Universal Design – Lowest Common Denominator Education 🙁

I recently watched a TED talk (Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore by Leyla Arcaroglu – Note if you watch this, she is missing an important part of the equation – people like plastic more than paper, so they are less likely to use re-usable if they have plastic as an option – if paper is the only option, then re-usable becomes more attractive — but that’s an aside not for the actual topic of this post). In her talk she mentioned how the need to create a global (or national) product (e.g. dish soap) meant that we were using more chemicals then necessary in most places – the need for creating a single, one-size-fits-all solution, meant that we were creating something that was more harmful and not necessarily any more effective.

Recently, I’ve experienced the same type of practice within education. At a time when higher education costs are out of control, we have our governments legislating blanket accessibility requirements. These requirements are being applied across the board with no consideration to the audience of the material in which we are creating. It doesn’t matter that I am creating content for surgeons, it still needs to be accessible for blind students).
This type of blanket requirement both stifles innovation and increases production costs. Suddenly, teaching online takes on a whole new spectrum. If I want to include video in my lessons, because the video increases social presence and teaching presence, I have to also close caption the video (significantly increasing the effort, as I typically record off-the-cuff). It doesn’t matter than none of my 30 students needs the closed captioning. The requirement is a blanket one – all material is expected to be design and developed to be accessible (this is just an example – I actually find these policies even more annoying when they are applied to Faculty Development).
I guess what most frustrates me, is at a time when the cost of higher education is a huge issue, why is our government legislating practices that are increasing the cost of higher education? Especially when those increased costs are actually harming the majority of the students (reducing innovation in the classroom)?
It is very much like the dish soap example, where were are being forced to design for the worst-case scenario. In education, this is designing for the lowest-common-denomitor just in case – this is especially difficult when the target audience is small and specialize (e.g. Faculty Development). It decreases the effectiveness of education for the major of people. We need to think of accessibility in a different way  – we do need to address it – and sure universal design makes sense for first year general studies courses – but blanket policies of universal design aren’t doing anyone a favour. Anything that makes higher education more expensive and more labour intensive is contributing to the problem, not helping it.


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