Usability in Education
By Julie Strothman
On November 14th, World Usability Day will raise awareness about the consequences of design: things that are easier to use are more effective, more efficient, and more satisfying for the people who use them. However, usability applies as much to teaching and learning as it does to the design of buildings and software.
At Landmark College, a college for students with learning disabilities and AD/HD, we have found that when students participate in learning experiences designed to be effective across diverse learning abilities, the need for individual accommodations is significantly diminished. Accommodations, while an essential self-advocacy tool, will not suffice for all who need them: learning disabilities are often undiagnosed or undisclosed.
In their 1999–2005 DOE demonstration project at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Sally Scott, Dr. Joan McGuire, and Dr. Stan Shaw identified Nine Principles of Universal Design for Instruction (UDI). By following these principles, instructors can proactively plan inclusive learning experiences which benefit all learners.
I recently spoke with a highly motivated student with dyslexia whose goal is to work in medicine. He described the bitterly frustrating experience of a lecture-style anatomy and physiology class he had failed at a previous school. The lectures were aural only: the instructor never made use of outlines, never provided notes, and rarely used the white board. The student’s cognitive effort was devoted entirely to unsuccessful note taking—he often missed much of the lecture content, and was unable to place his attention on learning. Assessments were always the same format: tests with multiple choice questions and diagrams to be drawn from memory.
This instructor would have done well to apply the UDI principle of “flexibility in use,” which encourages varied methods of instruction. The student might have been able to develop understanding through hands-on group activities. He might have been better able to take notes or focus on content, if given a concept map or an outline of the content to be covered. In one of his current science classes, regardless of the format of the lesson plan, the instructor first provides an outline of the content to be covered. Varied assessment methods provide the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge without relying on rote memory. The UDI principles of “tolerance for error” and “perceptible information” encourage access to electronic versions of the lecture content. In his current class, the student is able to correct his own notes while listening with a screen reader to the instructor’s notes, provided on his class website. Through correcting his own notes, he has another opportunity to learn the content.
At World Usability Day New England, sponsored by Landmark College and Dartmouth College, educators will come together to discuss implementation of universal usability to enhance learning, effectiveness, and understanding for people of all abilities. The program includes a UDI Lab where participants will bring a syllabus, lesson plan, handout or class website for evaluation by our students and our experts.
We encourage educators everywhere to devote time to considering how they might make their instruction straightforward and predictable, yet varied in methods of delivery and assessment, and more collegial in climate. We encourage educators everywhere to seek out universal design resources, and to speak with colleagues and students about successful strategies, and endeavor to make learning a usable—and pleasing—experience for all!#
Julie Strothman is a Project Manager at Landmark College and the Coordinator of World Usability Day New England 2006, being hosted by Landmark College on November 14th. For more information, please visit: www.landmark.edu/wud