Thomas J. Tobin, Ph.D., works for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is currently serving on a Fulbright Grant at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. Tobin is an internationally recognized consultant, author, and speaker on quality in distance education. In this interview, he discusses with E-Learn Magazine the importance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how its impact on educational access – including people with disabilities and all other students in need of inclusive design solutions to continue studying – is becoming more widespread, particularly in colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.
Back in the late 1990s, Tobin was hired by a college in Pennsylvania to help them create their first online courses. One of the faculty members who wanted to teach an online course on accounting and business sadly went blind after suffering from diabetes. As a young faculty developer at the time, Tobin tried to figure out ways for the professor to continue teaching and searched for experts who were already researching inclusive teaching methods for disabled instructors. Unfortunately, nobody was studying it back then – except for Norm Coombs, a specialist at the University of Rochester who was just setting up a consortium to help faculty members with disabilities, but whom Tobin didn’t know about at the time.
“The end result was that I assigned several graduate students to act as his eyes, and the blind professor was able eventually to teach his online course. We had to stop after a few semesters, though, because I discovered that my grad-student solution might have been violating student-privacy laws,” says Tobin. However, this initial “almost failure,” as he calls his first experience trying to help someone with a disability, lighted a spark inside him that led him to look around and ponder: “If it was this hard to help this professor, who are the other people whom we are not serving well?” Rural learners, workers who are unable to attend classes on campus, people with family responsibilities – and not only individuals with disabilities – could be helped.
“That is why, to this day, I don’t talk about accessibility – I talk about access. And that’s what Universal Design for Learning (UDL) does very well,” reveals Tobin. In this in-depth interview, he shares more about his background and why UDL can become a game changer in the education industry.
Using audio, video and text formats helps students with different barriers to learn better. Learn more about the best tools to help you put UDL into practice with your students.
What Does Academic Effectiveness Mean? To Blackboard, academic effectiveness means empowering excellence in teaching and learning. Learn more here
Three Things Faculty Members Should Ask Themselves
How UDL Can Help Answer Them
If you know that students are going to ask you the same question repeatedly, that is a good place to put UDL into practice. When you send an email message to your students, you could also post a video to explain what comes next. The students would then pick one communication method or maybe both, and they would know what’s going on, while saving the faculty member time.
If you give students a written study guide, and you also make an audio version of it, pointing out where there is something students always get wrong in your class, that helps the faculty member avoid re-teaching those concepts.
For such challenging concepts, give them choices on how to consume the content (you can explain it in class, then explain it again in a recorded audio or maybe in plain text) and also choices on how they can demonstrate their skills. If you can grade a paper and an audio podcast in the same way, then you can give them the “plus one” choice, so they feel they have a better sense of control over how they are able to demonstrate their skills. Choices must be limited, so that when you’re grading, you know what you’re looking for and what to expect, as well.
Thomas J. Tobin, Faculty developer, Professional Consultant, Author and International Speaker on quality in distance education.
AFP Ferenc Isza