Photo Dr. Claire Stuve, Curriculum Developer, and Technology Researcher at the University of Toledo. Maumee, Ohio

Inclusive Learning Is Not Only for Students with Disabilities

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Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 21, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

According to the World Health Organization, there are approximately 1 billion people in the world with some sort of disability. Technology has played a significant role in making teachers aware of their students’ needs, as well as including them in lessons alongside their peers. Most importantly, all students, despite disability or not, should have the opportunity to learn well the material that is presented to them and, thankfully, technology can also help in this process.

When Dr. Claire Stuve, Curriculum Developer, and Technology Researcher at The University of Toledo, started as a college student, she had difficulty understanding the content in her classes. After struggling to be engaged and enjoy her classes, she switched universities in the hopes of finding a new route to learning. Unfortunately, she only stumbled upon the same barriers. After facing these negative experiences, she decided to earn her teaching certificate, so she could help others actually learn and have a positive impact on their lives. “I thought: you know who really makes a difference in the world? Teachers,” Stuve says.

Dr. Stuve understands that there are many people in the world with disabilities who face barriers in their education. She also finds that every single student in the world learns differently and that everyone has difficulties in certain areas without necessarily having a diagnosed disability, which might hinder the learning process. And so, she decided to learn about accessibility in education.

What is inclusive learning? It is a way to make sure that your course is designed so that all students are supported and can learn effectively. Thanks to her work, Dr Stuve won the Blackboard Catalyst Award in Inclusive Learning, which is awarded to individuals whose methods ensure that pedagogy, technology, content, and educational services are fully inclusive and supportive of all learners.

Dr. Stuve used to be a high school math teacher and decided to move to higher education as an educational technologist, with the aim of improving university courses by designing curriculum foreseeing possible gaps that would prevent students from learning and being engaged. She subsequently started working in the Math Department at The University of Toledo and designed the online trigonometry course for which she won the Catalyst Award.

When she first started the design process, all she had were the state of Ohio requirements with a list of the topics that she had to cover, along with a secondary list of optional topics she could teach. She decided to teach all topics on both lists so that students would be fully prepared for their next math course. Additionally, she created a course that was fully online, as she found that it was unpractical for students to attend face-to-face classes as they since they had to travel to the campus and learn at times not very convenient for them or they could have jobs on top of being students. She opted to apply a blended model to her online course, which meant that she met synchronously with her students once a week in a Blackboard Collaborate classroom to discuss topics and apply concepts to solve real world problems. She built a flipped online course, always keeping in mind to include accessibility best practices in her class, where students reviewed material in Blackboard on their own time before the synchronous session.

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These Are Some of the Accessibility Best Practices and Tools That Dr. Stuve Uses in Her Course:

1. Get to Know Your Students. When students feel that their teacher cares about them, they strive to work harder. At the beginning of every term, she asks her students to introduce themselves and tell her about their passions and what they like to do in their spare time. She reads their responses again every week, so she can follow up with her students about the things that interest them, or even include something about her students in the lesson.

2. Make Content Relevant. Rather than using textbook problems to teach, Dr. Stuve uses real life examples, such as buying a car, to explain the value of a specific formula or graph. She not only asks her students to graph, but also discusses why drawing a graph is important and what can be learnt from this activity.

3. Video & Text Lessons. Some students prefer to be able to see and listen to their instructor, while others prefer reading content. As a result, Dr. Stuve records lessons in video format but also writes in her own words what she has taught. This way, students can choose between various options that help them understand the material. In addition, all videos are closed-captioned for various reasons. It might be hard to understand everything the teacher is saying, especially if there are symbols involved (such as Greek symbols, for instance), depending on the subject matter. Also, it can help students to focus.

4. Lessons Are Keyboard Accessible. If students are unable to use a mouse, they need to be able to access course content using keyboard shortcuts. Even for those without a disability, this method ensures they can fully use their mouse or keyboard.

5. Course Content Is Accessible by a Screen Reader. Screen readers read words and content aloud. Dr. Stuve recalls that creating content that can be read by a screen reader used to be much more difficult, but today, Microsoft Word and PDF files have an option that can be enabled to ensure a document is compatible with a screen reader. Since enhancing the learning experience is the focus, this feature allows students to have options best suited for them, instead of being restricted by a simple text document.

6. Refrain From Using Many Colors & Font Types. Some students may have trouble distinguishing one color or font from another. Therefore, different colors and fonts should not be used to relay important information to students.

The University of Toledo has made it their objective to make classes accessible for all students. That is why individuals like Dr. Stuve, who have training in accessibility, design courses so that all students are included and have an enhanced learning experience. Moreover, the University’s Student Disability Services support faculty by providing services such as closed captioning of videos.

Technology is an essential part of Dr. Stuve’s math course success, as students can manipulate the technology to fit their needs and also learn at their own pace. Synchronous meet-ups also play an important role in the student-teacher relationship. Dr. Stuve describes the Blackboard Collaborate sessions as a completely safe, non-judgmental environment where students can freely ask and interact, using real-life scenarios to help them understand the subject. During sessions, Dr. Stuve sometimes asks her students to get into groups so they can explore a topic further, and Blackboard Collaborate’s functionality allows her to do that easily. She can virtually move around the groups and check on them to see how they are progressing. Another tool Dr. Stuve finds invaluable is the Blackboard Accessible Math Editor. This math editor is a tool created by Blackboard that gives her every symbol she might need in order to create problems and formulas. In other learning management systems, she would have to look for each symbol in Google® and then copy and paste it, making it very time consuming and unsustainable. The Blackboard Accessible Math Editor also makes the symbols screen reader accessible, which is essential in her course.

Dr. Stuve said that she is always very enthusiastic when teaching and even tells math jokes during her lessons to make students laugh and be engaged, which she explained is an important aspect of inclusivity. You can’t be inclusive if you don’t understand your students, Dr. Stuve believes.

Of all the Blackboard Catalyst Awards that are available, Dr. Stuve thinks that the Inclusive Learning Award is the most important because every student should get an equal chance to learn. The more they understand today, the more they will understand tomorrow, and what a difference they can then make in other peoples’ lives in the future.

Photos by: AFP – Madalyn Ruggiero