Creating a level playing field for today’s students

Nicole Reid, higher education manager at Texthelp, discusses why flexible ways of learning and assessment are key to ensuring every learner can access their course content

More and more universities are striving to provide an accessible and inclusive learning environment for all students. Accessibility should be on every university’s agenda, and one way to do this is to adopt a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework; an approach where reasonable adjustments are anticipatory, with resources and experiences designed with inclusivity in mind from the start.

Take the accessibility of a building for example. A building which is designed taking into account wheelchair users who will require a ramp. The ramp is placed beside the steps at the front of the building, so that every visitor can use the same entrance point in a way that suits them best. Diverse needs are met with adjustments that are fair and impartial, so that entering the building is an equitable experience for all. When it comes to education, the same considerations should apply.

“Why wouldn’t we design lecture halls and seminars in a way that could help everyone?” Asks Jason Caroll, global product manager at Texthelp. “That’s where UDL comes in. It’s not about creating this one seminar for this student and creating this other seminar for another student. It’s about creating a seminar that all students can access.” 

UDL isn’t about a single, one-size-fits-all solution, but rather flexible approaches that can be customised and adjusted for individual needs. And that’s the key: flexibility. Providing flexible ways of learning, flexible study resources, and flexible assessment methods. Multiple means of engagement make learning relevant and meaningful to students, so they are motivated to learn. Offering multiple formats of learning materials means students can absorb information in the way that they learn best, so they are given the best chance of comprehending what they are being taught. Allowing students to express their knowledge in their own creative way means students can truly show educators what they know.

It’s about levelling the playing field, so that the learning environment is fair and encouraging for all learners. It’s no longer adequate to solely rely on the DSA to facilitate access to higher education.

We must remember that not every student will declare their disability, and most important of all, is the fact that every student is unique. Different ways of learning should be embraced, so every learner is comfortable in their learning environment, feels encouraged and engaged, and has the support available to discover their true potential. This is particularly important given the independent nature of learning at university.

Incorporating the UDL framework into course design helps universities to minimise barriers and maximise learning for all students. A starting point would be to digitise resources. It’s vital that each student can access their course content, and digital content means students have the option to use supportive technology. Take Read&Write from Texthelp for example, a literacy toolbar with features that support various learning styles. Students can use the software to make text bigger, have text read aloud, use smart highlighters to organise information, convert large word documents into audio files, dictate and watch as their words appear on the screen, and use features which help them to focus. Extending across STEM, maths accessibility software EquatIO, gives students choice by digitising maths. They can have their maths read aloud and choose to use built-in maths prediction, when it comes to completing maths tasks. They can also choose to handwrite, type or dictate their maths expressions, and can get as creative as they like when it comes to illustrating their maths knowledge.

When supportive technology is used campus-wide, those who use it as a necessary requirement are made to feel no different than their peers. They are able to enjoy their university experience, without feeling singled out. Realising that these tools are useful for all, and building them into the natural way of learning, makes university life inclusive and empowering for all.

If you would like to know more about Texthelp and our range of supportive solutions, visit: text.help/ub-sep

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