Joshua Kaufman, M.Ed, CTS, believes that education’s future is linked to technology. “Learning is no longer confined to the physical classroom,” he said, “and students no longer need to be physically present in order to learn.” The same maxim applies to teachers. With the right pedagogical tools and technologies, educators can share knowledge from more locations to reach more learners.
Kaufman, a Boston-based multimedia specialist, is passionate about “designing universally,” and he is on a mission to raise awareness of and access to accessible edtech. At Tufts University, he’s combining his technological expertise with evolving teaching methods to create versatile, universally designed solutions that are both “effective and cost effective,” he said.
Defining the Concept
The concept and practice of universal design has roots in architecture and urban planning. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Kaufman has a metaphor: “Imagine a building, but you don't have an elevator because it's only two stories high, and you don't have power doors,” he said. “When someone with a mobility issue starts to work in the building, then what?”
“Designing universally” flips the script, asking stakeholders to consider inclusion from the ground up, focusing on how to create more accessible spaces today rather than retrofitting after the fact. Kaufman considers the features and resources needed for broader access—even as our understanding of diversity and disabilities evolve. As Kaufman explained: “If we know we're designing a multi-story building, we know there will inevitably be someone with a mobility issue at some point or another. How do we accommodate that? We start by putting in power doors. We integrate ramps. We include elevators.”
Universal Design for Learning
Applying the theories of universal design to the education segment extends the conversation to universal design for learning. According to Kaufman, “universal design for learning considers the classroom experience and asks how we can develop courses to be universally accessible.”
Designers can start by exploring the methods and means to increase student access to learning resources. “We could purchase more audiobooks or screen readers,” Kaufman noted. “For students who are not visual learners, we can provide ways for them to demonstrate their learning outside of just writing papers or taking tests.”
Designers will work with educators to identify and provide the tools, methods, and designs that let students demonstrate how they are meeting learning objectives. “If a student has trouble writing a paper, they could still present a visual representation of the material, as in a video. They could also produce a podcast or write an epic song.” In this way, Kaufman views universal design for learning as an expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—but a voluntary expansion.
AV in the Age of Universal Design
The next chapter of audiovisual innovation and universal design requires a paradigm shift. Kaufman suggests: “We no longer need to say, ‘You have disability A and you have disability B, and there are needs specific to those, so we will provide those accommodations only.’” Instead, he points to a foundationally inclusive approach that “takes into account disabilities A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and so on, to design as many accommodations right into the course, into the room, and into the space as we can."
The result: Instead of supporting one hundred students with individual accommodations, schools can manage spaces that are, at their core, fundamentally accessible. Instructional designers, AV, and IT teams can then collaborate to support the few students who may require more in-depth or nuanced accommodations.
Bottom line: Versatility and adaptability should lead the design process. “I think about what might be the biggest toolbox that provides the broadest set of tools that are user friendly and affordable and don't require a lot of work on the instructor side,” Kaufman opined. “Then, I figure out how to provide those.”
Using Existing Equipment More Effectively
Universal design also inspires stakeholders to scrutinize the campus infrastructure and audit what’s already installed. What technologies, spaces, or resources, if any, are being underutilized? How can those be optimized? What can be repurposed or upgraded?
Video captions are one example. “It can be hard to see captions on a projection [feed] if there is too much light, or if someone’s eyesight isn't great, or if the angle's wrong,” Kaufman said.
For instructors to leverage a collaboration suite or videoconferencing platform, students must be able to view and engage with all of the content, all of the time. He suggests software that can automatically generate live captioning or push recorded content to mobile devices for better viewing. Some schools are starting to use artificial intelligence (AI) to push captions live to personal devices, a trend that interests Kaufman. “The ‘bring your own device’ movement is definitely increasing accessibility for students. But it's how teachers can tie in BYOD with their course content and the technology already installed in the room—that’s the difference and that’s what can provide the advantage.”
What’s more, “there are a lot of products out right now with features like AI captioning built right into them,” he added.
Leveraging New Tech to Help
How can the AV industry help to make classrooms and learning spaces more universal? Kaufman says to start small. “It could be as simple as having titles and captions for a class. It could be streaming a course so more students can participate, and then allowing them to ask questions via a test interface.”
Manufacturers like Panopto, Sonic Foundry, Kaltura, and others offer purpose-built and end-to-end classroom video solutions, but for schools with very tight budgets, there are alternatives. “You can use YouTube, WebEx, or Zoom,” Kaufman said. “There are a variety of ways to stream content and invite real-time audience engagement.”
Helping Faculty Do More
In every scenario, Kaufman tries to collaborate with faculty to solve their problems and increase access. The process should begin not with a product in mind, but with the professor’s end goal. Ask: What are you trying to do in this class, today? What do you want to do tomorrow that you couldn't do today? Then work with them to find the right solution or accommodation.
Kaufman added that he is “fortunate” at his current university. “The faculty is fantastic about listening to what we have to say,” he said.
Growing Acceptance of Universal Design
Not all higher education decision makers stay current with the latest design and tech trends, but there is a growing acceptance of universal design for learning. There are also real consequences for institutions that don’t adapt quickly enough to meet student needs, exemplified by a host of lawsuits lobbied against schools like MIT who were not captioning course videos.
While the investment in new technologies or resources may appear costly initially, Kaufman believes that “it will save you money in five years or in 10 years because you're not going to be retrofitting. You're not going to be fighting a lawsuit. You're will be able to say, ‘Yes, we did that 10 years ago. We’re genuinely accessible.’”
Margot Douaihy, PhD, is a writer and editor. She won the 2018 Jesse H. Neal Mattera Award outstanding mentorship in the publishing industry.