Engaging Possibility: Digital Literacy, Disability, and Design
by Chelsea Yarborough, Graduate Teaching Fellow, and Derek Bruff, Director
On March 15, 2019, the Center for Teaching’s Digital Learning Community engaged in an important conversation centered on digital literacy and accessibility. The goal of this session was to focus on the real concerns of different learners already present in our classrooms and to consider how digital platforms can enhance and/or hinder our ability to teach widely. We invited Eric Moore, the universal design for learning and accessibility specialist for the University of Tennessee’s Office of Information and Technology. He offered an expansive understanding of the ways that design can affect our classrooms and an abundance of strategies for professors to consider as they are designing their courses. Moore invited us to consider Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a framework to create classroom environments that are inherently built with the type of flexibility that lends itself to the ever-present variability of any given student population. We know students vary across multiple dimensions, yet we often teach to the middle. What if we built in more flexibility?
Early in the conversation the example of the curb cut in the sidewalk for wheelchair accessibility was used. Instead of saying that individuals with wheelchairs should figure out how to get on a sidewalk that wasn’t created with them in mind, we changed the sidewalk so that more people could have access. Although curb cuts were made for wheelchairs, many people, including parents with kids in strollers, benefit from the change. That is the invitation of UDL and the hope for accessibility in our classroom. We move from seeing the individual as flawed to seeing the environment as flawed and addressing that at large. This leads to systemic change, and not just individual accommodation. By providing possible entry points for a wider variety of people, every student benefits and has the access to a robust and enriching learning experience.
Moore mentioned closed captioning as a simple example of this approach. Thanks to pretty good auto-captioning from YouTube and other video services, it’s relatively easy for an instructor to add captions to a video provided to students. Adding captions does no harm, and it’s helpful to a wide variety of students, including those with difficulty hearing, but also students for whom English is a second language, students who need to watch the video on mute because of where they watch it, and students learning new jargon in the field—which is just about every student! Moore also mentioned inviting students to take notes during class in a shared Google document as an additional way to represent the content of the class lecture or discussion, something useful for all students.
Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching, invited Moore to open up the conversation by answering the following question: “How do you think about inclusive teaching in the context of digital literacy?” Moore replied, initially naming that it was interesting to him that it seemed like we were getting at the barriers of digital literacy. In his experience, especially with his work in UDL, he articulated that he sees a lot of changes in the classroom that are really positive. He strongly believes in the potential of UDL and that this particular design framework is at minimum a starting point for opening the overall accessibility to learning for a wider range of students.
Throughout the conversation Moore continued to return to two central themes that are essential to accessibility and inclusion as it relates to his own commitments to UDL. The first theme that he named as critical to this work is addressing the “why” first in your course design. Moore said, “Sometimes we want to use technology but don’t have a why.” Students need structure so that we have a purpose and so then we can get to that purpose via appropriate means. For him, digital technology is only an option if it lends itself to the outcomes that have already been set. When a professor addresses the “why” of any particular class and assignment beforehand, their mind can open up to a myriad of ways to help students arrive there throughout the course. UDL is a tool that assists in the “why” in order to develop the “what” and then the “how.” It is not a method unto itself as much as it is a design frame that then results in methods.
The second theme Moore addressed was the necessity of flexibility in the classroom in order to address the variability of students proactively. By thinking through different student profiles and different abilities before the class, the professor has a chance to embed flexibility into the classroom because they have already expected variability. This flexibility results in having multiple entry points into different arenas of the classroom. Moore argued that it’s essential to have multiple means of representation, engagement, as well as action and expression. He drew an analogy to a dinner party. If you’re having 30 people over for dinner, you could serve them all seafood gumbo, but the guests with shellfish allergies or an aversion to spicy food would be out of luck. You could take 30 individual orders and serve them all something different, but that’s hardly practical. Or you could offer a buffet with a handful of options and let your guests put together their own plates. By giving our students options… for representation, engagement, action, and expression… we give them the chance to take responsibility for their own learning.
These two themes came together in an example from workshops Moore has led with faculty. He will often challenge participants in his workshops to define assessment… through a selfie video. Although some participants rise to meet this challenge, many struggle, since they’re not used to creating selfie videos. Did they fail the assignment because they didn’t know what the term assessment meant? No, they failed it because the required mode of expression wasn’t one they could easily use. That exercise was meant as a workshop demonstration, but Moore asked if we do something similar with our students. Do we box them into representing their learning through essays or multiple-choice exams, when the students may be able to show their learning more readily through other modes. Why bottleneck a student with a mode of expression that you’re not actually teaching and maybe aren’t that interested in? And if the mode of expression is key to one’s learning objectives, as essay writing might be in a composition class, then give students choices within that mode of expression. For instance, students could outline their essay before writing a rough draft… or use voice-to-text within a Google doc to brainstorm their rough draft aloud.
As the conversation came to a close, Moore made a powerful critique of our collegiate educational systems and the ways that we measure excellence. He was asked, “Is there a risk that some student will take the easy way as they customize their own learning experience?” His response was, “I am not sure that it would matter.” He continued by saying that too often we confuse rigor with a student’s declaration of a class being hard. However, if we have clear objectives that are remarkable and a student reaches them with ease, we should celebrate that, not try to find a more difficult and ultimately, confusing way for students to reach the goals. He ended positing that rigor should be about understanding and not about things being hard.
The lively conversation with Moore challenged educators to be proactive in their classroom construction in order to create an inclusive environment that offers students different ways to engage. We can never imagine every single student, however if we can imagine 7 or 8 profiles of different students that could potentially be in our classrooms and build to those possibilities, we create space that will help everyone.