often spoken of within the equity and diversity space in higher education. This new Pulse module, Universal Design for Learning in Tertiary Education designed by Disability Awareness, provides a neat overview of all the key areas of UDL using the internationally renown CAST resources and guidelines.
The Pulse module was recommended to our PVC (E&D) Professor Maryanne Dever by the Disability Action Plan, Education Provider of Choice Action Group as part of addressing the DAP objective in relation to improving staff education of disability. The Pulse module is a must for all new teaching staff and for those who haven’t updated their professional development in this area for a while. The equity and diversity space is constantly evolving and new approaches are adopted. Whilst redesigning a whole semester’s worth of work can be overwhelming, trying an iterative approach can help with adjusting content and course design.
At the recent University of Sydney Teaching Symposium held Monday 18 July 2022, there was an excellent UDL presentation, Designing to the edges with UDL: A first-year writing case study (2B1), by academic Dr Benjamin Miller and Educational Designer Sarah Humphreys. The presentation focused on a partial re-design of a course with a large cohort of 900 students per year which is taught in blended mode.
One analogy from their talk stuck with me in the days afterwards. While reviewing Miller’s course using a UDL lens, the speakers communicated their UDL design thinking process to participants using graded ski trails as a metaphor for learning. Those who ski or have been to the snow will know there are different types of ski “runs” graded by ability. Whether a run starts at the top of the mountain or part way up, the aim is to bring skiers down the mountain.
Each mountain or peak has its own trail map legend to assist skiers in choosing a route down. To keep it simple, at Perisher’s Guthega green is the easiest rating, blue is a difficult rating, and black is rated most difficult. If we apply this approach to organising content for students, we’re likely to have more success. Miller and Humphreys identified that creating flexible pathways while retaining firm goals during semester – or allowing a student to select the trail best suited to them – was a way to remove barriers to student learning.
Prioritising the learning outcome over the completion of a particular activity
From time to time we can all be guilty of focusing on a single course activity and its perceived importance rather than focusing on how students could meet the learning outcome to the best of their ability. For me, this was one of the key points arising from the presentation.
One of Miller and Humphreys’ re-design tasks included identifying potential barriers to the completion of an activity and designing or redesigning course content by prioritising the learning outcome over the completion of a particular activity. With a large cohort of 900 students it was important to know their students and to not make assumptions. The cohort was wildly diverse: 70% international cohort (32 languages), 9% students with disability (63 EAPs) and 7% (First in Family). In their short 12-minute presentation they focused on how they removed barriers to course readings.
Their solution was to redesign the Readings page on the course site by:
- providing highlighted and hyperlinked required readings, where highlighting separates the text in a distinctive way
- including an acknowledgement on the Reading page that ‘This can be hard’
- offering reading tips – for example, the amount of time to be spent on the task and questions students should ask themselves
- providing meaningful alternatives to the full article. This adjustment mirrored the ski run approach offering easier to read content for those who wanted a green run, through to content catered to the other ski runs by including “recommended readings as an option to extend knowledge” for students following the black run
- allowing students to choose which ski run they preferred, helping everyone balance their study load from week to week.
In this way the focus was taken away from students thinking they had to read a single item no matter how hard it was to progress through. For some weeks reading the text on the green run would be preferable for students with English as a Second Language (ESL) or for students with disabilities such as dyslexia, autism or ADHD. This same cohort of students was then able to choose a different coloured run the following week, such as the blue or black run, if they felt able to understand the content through prior exposure to related content, or for health reasons. The choice of text could also provide intrinsic motivation and a bit of gamification for students.
My own recommendation would be to use the colours as a visual guide throughout, not only the Reading page but also the entire course site, while ensuring that any colours chosen are WCAG and ANU compliant. The use of colour as a way of scanning for the required information will quickly become second nature to the students and help ease student’s anxiety when preparing for their next lab or tutorial. They can then focus on what they feel they can cope with that week – green, blue or black – rather than looking through individual items for the “right” reading material.