Andrew Sharp

Great experiences by design

Shouldn’t universal accessibility be the starting point for all your online educational content products, rather than an afterthought?  At Texthelp, we believe that catering for users with special literacy needs has welcome benefits for everyone else.

Every learner is different, with their own set of strengths, interests and needs that’s as unique as a fingerprint. And it’s this diversity that poses a fundamental challenge for any educational publisher. How can you be sure that your online content addresses the widest possible audience of learners – including those with various literacy challenges like dyslexia as well as other disabilities?

Whenever an architect designs a new building, it must be constructed so it’s accessible to all kinds of users, both with and without disabilities. In 2010, amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) set minimum requirements for State and local government facilities to be readily usable by individuals with disabilities - spanning the design of everything from elevators to drinking fountains and restrooms. And it turns out that catering for the needs of one audience can have welcome consequences for a completely different group of users.

While they’re primarily designed for wheelchair users, ramps in public buildings are enjoyed by other visitors with strollers and bicycles. Similarly, TV subtitles intended for the deaf or hearing impaired are equally appreciated by gym users, English Language Learners and significant others watching in bed at night without disturbing their partner. They’re great examples of positive outcomes that weren’t always a part of the original purpose. So how can we take these ideas into the realm of creating more effective educational content?

First articulated by David Rose at Harvard in the 1990s, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that gives every individual a personalised route to learning that’s appropriate to their own needs.

Based on some profound scientific insights into how humans learn, this deceptively simple idea has been a driver for several public policy initiatives, like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and 2008’s Higher Education Opportunity Act.

And now for the first time federal education law governing general K-12 education includes a definition and endorsement of UDL. Dubbed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new law is the seventh reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

The goal of UDL is to minimize barriers to learning, and it lends educators some valuable guidelines to help shape their curriculum and course materials. These include*:

  • Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge;
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know;
  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners' interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.

We’ve long been champions of UDL. It’s a philosophy that’s absolutely central to the design of all our assistive technology products, like the Read&Write family of literacy support tools that helps users of all ages with dyslexia and English Language Learners. Accessibility is pivotal to the planning process behind every new product – rather than bolted on as an afterthought. For example, it encourages us to code more cleanly while focusing consistently on that all-important user experience.

Just like a well-designed building or TV subtitles, we often hear from users of our literacy products that they enjoy some welcome extra benefits that accessibility brings – like being able to read passages faster and more accurately (especially helpful in higher education with the increase and complexity of content), or hearing the text of a document read aloud while on your morning run.

UDL is of particular interest to the publishing industry right now, with moves afoot to examine the legal definition of UDL and even make its recommendations mandatory in US schools.

So surely it makes sound business sense – and ensures a far better user experience – to bake UDL right into your educational publishing products from the outset, as we do at Texthelp. Do you have any examples of your own where students or customers have benefited from UDL? Share your experiences by leaving a comment below.

Our Founder and CTO, Martin McKay  is addressing CAST’s second annual UDL Symposium in Cambridge, MA from 8-10 August. He will discuss the development of Read&Write for Google Chrome - the first commercial UDL product for the educational publishing market to be adopted at scale that’s currently used by over 4 million students.


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