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Can Scottish Education be Designed to be Universal and Inclusive?

by Paul Nisbet

on Mon Nov 08, 2021

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The second report from the Scottish Government’s International Council of Education Advisors proposes adoption of 'universal design' to create a resilient educational system. What might this mean for learners with additional support needs?

The International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) was established in 2016 to provide advice to Scottish Government to advance equity and excellence in the Scottish education system. The second formal report of the ICEA was published in December 2020 and makes interesting reading in the context of recovery from Covid-19. I thought to write this blog today because:

  • Shirley is running a course on Thursday on Universal Design for Learning and Assistive Technology, so it's a good time to raise awareness of the course - and there are still places available if you'd like to sign up.
  • The experience of Karine Elharrar, Israel's minister of energy and water resources, who was unable to attend COP26 last week shows us why universal design for buildings is so important, and I think also reminds us why universal design for learning is also essential.

The ICEA report says:

Our report proposes a profound transformation to Scottish education, indeed to all educational systems, so that they can operate in a pandemic as effectively, or almost as effectively as in other circumstances. It also proposes a universally designed educational system that provides high quality education for all during a pandemic in ways that also improve and transform high quality education for all in other "normal" circumstances.

Universal design is a widely used principle in inclusive education. Originating in architecture, the idea of universal design is that buildings should not be constructed for normal users and then adapted for special populations like the visually impaired or the disabled. Rather, from the outset, a building should be designed so that it can be used and enjoyed by the maximum number and range of users. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fact that our educational systems are not universally designed. Whether they are centralised or decentralised, any disturbance of what is considered to be normal requires crisis-driven responses that are typically insufficient and that incur temporary and sometimes lasting harm as a result.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) aims to create an educational system that is explicitly designed to be universal, accessible and inclusive for all students (and educators). The concept of universal design originated in architecture and argues that buildings and environments that are designed to be accessible for people with disabilities are inherently more accessible for everyone. Universal design principles are now applied to products and services, and to education. The CAST web site  provides excellent information and resources about UDL including UDL Guidelines and Key Questions when Planning Lessons.

Key Questions to ConsiderWhen Planning Lessons Think about how learners will engage with the lesson. Does the lesson provide options that can help all learners regulate their own learning? sustain effort and motivation? engage and interest all learners? Think about how information is presented to learners. Does the information provide options that help all learners: reach higher levels of comprehension and understanding? understand the symbols and expressions? perceive what needs to be learned? Think about how learners are expected to act strategically & express themselves. Does the activity provide options that help all learners: act strategically? express themselves fluently? physically respond?

UDL involves providing multiple means of:

  • Engagement;
  • Representation;
  • Action and expression.

Of course, in responding to Covid, Scottish teachers, learners and parents/carers have developed new methods that incorporate different ways to engage learners, represent information and enable action and expression:

  • during school closures many pupils were learning at home, some were in hubs; some were in school and also had periods of self-isolation at home;
  • we learned how to use Microsoft Teams or Google Meet to provide live and recorded video lessons;
  • teaching was often 'asynchronous' which could allow learners to participate at times outwith the usual school hours;
  • learning resources became digital, which should make life much easier for learners who use assistive technology.
  • teachers created slide presentations with embedded video or audio, which can be really helpful for learners with reading difficulties;
  • some learners who had benefited from one to one support in school did not have the same support at home, and developed new skills with technology - for example, using Microsoft's Immersive Reader to help access learning materials.

However, this was a very steep learning curve for everyone, and it's probably fair to say that there were quite a few situations where learning experiences were not accessible or inclusive. We saw photos of worksheets that were difficult to read when learners zoomed in and that couldn't be read using a computer text or screen reader; video lessons without captions; PowerPoint presentations with small text that was hard to see; and I think it's also fair to say that the learning platforms themselves (i.e. Glow / Teams / Google Classroom) are not the easiest to navigate or use for many learners with additional support needs.

More local authorities are providing devices for individual learners and the Scottish Government:

... has committed that by the end of this parliamentary session, all 700,000 school-aged pupils in Scotland will have access to an appropriate digital device, and where necessary an internet connection, to support their learning. 
Providing learners with devices and internet connection will not help them to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors unless the learning experiences and learning resources are effective and accessible.
The ICEA report recommends that:

there should be intensified focus on digital competence. We consider digital competence to include accessing platforms, understanding interactive functions, managing and not being distracted by chat-based functions, appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour, assessment of the value, legitimacy and accuracy of online materials, capacity for self-assessment and self-monitoring, vigilance about the risks of digital addiction, ability to experience and interpret emotions online, and so on. Digital competence must be taught systematically and explicitly and learned deliberately from an early age. Digital competence and ability to teach online as well as in-person should be a mandatory part of teacher preparation, and something in which all existing teachers should become fully competent within 5 years. 

Let's think about what 'universal' and 'design' mean when applied to digital learning:

Universal - learning is for everyone regardless of age, background, ethnicity, socio-economic circumstances, gender or ability.

Design - implies intent, knowledge and skill. It happens before and when learning experiences and learning resources are created. It doesn't happen by accident; it's not an afterthought.

The concept of UDL has critics, but I think it's a very helpful framework for helping to provide effective, meaningful and inclusive education. It should mean that we're less likely to have the educational equivalent of Karine Elharra sitting outside the venue for two hours, unable to participate or contribute, before having to give up and go back to her hotel.


Tags: udl, inclusive education, accessibility, scottish education

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