Designing for All: Inclusion and EdTech

| By Yonah Kirschner, Program Manager, DigitalJLearning Network

Brad Flickinger/flickr

The fields of blended learning and educational technology have recently been moving forward in terms of universal design. At the iNACOL Blended and Online Learning Symposium in November, there was an entire strand dedicated to universal design and making content accessible to all students. DJLN’s Associate Director, Tatyana Dvorkin, had the pleasure of attending some of the sessions, one of which she described in her recent blog post. As Tatyana wrote, the Jewish day school world has been behind in addressing the needs of students with disabilities.

Fortunately, the rise of educational technology and blended learning is actually a very positive development for inclusion. To find out more, DJLN spoke with Luis Pérez (@eyeonaxs) - an expert in inclusion and educational technology - about the foundations of inclusive practices and how teachers can take steps to make inclusion a natural part of teaching with technology.


What are the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles?
UDL actually stemmed from an architecture concept. In architecture, by eliminating barriers for some, you’re designing better for all. For example, if you build a ramp so a wheelchair can enter the building, that entry can also work for a delivery person or a parent pushing a stroller. In short, what is essential for some is almost always helpful for all. So UDL is applying that principle to instructional design. Questions you might ask are: How do we make the learning flexible? How  do we design the curriculum with variability in mind? Who the actual students in a given classroom are doesn’t matter as much when the curriculum has options that everyone can benefit from.

Traditionally, K-12 curriculum has relied on print, which can put certain learners at a disadvantage. It will be hard for someone who doesn’t read as quickly, who doesn’t see as well, for ELLs. With UDL, from the start you wouldn't rely solely on print. You would also have audiobooks, videos, and other tools for students to access the text in a variety of modes. That way, if there is a student with a disability, you’ve already thought about flexibility in the lesson design. Thinking this way makes inclusion proactive instead of reactive. You’re building accessibility into the curriculum from the start rather than retrofitting it later, which always costs more and is never as elegant.


How can teachers benefit from reading your book Mobile Learning for All?
The book explains how we can use technology to implement UDL. Teachers will find information about selecting tools such as built-in accessibility features and apps to implement those guidelines. For example, if a teacher needs to help students with visual impairments or dyslexia, they’ll be able to select the right tools such as a screen reader or text to speech that will help those students. The book also has QR codes, which can take you to resources and close captioned videos. The idea of the book is to model what a UDL resource can actually look like - flexible with lots of options for learning.


What is the key to making content accessible?
It’s best to think about it in a holistic way, as an ecosystem. That’s when we build content and think about accessibility from the start, such as ensuring that images have descriptions so someone who can’t see can use a text to speech reader and still benefit. When apps, hardware accessibility features, and accessible content all come together, that’s the sweet spot. The whole is greater than the parts at that point. Fortunately, many large companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft are good at putting accessibility features into their products, and they have lots of built-in features for customizing the user experience to accommodate a variety of needs. These built-in features are complemented by a number of apps that allow each user to further customize a device to their specifications. For instance, one that comes to mind is Voice Dream Reader, a highly customizable text to speech app that does word highlighting. Apple has accessibility features already built in to their tablets, but this app takes it to the next level and does line by line highlighting (good for someone with dyslexia), different fonts and more. Plus you can purchase high quality voices so that the text to speech sounds even better.


What learning platforms do the best job of making accessibility and inclusion possible?
Apple has been the leader in this area - both by building accessibility into their products and by working with developers to make sure apps are accessible. Mobile in general has been huge for highlighting the need for accessibility. Mobile devices can put us all at a disadvantage at some point, but with UDL we all benefit - for instance if we’re in a loud location and can’t hear a video we might need to put on the captions, or if we are trying to read outdoors the touch screen may be difficult to see and we may need to turn on text to speech. For blind students there is a built-in screen reader that can read content aloud, and for those with motor difficulties there is switch control on iOS. Other companies are also moving forward; for a student with a learning difficulty like dyslexia or who needs literacy support, Chromebooks are a great option. There’s a comprehensive suite of products called Read&Write that can be added as a toolbar in the Chrome OS, providing text to speech, word prediction, and highlighting - all supports for learning in a UDL environment. Read&Write is from a company called Text Help, which is free for any teacher! Another great tool for students using Chromebooks is Co:Writer, which helps students express ideas through text prediction.


What are some immediate steps teachers could take to make their lessons more accessible through technology?
I recommend diving into the settings and playing around. For example, testing out how how the built-in text to speech options on an iOS device work is a great place to start. Just go in and try things out and see if those features work for your students.Think about your teaching, universal design, and making learning flexible. Ask one simple question: How am I providing options? You could have a technology rich environment but if you don’t provide options, then you’re back right where you started. Technology can help you provide options for your students. And ask your students for feedback!

Also, every teacher can start with a few basic tools like text to speech and writing support which includes dictation and word prediction. For making math notation more accessible, I recommend learning about MathML, which is supported by Apple’s iBooks Authoring software. There’s also an app called Talking Calculator with large buttons, high contrast, and text to speech. It lets you know what it’s doing and the answer to the calculation is read back out loud. These are some great basics.


What about on the school level? What steps could Jewish Day Schools take to start addressing universal design?
As with all technology integration schools need to focus on pedagogy and curriculum design, not just the tools. Start a small pilot test, go with Apple or Google tools, and collect data about what works best for the students. Interview students and teachers about what they like, what works and doesn’t work, be very strategic about it. Professional development (and budget for that development) on universal design principles is also key.


What are you hoping to see in the future of EdTech?
My hope for the future is that we don’t talk about how some of these technologies are for people with disabilities, that the word assistive technology goes away and we just talk about technology, because everyone can benefit from it. Some say that all technology is assistive, because it all lets you do something you couldn’t do before. My hope is that those lines between what’s assistive technology and what’s just technology continue to blur, and that the tools become more accessible and easier to use so more people can benefit from them.


What inspires your work in this field? What’s most important for teachers to know about inclusion?
A tough experience for me was being an English language learner. I started at an NYC public school knowing no English. It was a very important experience, entering another culture and learning another language, I was between languages, and that prepared me for what came later. I’m not blind and I’m not sighted, so losing my vision is that same kind of in-between experience.

The reason I made it through school was that I had some really key mentors who took me under their wing. For instance, I wasn’t in his classes, but the Spanish teacher would check in with me and make sure I was doing okay. So years from now your students may not remember that equation or concept, but what they will remember is the care you took in teaching them those concepts - that’s the thing to focus on. That’s what stayed with me - the people who took the time and showed me they cared. Nowadays students can get the content a lot of places, so teaching is really all about the relationships, about forming students into critical thinkers and helping them make contributions to society.


Luis Pérez is an inclusive learning consultant based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He has more than a decade of experience working with educators to help them integrate technology in ways that empower all learners. Luis holds a doctorate in special education and a master’s degree in instructional technology from the University of South Florida, and he is the author of Mobile Learning for All: Supporting Accessibility with the iPad, from Corwin Press. Luis was selected as an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) in 2009, as a Google in Education Certified Innovator (formerly Google Certified Teacher) in 2014, and currently serves as the Professional Learning Chair of the Inclusive Learning Network of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). His work has appeared in publications such Teaching Exceptional Children, Closing the Gap Solutions, THE Journal, and The Loop Magazine. In addition to his work in educational technology, Luis is an avid photographer whose work has been featured on Better Photography magazine, Business Insider, the New York Times Bits Blog and the Sydney Morning Herald. Luis has presented at national and international conferences such as South by Southwest EDU, ISTE, CSUN and Closing the Gap.


Want to learn more about inclusion and educational technology? Send us an email, tweet at us, or submit a simple form!