Universal Design in Education

Universal Design in Education (PILOT Reflections)

At the local Shop ‘n Save grocery store, after you swipe your credit card through the slot, the green LED’s light up with the message, “$9.95. Is this OK?”

But there’s no “OK” button on the credit card machine.

There is, however, a well-worn arrow, scrawled in black ink from a felt-tipped pen, next to the “Yes” button.

The word “yes” does make sense as an answer to the question “Is this OK?” but obviously, many people who are asked whether something is “OK” instinctively look for the “OK” button. One checkout clerk can sense when the customer is confused — she asks, “Is that OK?” and when you nod or say OK, she reaches around and, with an expert sense of direction, pushes the proper button that completes the sale.

While the customer is only inconvenienced for a second, when you consider how many customers the average checkout clerk sees in a day, and how many clerks there are in all the stores that use this particular machine, it’s amazing how much time is wasted because the designer of the credit card machine made a bad decision.

Taking a traditional course and adding a few accessible online components to it is kind of like taking a black ink marker and scrawling an error on a poorly-designed credit card machine.

My students sometimes approach revising their papers the same way. Once I noted that a passage was “redundant,” and the student’s revision was to insert the word “redundant”, completely out of context, right where I had marked it. Other students will respond to my marginal questions, again, putting their response into the paragraph exactly where I asked the question.

To use yet another metaphor, if we stick an internal combustion engine on a horse, we don’t end up with a car – we end up with a horse that doesn’t perform as well as other horses, and a would-be car that doesn’t come close to performing like cars.

In education, Universal Design calls attention to the fact that instead of figuring out how to touch up the lessons that we’ve been using all along, in order to make them work for students with varying learning needs, it makes sense to go back to the drawing board, and re-visit the whole matter, planning the whole course so that students of all levels can benefit from it. That’s a tall order. In the past, students with special learning needs simply didn’t have access to college, because their potential wasn’t recognized earlier on. I’m not an expert on the history of education, but mainstreaming special-needs students has significantly altered the culture of the classroom. I have been impressed by the respect my students showed to students with severe reading issues, or speaking issues, or other challenges. I’d like to build on that goodwill, and make the educational experience better for all students.

Since “Seminar in Thinking and Writing” is a shared course, I don’t have the freedom to tear it apart and build it up again, but I can rethink my educational strategy. I used to teach freshman comp as a computer-intensive course. Three out of five instructional hours were spent in a computer lab. Last year, my classroom didn’t have Internet access, so I taught it as a traditional class — in part because I didn’t want to become dependent upon technology.