Embracing diversity in higher education

The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability (AHEAD) published their first journal recently which I printed off with (I confess) just a passing interest. It turned out to be a compelling read from start to finish.

Being time-poor and work weary, I would suggest that most lecturers don’t really like the idea of considering a diverse student body. An ideal scenario is that one bloc of students come to class, complete the required work and sit the exam. Doing something additional for the odd one or two students can feel like a burden just not feasible in the time available.

What I particularly liked about the core messages in the articles in this journal were that while my straw man was easily and effectively challenged, the approaches advocated are based in a pragmatism and an understanding of the reality of busy college life. According to Ann Heelan’s article, 6% of students in Irish HE have a specific learning difficulty or disability. Add to this 15% international students and 15% mature students, and we suddenly move to a position where the homogeneous bloc of students alluded to earlier is clearly a myth.

Having challenged the myth, the approach advocated is refreshing in its simplicity and pragmatism. While we don’t have one bloc of students to deal with, one overall consideration to a teaching approach might fit the bill. The approach is branded universal design for learning, (UDL) which according to an article by David Rose and Sam Catherine Johnston is built on two premises (worth considering carefully I think):

“1. Addressing students at the margins creates improvements for all students

2. Barriers to learning occur in the interaction with the curriculum—they are not inherent solely in the capacities of the learner.”

Principles of Universal Design for LearningI have added emphasis here to what I see (as a practitioner) to be the key points – addressing students at the margins (which as Rose and Johnston put it has historically been those with disabilities) raises the boats for all students.  I think this acts as a motivator for the well meaning but time poor lecturer to engage with considering principles of UDL. They are, quite frankly, obvious when spelled out, but I suppose considering it as a formal design framework for curriculum delivery raises the bar a little.  Secondly, it is not the material of the curriculum per se that is problematic, but perhaps a particular way it is presented. “Everyone learns differently”, to phrase Ann Heelan’s article, and Rose and Johnston’s article points to several examples where a consideration of this approach has been beneficial to student body as a whole. Readers might like to peruse the recent book by Meyer, Rose and Gordon.

Ann Heelan’s article pushes further strategies lecturers might use in integrating UDL in their practice. One that appealed was formalising the development of self-monitoring, so that students can develop their own sense of learning progression, and identify difficulties. Again this is something we would love for all students! She highlights research which demonstrates that making assignment criteria clear with explicit marking schemes enabled self-monitoring. It also brings to mind this wonderful project on developing metacognition which I wrote about before. Several other strategies are presented in Heelan’s article, and AHEAD is running a conference in Dublin Castle in March on UDL.  (http://ahead.ie/conference2015)

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