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How Technologies Designed for ‘Specific Learning Needs’ Are Helping Everyone

By: Danielle Chazen
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University of Notre Dame holds the highest four-year graduation rate in the country at 93%. However, the traditional four-year degree, one-size-fits-all college experience no longer holds up for most students in today’s climate. For institutions to remain competitive, they often need to break free from predictable molds. Many students are no longer enrolling in 12 and 18 credit hour semesters consecutively. 

While Notre Dame, Babson College and University of Chicago continue to see amazing four-year graduation rates, a significant number of today’s students aren’t doing all eight semesters in a row. At AST, we’re seeing that colleges which don’t offer flexible methods for learning and look for opportunities to customize the experience for those enrolled are continuing to see enrollment and graduation numbers dwindle.

Rather, institutions which are reconsidering their offerings, adding more technologies into the experience and engaging diverse students with varying needs in multiple ways will be primed for greater success.

woman sitting on a sofa working on her laptop on her lap

Students learn differently & expect education to reflect that

This notion isn’t a new concept. However, the shift to remote and online learning tested the waters on all of the different ways education could be delivered to account for diverse student needs. Institutions that continue to take these learnings into account well past the pandemic are going to be the ones retaining their students.

With this notion of considering diversity in learning styles, which is often referred to as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in mind, institutions are creating more inclusive environments.

In the past, offering different ways to communicate course information and customize offerings would only happen after students with varying learning abilities made formal requests for accommodations. These accommodations were then made in order to comply with the law. Most of the time, technologies and in-person note takers were brought in for the assist. However, now research is demonstrating that many of the technologies which were implemented for specific accommodations to be made, such as accessibility for learners who were Deaf or hard of hearing, are actually empowering the entire student body to succeed.

As more institutions take on the mentality of enlisting more education technology into the process as a standard, they’ll see a dramatic impact on the sense of inclusion as a result. Adopting more technologies and inclusive practices, which were once thought of only for specific students who made requests with the disability services departments, is helping institutions recognize greater retention and graduation rates across the board.

Additionally, institutional leaders who are rethinking practices to make them more inclusive are able to better support the many students with disabilities who aren’t coming forward and reporting their needs to their institutions.

Why UDL is so important

It probably comes as little surprise that no two brains are the same. Neuro-variability is a critical concept for education sector leaders to take into account. The UDL framework is driving more universities to consult instructional designers and not just provide accommodations for those with disabilities, but deliver experiences that meet different learning styles from the get-go. This mentality also plays in to the idea to support students with disabilities who as mentioned often aren’t coming forward.

UDL is about conveying information and engaging learners in a variety of ways. Institutions which are adopting UDL practices are seeing increases in retention. For example, providing captions on videos shown throughout a course won’t just help a student with a reported disability. Instead, these captions will offer all students an additional way to engage with the content by not only seeing it and hearing it, but reading the dialogue too. 

“UDL gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn and provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution, but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs,” according to the Center for Applied Special Technology.

Designing courses with UDL principles means all learners stand a stronger chance of retaining information in a way that speaks to them, which increases their chances of high academic performance. 

If you deep-dive into the concept of recording and captioning courses and university events as an example, you could look at these solutions as a way to help all of the following students regardless of disabilities alone:

  • International students who are non-native speakers who can benefit from an additional visual aid
  • Students who struggle with note taking and can benefit from the ability to rewatch content
  • Learners who lack access to Wi-Fi and other resources which prevents their ability to join live in certain environments 
  • Students with children or full-time jobs who cannot study or consume content with the audio on at times

Data uncovered by Crosling, Thomas and Heagney in 2008 is still sourced often even now, which plays into UDL. The idea was that interactive materials can better engage all students faced with daily challenges and environmental factors  —not just those with disabilities. Offering them more ways to engage with their educational materials and experience campus life simply helps to take away existing barriers to their success.

Going outside of the classroom itself

It’s important to understand that UDL considerations should be made outside of the four classroom walls or Zoom room as well. Captions and additional technologies which are often implemented in courses alone can help these students have better interactions in other areas of the student experience as well.

Whether it’s sports events, guest lectures, fundraising activities with speeches, college podcasts and more, more are considering how students with disabilities and the entire student campus can participate in them.

When technology, accommodations and options for choice are delivered in these many scenarios, every student can participate in the way that suits them best. The ability to personalize the experience to their unique needs will help them to connect with these experiences and therefore your institution on a greater level. Plus, accommodations for many of these outside experiences are also needed to meet ADA guidelines when formal requests are made by students and for public-facing events.

students listening in a class with their laptops on a long table

Stats on ed-tech solutions like captions helping everyone

While these ideas may sound nice or flowery, there is substantial research to back up how solutions like live post-production captioning and transcripts for note taking can benefit all students who are exposed to them. An amazing study was done by San Francisco State University and Robert Keith Collins, its assistant professor in the College of Ethnic Studies to showcase this idea.

Collins uncovered that test scores and student comprehension improved significantly when learners used captions while watching videos. This two-year long study began with finding a baseline for student comprehension. Collins then started offering captions and marked the changes he noticed in the performance of learners.

“Not only were students talking about how much having the captions helped them as they took notes, their test scores went up,” he said. “During the baseline year, there were a lot of Cs. In the second years, they went from Cs, Ds and Fs to As, Bs and Cs.”

With the exposure to captions, Collins said discussions among students became more lively too. The learners were able to remember specific details from videos and comprehension had improved.

“Our students are so distracted by technology that they sometimes forget where they should focus their attention when engaged with technology or media,” Collins continued. “Turning on captions seems to enable students to focus on specific information.”

In fact, the class average when exposed to captions was 7.18% higher. A full GPA point increase was also seen when students watched course video with captions.

woman on a table with her laptop and a mic

Oregon State University research backed this idea up

An additional study conducted by SIGCSE looked at the performance of learners in a computer class who were consuming captioned video as well. 

Some students watched videos with captions and some without captions. SIGCSE found that those who used captions said it helped “reinforce video material, maintain focus, and enhance comprehension.”

Then, Oregon State University’s Ecampus Research Unit polled 2,000 students at 15 US universities. They saw that disabilities aside, a majority of students were opting to use closed captions. 90% of those students who were using captions said they were at least moderately helpful in the learning experience.

OSU also saw that:

  • 14.6% find that captions help them retain video information when studying
  • 35% often or always use closed captioning when it’s available
  • Students who did not report disabilities were using captions almost as frequently as those with reported disabilities – more than 50% were using them sometimes or more often, while about 10% were using them less than those with reported disabilities.

Greater research on this concept

USFSP’s Distance Learning Accessibility Committee also took it upon itself to see what if any benefits came about when offering students with and without disabilities captions on their media content.

They analyzed 241 students enrolled in a course which was captioned and compared it to the 334 students who enrolled in the course prior to it being captioned. Then, they surveyed 66 students for more findings.

They found that 13% of respondents had a disability, but only 6% of them were registered with disability services. This discrepancy is true for most institutions, highlighting another reason that proactively providing solutions like captions makes sense to help those who may be struggling silently. 

In this study, 99% of the students surveyed said captions helped them. 49% of them went as far as to say they were ‘extremely helpful.’

USFSP’s work showcased that captions were helping students in several ways, including:

  • Environmental challenges: “The closed caption helped when viewing [sic] the videos at home, because I have small children and at times they can be loud. The closed caption allowed me to read when I could not hear what was being said” and “Helped me because it’s not my first language. It was extremely helpful and I took tons of notes.”
  • Understanding: “They clarified any misunderstandings or miscommunications. Made the information easier to learn because I am more of a visual learner.” 
  • Niche terminology: “If the professor said a word I didn’t understand I’d go back and read the caption, there were many legal terms that I did not know of and the captions helped me learn how to spell them.”
  • Notes: “They helped because when I was taking notes I was able to pause the video and use the captions rather than rewind and repeat the video.

What to take away from all of this intel

Instructional designers and advocates for UDL are getting more buy-in from university stakeholders. While budgets always come into play, far fewer are disputing the impact that technologies once deemed to assist with access for those with disabilities can have on all students, as they learn in different ways.

Captions and additional technologies not only will continue to deliver access to those with learning disabilities who need them, but are being offered proactively at growing rates. These solutions are also helping to solve one of the primary challenges universities today are facing: engagement. Keeping students engaged in their courses, in campus events and student life is a surefire way to increase their chances of retention.

While solutions like AST’s captions are being used by universities globally to support the need to meet ADA regulations and avoid lawsuits when disabilities are reported, leaders are rethinking their impact on student comprehension and retention overall. The universities which continue to offer students greater learning options and flexibility within their courses and in their degree programs will surely see higher retention and graduation rates.