Create Inclusive Learning Experiences

Article Contents

This section aims to develop design guidelines and methods for building positive and constructive environments for self-learning and self-reflection with learners who have diverse learning needs and preferences.

Each learner is unique and may have a specific need or a combination of different needs and preferences (sensory, motor, cognitive, emotional, social, cultural, financial, and technical) in order to fully engage and participate in a learning activity. However, these variations and individual differences are often overlooked, or learners are prescribed specific ways of interacting or learning based on medical diagnoses or other rigid and often misleading categorizations. As a result, learners are not supported in reaching their full potential and may be excluded from a learning community, activist group or movement.

To enable participation, we need to create learning environments where the voices of “outliers” are heard, diverse opinions are respected and valued, and support is provided when needed. In these environments, the control is put back in the hands of learners. They are able to choose the learning tools and strategies that work best for them, and to change their learning experience as their needs and preferences evolve over time.

Boost learners’ self-worth

Learners who have disengaged from their learning groups or communities in the past may not feel comfortable sharing their ideas or participating in conversations in new learning environments. The fear of being perceived as less capable or disruptive impedes a learner’s full participation in the learning activity. An environment that creates fear - fear of being wrong, of being inarticulate, or of sharing irrelevant, partially-formed ideas further blocks a learner’s participation, and may lead to abandoning certain groups or communities.

Welcoming diversity and rethinking why and how we assign value to knowledge can contribute to building the self-worth of participants in a learning community. Discussing differences in thinking styles, ways of knowing, skillsets, knowledge bases, and how we can all learn from those differences helps learners recognize that they play a significant role in their own learning and that their contribution to a group is equally valuable. Supporting ideas that are partially formed motivates learners to actively engage in an activity and freely express themselves.

To learn more, see the Inclusive Design Guide:

Cultivate learners’ self-knowledge

Individuals with learning differences are often labeled with a medical disability. In formal educational settings this can lead to their exclusion from decision-making teams and/or to comparing their performance with standard educational rubrics built around the “norm”. In these circumstances it becomes much harder for learners to discover and celebrate their own unique qualities and strengths. Giving learners a chance to discover, define and reflect upon their personal learning goals and needs allows them to develop self-awareness which can support independence and self-advocacy.

Replacing the medical model of “access” and “accommodation”, which can contribute to isolation or segregation in a learning process/environment, with engaging and multimodal activities, enables learners to reflect on their learning needs and advocate for themselves. Providing opportunities for learners to be a part of the conversation about their learning needs, together with peers, parents, guardians and educators, contributes to the building of self-awareness, and the discovery of information about themselves - their strengths, interests, likes and dislikes, learning goals and motivations. Learners can be supported in this process by allowing them to choose their prefered means of engagement and communication (e.g. verbal or non-verbal communication, or by allowing more time to reflect and respond if needed).

The following list of questions can be used as a starting point for these conversations:

A great example is the Platohedro project based in Medellín, Colombia, a community house supporting children, teenagers and young people who might have been disengaged from their conventional learning path due to learning differences, poverty, violence, or any other existing challenges in their context. This project has developed a creative platform to promote art experimentations, knowledge sharing tools, and technology appropriation techniques that are open, participatory and collaborative in order to help individuals re-integrate with their community, and give them control over the topics and forms that are key to self-expression and creativity. People who participate in this project are able to gain self knowledge, help one another build self-confidence, and explore their goals and motivations through hands-on workshops, experimentations, and technical hackathons.

To learn more, see the Inclusive Design Guide:

Foster learners’ independence

Learners with learning differences may have specific needs such as relying on assistive technology or human support to be able to engage in a learning activity. In some cases, learners are unaware of available solutions, thus, they don’t know what to look for and where to look. In other cases, learners are aware of existing tools, however, these solutions are not available to them because of cost, lack of technological infrastructure, or any other barriers in their context. In either case, learners are not able to fully participate in their learning process. Although many resourceful learners find ways to adapt, others may disengage because the challenge outweighs the benefit.

To support learners’ independence and avoid separate, specialized and segregated learning experiences, we need to ensure that all our learning materials, activities and tools have built-in accessibility features. In so doing, learners do not need to ask for specific accommodations or educate others about their accessibility needs every time they want to access a resource or use a tool. In addition, we need to ensure that people, service animals, technologies, devices or anything else that assists with communication and engagement are welcomed and integrated in the learning process. And the assistive technologies we do create (screen readers, voice recognition, onscreen keyboards, etc.) must support learner autonomy and collaboration with others.

A great example of designing and building fun multimodal learning experiences that foster learner’s independence is the PhET Interactive Simulations project. This project provides free, fun and exploratory visual simulations for learning science, which support a student’s inquiry and experimentation. Currently, the simulations are highly visual and most require fine motor skills for use and navigation.

To this end, the PhET project and the Inclusive Design Research Centre conducted research on how to design effective audio descriptions, which enable students with visual impairment to use these simulations independently and alongside their sighted peers. These auditory descriptions allow students to hear what is happening in the simulation as they explore in real time (see JohnTravoltage simulation). To provide a cognitive anchor, a text and audio description of the current state of the simulation is also available whenever they want or need it. The accessibility team at PhET is also experimenting with adding sound cues to these auditory descriptions to convey more complex information, such as an object’s behaviour that cannot be effectively described by words (see video).

This project is expanding the ways students can learn from simulations and has the potential to transform the development and use of interactive learning resources to create more inclusive classrooms. It provides built-in features to sense and perceive these highly visual and interactive simulations in multiple ways. As a result, it not only opens up access to those with visual impairments, but it also amplifies the learning experience for many students (as reinforcement of a primary visual sense, or by tapping into a greater perceptual sensitivity) and provides an opportunity for self exploration of alternative communication modes.

To learn more, see the Inclusive Design Guide:

Engage learners’ support network

Learning is not an isolated activity, and in most cases a network of diverse people exists around an individual’s learning process. The size and diversity of this network depends on the learner’s goals and motivations. For example, a network could be as small as a learner and her online content provider, or it may involve a large group of stakeholders such as tutors, administrators, peers, volunteers, parents, guardians, relatives, specialists, support personnel, friends from the community, and other advocates. It is very important for support communities to be aware of a learner’s abilities, strengths, learning goals and motivations to be able to look beyond learners’ physical or cognitive limitations, and instead support them to achieve their learning goals. Providing opportunities for learners to collaboratively work with their support network on playful and engaging activities helps them communicate their likes, dislikes, interests and preferences. For instance, learners and their support network can engage in an improvised activity to build or hack something, like a toy, a mechanism, an art installation, etc. and then explore different ways of describing what they have done, for example, by using drawing, role-playing, written descriptions, or any other way they prefer. This would enable support networks to better advocate for learners’ needs and help bring back the excitement and curiosity that may have been removed from their learning experiences.

A great example can be drawn from the work of Karisma, an activist group working on finding digital technology solutions for youth with identified and unidentified learning differences in Fresno, a small town in the coffee region of Colombia. Through projects such as Fresno Posible and Real Campestre, this group is working with school teachers as well as with teenagers with learning differences to identify their learning needs and to identify and develop the technology that can support those needs.

To learn more, see the Inclusive Design Guide: