Educational design – inclusive by nature

How do you know that what you have on your Learning Management System (LMS) site is good educational design?

A lot of us go by our instinct, we’ve been teaching forever, we’ve been students ourselves. We know our subject inside out – of course what we’re putting on the LMS is good. But students are still asking us a lot of clarification questions. And we think the students might not be doing the readings. How can we use education design principles to take it up a notch?

Design Patterns

The author is a member of the Business Co-Design (BCD) team at the University of Sydney Business School. One of the things we do is to capture tested responses to educational problems in education design patterns. Developing these patterns is a long and rigorous process. The design pattern website has more about producing and testing the design pattern collection.

The education problem explored in this blog post is: students not doing pre-reading work. The design pattern author is aware that this is a common issue in their experience. They will search the literature to find clues to the basis of the problem and to see what possible solutions have already been tested. They will then feed that knowledge in to co-design a solution with a team. This team will include an academic who also wants to solve the problem, plus learning design staff, media staff, and, ideally, students. The team rigorously evaluates the co-developed solution in situ over the course of at least one semester. Publication of the pattern helps educators in any setting with a similar problem to leverage our design work in their own context. We strongly encourage feedback on our design patterns to strengthen them.

Universal Design for Learning

Formulating and disseminating design patterns is one approach to education design. Another is to begin with a set of principles. The example chosen here is the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) set of guidelines. The UDL guidelines support inclusive educational design practice and start with the premise that there is no such thing as the average student. They show how to design learning that:

  • allows students multiple means of engagement with course material,
  • provides multiple means of representation of course materials, and
  • encourages multiple means of action and expression.

The concept of Universal Design originated in architecture. Instead of designing spaces for the average user, architects built spaces that were usable by the widest possible range of humans, rather than relying on add-ons to accommodate specific mobility issues. The concept was adapted for education by drawing on research into learning and neuroscience, and by recognising the affordances provided by advancing technology. A recent literature review (Cumming & Rose, 2021) provides an overview of current practice in the sector, and shows strong support for the approach by students.

The rest of this blog will map the Meaningful engagement with course readings design pattern to UDL principles to illustrate that good design helps all students.

Design Pattern : Meaningful engagement with course readings

The images below are an example of how you might articulate the Meaningful engagement with course readings design pattern into a Finance course on the Canvas LMS. The reading used is Nguyen et al. (2023).

A screenshot of the pattern implication step is overlaid with some of the UDL principles that apply at each step in the pattern implementation.

Step 1

Give students a short excerpt of the reading with guidance that will feed into an online activity.

Image 1: Screenshot of a set of questions to guide a student’s initial reflection on reading the first excerpt of their set paper. This step in the design pattern maps to the UDL principle of multiple means of engagement.
Image 2: Screenshot of the embedded excerpt of a paper. It maps to the UDL principle of multiple means of representation.

Step 2

Introduce a short online activity, providing options for students to reflect and share with other students.

Image 3: Screenshot of a Padlet that students add their reflections to. Its structure mimics the initial reflection questions, which again maps to UDL principle multiple means of engagement, but also maps to multiple means of action and expression, as there are varied response options.

Step 3

Show students how to review and skim the full reading – students are expected to engage with the full text. Clear guidelines on how to engage with text, e.g. using strategies such as skim or critique, should be provided. Include a direct link to the text (in the readings depository). Depending on the context, step 2 could include activities/questions that relate to step 3.

Image 4: Screenshot of a Padlet that scaffolds student responses to a deeper reading of the set paper, encouraging them to read more widely and to collaborate in building their understanding of the paper in preparation for their synchronous discussion.

Step 4

The preceding steps have signalled what is to be read, how it is to be read, and what students are expected to do with the information. The expectation and scaffold has been set up that students are collaboratively preparing for a class discussion. So in this step that class discussion takes place synchronously, drawing on the artefacts from the online activities. The focus should be on inquiry, rather than on checking understanding.

Inclusive by nature

This design pattern was not developed using the UDL principles. But by carefully addressing the root causes of students not doing the readings and drawing on the combined experience and practice wisdom of the unit coordinator and the BCD team, a solution was arrived at that sits very comfortably in UDL territory. A mapping exercise such as this can also be useful to indicate where the expression of educational design can be even more inclusive.

There is no definitive template for good educational design, but we should not be surprised that a thoughtfully co-designed and tested design pattern should bristle with inclusive elements, because we begin and end by considering the student.

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