Universal design: online educational media for students with disabilities.
Article Type: Report
Subject: Online education (Usage)
Blind (Printing and writing systems)
Blind (Study and teaching)
Blind (Technology application)
Teaching (Equipment and supplies)
Teaching (Usage)
Author: Sapp, Wendy
Pub Date: 08/01/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness Publisher: American Foundation for the Blind Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American Foundation for the Blind ISSN: 0145-482X
Issue: Date: August, 2009 Source Volume: 103 Source Issue: 8
Topic: Computer Subject: Technology application
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 207944191
Full Text: For students with disabilities, using the online educational media employed in most general education classrooms may be challenging, since much mainstream programming is not accessible. Online educational media take the form of integrated learning modules that contain content to enhance students' learning and support teachers' instruction. For students, each integrated learning module typically includes a full-length educational video and additional educational materials (such as still images, related articles, links to relevant web sites, self-study assessments, and activities). For example, the sample integrated learning module in the Universal eLearner (the Internet-based educational materials that are discussed next) contains a vocabulary list, a story, a story quiz, a video, three student activities, and a unit quiz. These online activities are designed to provide a comprehensive learning unit on a topic or to supplement traditional classroom instruction. Research has underscored the effectiveness of integrated learning modules in improving test scores in math (Taylor, 1999) and science (Cantrell, Pekcan, & Itani, 2006), but such modules are available in almost all content areas and at all educational levels from elementary school to postgraduate programs.

The Universal eLearner is an online integrated learning module, under development, that incorporates accessible technology, universal design for learning, and best practices for online education. The American Foundation for the Blind and Bridge Multimedia have just completed a three-year grant through the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, U.S. Department of Education, to develop and test the latest version of the Universal eLearner. The Universal eLearner, although not a finished product, has been developed and fieldtested with students with disabilities (including those with visual impairments, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, and learning disabilities), as well as students who are English language learners and typically developing students.

The evaluations conducted under the grant focused on the accessibility and usability of the Universal eLearner to provide feedback to the development team to improve the product further. An advisory board, consisting of professionals and consumers with all forms of disabilities, has also contributed their expertise to the development of the Universal eLearner. The prototype versions of the Universal eLearner are designed for an upper elementary school social studies unit using educational materials from the Pearson Digital Learning Knowledge Box series, but many of the outcomes of the testing of the Universal eLearner are applicable to integrated learning modules for any grade level and in any subject area. This report presents some of the outcomes from the grant-funded project to help professionals understand the needs of students with disabilities in relation to integrated learning modules and to offer suggestions for anyone who is developing universally accessible online educational programming.


When products are created using universal design, the needs of people with physical and sensory disabilities are taken into account and accessibility features and options are built into the product (Flores, 2008). In the classroom, "specialized learners" include not only students who are blind or have low vision, students who are deaf or hard of hearing, and students with physical disabilities, but also students with learning disabilities, English language learners, and students with cognitive impairments. Each group faces its own significant learning challenges. Traditionally, students with all forms of disabilities have been provided instructional materials that have been designed for typical students, not those that have been adapted to meet their needs. These students also often receive instructional materials that are targeted exclusively toward students in their disability group that do not match the general education curriculum in rigor and content, which increases costs for school systems. When students receive materials that are not appropriate for their learning needs or are not consistent with the content of general education instruction, they face increased challenges in making academic progress (Boone & Higgins, 2007).

Universal design features, such as those identified in the development of the Universal eLearner, are intended to increase access to educational materials for students with disabilities (Engstrom & Stricklin, 1992; Lewis & Jackson, 2001; Packer, 1995). Multiple studies have shown that the same options that allow students with physical and sensory disabilities to access materials, specifically captioning and video description, also provide educational benefits for students with other disabilities, such as English language learners, and general education students (Goldberg, Joyce, & Field, 1998; Hodge, 1998; King, 1993; Koskinen, Wilson, Gambrell, & Neuman, 1993; Neuman & Koskinen, 1992; Otto & Pusak, 1996; Rothberg & Wlodkowski, 2000; Shea, 2000).


Users with disabilities face two main issues in relation to computer-based learning materials: access and comprehension (Rose, Hasselbring, Stahl, & Zabala, 2005). Most applications of universal design in such materials have focused on providing access through design features that work with adaptive software, such as screen readers, or additional options, such as captioning (Rose & Meyer, 2002). Students who are blind and those who have severe physical impairments are often unable to use a mouse to maneuver through a computer program. Designing the program to work with keyboard input and voice input-output software provides independence to these students. Arranging and sequencing the order in which the Tab key moves the cursor through a page and labeling the headings or buttons with unique and intuitive labels are critical to making this accessibility feature usable.

Students who are blind are also unable to access material that is presented only visually, including in print, images, and videos. Formatting text to be easily read using screen-reading or screen-magnification software, using alt tags (text descriptions) for pictures, and incorporating audio description for videos provide access to these materials. Research has shown that videos with audio description were more easily comprehended by people who are blind than videos without description (Frazier & Coutinho-Johnson, 1995; Schmeidler & Kirchner, 2001; Simpson, 1999). When reading text on a computer screen, students with low vision often benefit from options to change the background and foreground colors, and font sizes and styles of the display of the electronic learning materials.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may be unable to hear audio clips well enough to understand what is being said. When captioning is incorporated into an audio presentation, these students are able to access the auditory information and improve their comprehension of the content (Lewis & Jackson, 2001; McInerney, Riley, & Osher, 1999).

The accessibility features just discussed are generally accepted by technology developers who are interested in using universal design features. These features allow people with disabilities to access the technology, but that does not mean that the information they are accessing will be understood. To provide true accessibility, developers of educational software must take into account the needs of specialized learners and provide them with appropriate learning materials.


While developing the Universal eLearner, the development team and advisory board became critically aware that simply providing access and improving usability were not enough to ensure that students with special needs will learn the content that is provided. The principles of universal design can be applied to making the content more understandable as well as more accessible. Burgstahler (2005, n.p.) articulated this expanded concept of universal design.

Starting with research on the learning needs of each disability group and research-based instructional strategies that are beneficial for students with disabilities and English language learners, the project developed and incorporated four new features into the program. By using two-tiered captioning, two-tiered audio description, end-of-chapter summary information, and description-embedded language, the project hopes to increase students' comprehension of the content that is presented. Each feature can be turned on and off by the student or teacher to allow the presentation of the content to be individualized for each student's needs.

Two tiers of captioning

The use of two tiers of captioning in the Universal eLearner will, it is hoped, provide benefits for students with hearing impairments and students with learning disabilities, as well as those who are also English language learners. Compared to students with typical hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing students score significantly lower on measures of language (Wake, Poulakis, Hughes, Carey-Sargeant, & Rickards, 2005). Therefore, two levels or tiers of captioning are provided: standard captioning and concise captioning. Standard captioning follows the actual narration and dialogue word for word and is suitable, in many cases, for hard-of-hearing students and advanced English language learners. Concise captioning is edited to simplify vocabulary and grammatical structure. In addition to serving the needs of many students who are deaf, the adjusted reading level can also assist students with learning disabilities by presenting text that they can comfortably read as they watch the programming (Hodge, 1998; Koskinen et al., 1993; Otto & Pusak, 1996). Students with disabilities who are English language learners also benefit from having simplified versions of text to read (King, 1993; Neuman & Koskinen, 1992; Shea, 2000). Young students without disabilities show improved word recognition and story comprehension when shown programs with captioning compared to programs without captioning, which indicates that this option may be beneficial for general education students as well (Lindebarger, 2001).

Two tiers of audio description

Audio description is provided in a standard format or with an expanded description component in the Universal eLearner. The option of audio description allows students who are unable to see or process visual images on-screen to hear a detailed description of the visual content presented in the video. For standard audio description, a voice describes the key action or text on the screen during the natural pauses in narration and dialogue. Often in educational videos, there are not enough pauses to describe the critical visual information fully. To address this difficulty, the second tier of audio description contains the standard audio description plus expanded description. Expanded description, presented before the video is played, provides supplemental information to enhance meaning, concepts, context, and learning for students who are blind or have low vision. Research is beginning to indicate that audio description may also be useful for students with learning disabilities (Rothberg & Wlodkowski, 2000) and students without disabilities (Goldberg et al., 1998), because the descriptions highlight the key elements in the media, thereby helping students focus on what is important.

End-of-movie-chapter summary information

Educational videos or movies are typically broken into "chapters" of about 2 minutes in length on average. The Universal eLearner features end-of-chapter summaries that are designed to provide organizational structure to the movies and, thus, support the comprehension of students with a range of learning and sensory disabilities. By identifying key points and summarizing important details, this extra information will enhance students' understanding of the content.

Description-embedded language

Sometimes, the only way to provide information to students who are blind or have low vision about key visual elements in learning materials is through stand-alone expanded description and audio description. In other instances, just a few words are needed to provide meaning or context or both. Through careful selection of highly specific and accurate language within the image captions, alt tags, and audio description, "description-embedded language" assists students who are blind or have low vision in understanding the content.


Now that the basic programming of the Universal eLearner is in place and field testing has proved that its accessibility features work as designed, the next step in the development of this product is to evaluate whether the new accessibility features to enhance comprehension are effective. Experimental or quasi-experimental studies should be conducted to determine whether a standard online learning module or the same module using the four proposed features of universal design results in greater learning by students with and without specialized learning needs. By comparing a preexisting online learning module with the same content presented using universal design, research can show which version results in higher comprehension of the content, better independent accessibility, and greater enjoyment by the students. Results should be analyzed as a whole and by examining each group of specialized and general education students individually to measure any differences in performance for all the groups. Analyzing subgroups will identify any variations in performance among the groups that would be masked by grouping all students together. For example, one disability group may perform better with the Universal eLearner compared to using a standard learning module, but another group may perform worse. Looking at each subgroup would ensure that all users, with and without disabilities, benefit from the universal design. Input from those who participate in the testing should also be sought to determine their responses to the features (for example, which features they are likely to use or not use and why).

Results from these future studies will provide valuable benefits to developers of educational software, school administrators, and students. Developers of educational software can select appropriate features to incorporate into the materials they create. School administrators can use the results to guide their decision-making process about essential features of universal design for educational software purchases. When educationally effective universal design features are included in integrated learning modules, students will benefit by having greater access to learning materials, thus increasing their opportunities to learn.


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Wendy Sapp, Ph.D., COMS, private consultant, Visual Impairment Education Services, 347 Golf View Drive, Cohutta, GA 30710; e-mail: .
In terms of learning, universal design means the design of
   instructional materials and activities that make the learning goals
   achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities
   to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend,
   organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is
   achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities
   that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities.
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