Thursday, July 23, 2009

What happens when innovation outpaces accessibility?

I was presenting to a group of higher education faculty the other day on Universal Design for Learning and how they could move forward on creating creating course that were more aligned with the principles of UDL.  The morning was presented largely by a colleague of mine and she worked to establish the foundation of UDL in higher education settings specifically focusing on Multiple Means of Expression, Engagement, and Representation.  The afternoon was my part and focused on using technology-based tools to help integrate these principles within courses and discussions ensued as to how each of these tools could achieve multiple means of expression, engagement and representation.  As part of the discussion, we also talked about accessibility.  We talked about accessibility for two reasons.  First, part of being 'universal' is ensuring that everyone can access and interact with the content being provided.  Second, Illinois passed the Illinois Information Technology Accessibility Act whcih requires Illinois agencies and Universities to ensure their various information technologies are accessible to people with disabilities.  This law extends ADA and Section 508 compliance within the state of Illinois.  The point of discussion that ensued thereafter is what really got me thinking.  A number of the tools that I presented are accessible and/or increase the accessibility of content only in part or only for specific populations.  For example, I spoke about using the tool VozMe, which is a little widget that can be put on a page and, when a person highlights the text of a web page and clicks on the button, there is a speech equivalent version generated.  However, when we tried to work this through a popular screen reader, the tool was not accessible.  I know this sounds redundant (using a screen reader tool to access a tool/service that provides text to speech) but similar cases could be made for embedding audio, video, VoiceThreads and many other tools/services as well.  If only partial accessibility is provided by the use of these tools, can they be considered to be 'universal'?  I would suggest that they are not.

I would propose, at this point and time, that UDL is a philosophical construct...a vision of 'what could be', if you will.  There are a number of things that are preventing UDL from being truly realized currently.  Copyright law prevents standard print from being truly accessible to all.  To access print in an accessible form, individuals often need to be 'certified' as being eligible to access the print in a form that meets their individual needs.  The explosion of user generated web content has left a plethora of online resources with limited or no accessibility.  There are a number of concerns with the degree to whcih Web 2.0 technologies are meeting the standards of accessiblity.  Even emerging technologies such as the Kindle DX are not exempt.  Truth be told, accessibility is still an afterthought of innovation.  Until accessibility is proactively integrated into tool development,  UDL can not  be fully achieved.

Until this time, however, we are left to approximate UDL by using a number of different tools to move towards multiple means of expression, engagement and representation, some with more accessibility than others.  The questions that I am left with, however, from both an ethical and legal perspective, are:
  1. Do we use a variety of tools, some fully accessible and some partially accessible, to approximate UDL or do we only use those tools that are currently accessible to all? 
  2. If we only use those tools that are fully accessible, knowing that in doing so we are placing limits on the use of other innovative tools, do we limit the degree to which UDL can be provided?  Is this an acceptible practice?
What do you think?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thinking about AT Consideration and Implementation

I was in a meeting the other day and a colleague of mine had shared something that she had heard a teacher say.  "I don't want to write down that the student needs AT - its available in my class.  If I write it down, then I will have to do one of those forms!"  Let me pause to explain something here - The district...about a year or so back...had implemented the use of an AT Implementation Plan 'form' within their IEP software.  The idea behind the implementation plan was to document a number and help teams plan for a number of things including -
  • Training - who needed training and on what specifically did each party need to be trained and in what time frame
  • Location - where was the item to be used and how would it be stored or transitioned from location to location
  • Programming/Customization - who would be responsible for 'tweaking' the AT to meet the student's individual needs and what type of 'tweaking' needed to occur
  • Maintenance Plan - document routine maintenance (e.g., charging) and how other incidental maintanance would occur
  • Contingency Planning - a plan should the AT ever fail so that the student's needs were being met
This plan is done annually as part of the annual review process.  Now, I firmly believe, and policy and the literature would support, that these types of things need to be considered, documented and followed as part of the provision and implementation of AT.  However, as I began talking with other teachers, I started noticing some commonalities in their thinking.  Of course, as one may have guessed, the idea of doing additional paperwork was not received well by many of the teachers.  Even so, the teachers felt this was a necessary part of the process to ensure the bases were covered.  The notion that I found more interesting related to the 'Annual Review'.  Going back to undergrad, and even grad school, it was drilled into my head that an IEP needed to be reviewed at least annually.  However, as many of the teachers with whom I spoke also noted, the pragmatic interpretation of this is 'the IEP must be reviewed annually - leaving out the 'at least' portion of the requirement. 

This begged the question for me,
If teachers were only revieiwing the IEP annually, is this frequency at which they were also thinking about AT? 
When I started speaking to the teacher and asking thsi question, the answer was 'yes'.  Now, let me qualify that a bit.  Many of the teachers did focus on AT throughout the year - the AT that was already within the student's IEP. In other words, they implemented the IEP including any AT provisions that were documented within.   However, they reported really only thinking about AT more critically as part of the annual review because this is when they are required to do so.  My follow up questions was, What happens to the AT if it is not proving to be effective?  A number reported that they 'wait' until the next annual review to make changes to the AT.  Some of the teachers reported trying out different tools that they had available in their classrooms and even, in some instances, begain using the tools en lieu of the non-effective AT on the IEP but never went back to update the IEP. Several of these teacher reported never listing these tools on the IEP because the tools had not gone through the AT Consideration Process.  The teachers explained that in thier districts, there was a defined process that they had to go through as part of the AT Consideration process.   Most of the teachers described some variation of the SETT Framework, though it was treated more as a SETT process.  Some of the teachers had different 'pathways' to 'getting AT' for their students.  For these teachers, common AT or AT readily available in their school district could be accessed through a specific individual.  More expensive AT or less available AT had a more extensive process of meetings and discussions.  Regardless of the situation, many of the teachers reported that these processes and pathways were strongly associated with the annual review and served as 'gateways' to getting AT.

It strikes me that, for these teachers, AT is something that must be considered, where the consideration of AT is associated with some protocol and is prompted by the annual review process.  I worry that, in the best of intentions, schools have created a beaurocracy out of the acquisition and implmentation of AT.   Teachers - good teachers - make hundreds, if not thousands, of instructional decisions every day to help faciliate student success in the classroom.  Teachers envoke the use of a number of strategies to help move a student from point A in their learning to Point B.  They draw upon their pedagogical knowledge and the tools they have readily available to them to help students achieve. I wonder the extent to which teachers feel empowered to consider and implement AT at the same frequency that they use so many other techniques and tools in their classroom or does the mandate to use a formal protocol (either real or perceived) get in the way?