Remote/Digital Learning · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Technology Alone Cannot Save the Day

Over the December break, I took a course called “Online by Design” with Dr. Eric Moore, who I had first encountered through a blog post of his, How to Design Effective Canvas Modules. The resource from his course that I found most useful was an EDUCAUSE article called “Universal Design for Learning and Digital Accessibility:  Compatible Partners or a Conflicted Marriage?”  

At the start of this year, one of my new 6th grade students, as in “new to the virtual settings,” came to us with a complex Educational Plan for extreme dyslexia.  He had been in a very strong pull-out program that had ended  due to a combination of aging out, a move to a different district, and COVID.  As his new Special Education teacher, I worked alongside his mom to try and determine how we would make the virtual environment work for him.  As mentioned in the article, the text-to-speech readers built into our programs simply fizzled repeatedly, leaving the student dependent on his mom to read EVERYTHING aloud to him.  That was before we even got to additional complications he had around generating his own text….it didn’t take long before the parents opted for home schooling where they could provide a more tailored approach that brought accessibility to the forefront for their child.

I know I was caught off-guard by how not-easy it was to provide supports for this student.  I teach in a virtual school.  We have TONS of funding for technology, basically nothing but funding for technology (although not really that much money, just all for technology).  But…..it just didn’t work.  At least, in reading this article, I started to feel like less of a failure.  I had assumed it was my own new-to-the-school lack of knowledge, but this article helped me see that most of the issues I had are issues that EVERYONE has.  

On the one hand, as the article states, it both appears obvious and also turns out to be true that “an accessibility mindset often leads to a universal design, resulting in benefits for people beyond those in need of a specific accommodation.” At the same time,

while similar goals make UDL and accessibility efforts compatible, technological limitations can pit them against one another in the short term. Technology tools—such as presentation software that lets you add graphics, video, and audio to text files—are often integral to UDL practices but may fail to meet accessibility standards.

For now, one of the main sources of conflict for UDL and digital accessibility is the relationship between image- and text-based instructional content. Digital accessibility standards require a text alternative to image-based media: captions and transcripts for videos, and “alt text” (that is, text descriptions) for images in slides and documents.  Universal Design for Learning and Digital Accessibility:  Compatible Partners or a Conflicted Marriage?

This is where I started to feel like less of a failure! In my prior district, I had recorded my lessons daily for a year, so I had a nice collection that I could make available to my students for key concepts and lessons. In my graduate courses on Universal Design for Learning, I had encouraged teachers to include visuals in work they created. In other words, I did have some UDL practices that were good, but I had not been aware of the “digital accessibility standards” that might or might not have been met in each practice.

I found the following table very helpful, especially in thinking about how it recommends keeping what you have currently and being proactive about phasing in better practice over time.

Table 1. UDL and Digital Accessibility Practices, Conflicts, and Recommendations (from Universal Design for Learning and Digital Accessibility:  Compatible Partners or a Conflicted Marriage?)

TechnologyUDL PracticeDigital Accessibility StandardCurrent LawRecommendations
Lecture-capture recordingsEncourage faculty to record lectures so that diverse learners can review lecture content.Create closed captions and transcripts for all lecture recordings.Post only those recordings that meet the accessibility standard, removing recordings that do not comply.Use appropriate closed captioning/transcript vendors when possible.Prioritize resources to pay for these vendors.Consult Disability Support Services for resources and recommendations.Use free or low-cost services such as YouTube and then review and correct.Work toward compliance for future recordings and develop a plan to address older ones.
Instructional videoEncourage the use of video to give diverse learners multiple ways to access content.Create closed captions and transcripts for all lecture recordings.Post only videos that meet the accessibility standard, removing recordings that do not comply.Use free or low-cost services such as YouTube and then review and correct.Work toward compliance for future recordings and develop a plan to address older ones.
Image-based instructional contentEncourage the use of visuals, images, and charts.Include text equivalents for visual media.Include only visuals, images, or charts that have alternative text.When possible, provide a range of formats—including ones with narrative text as well as visuals.Use alt text and an accessibility checker when possible.
Slide presentations and documentsUse slides and handouts to display instructional and house multimodal content, as well as to guide class activities.Use legible font (size, type), sufficient color contrast, heading styles to organize sections, and an accessibility checker to flag problematic features.Use only material that meets all accessibility standards.When creating new materials and resources, use formats that pass an accessibility check.Over time, update older versions of materials to comply with accessibility.

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