Accessibility and Flexibility Can Lead to Student Empowerment


In a world of iPads, Chromebooks, learning management systems, and a billion-dollar educational technology industry, it is enticing to use technology tools that promise to improve learner outcomes, ease teaching and learning tasks, or profoundly engage the digital natives in our classrooms. Engagement is a complex concept and something all educators seek to capture. We are often taught that if students are engaged, they are excited and more likely to interact with the concepts, learn, and show their mastery of learning. This sounds simple enough, right? However, engagement is not always as simple to capture, and the term "engagement" itself is a complex one, made up of many layers. Recognizing there are layers, understanding that variability exists in the learning environment, and designing flexible, accessible options to support learner variability is a way to progress through layers of engagement to reach the level even above engagement: empowerment. 

Students are noticeably different in the ways in which they can be excited to learn. Some students enjoy working alone, while others prefer to work in groups. Some thrive with routine, while others prefer change. According to some researchers, our brains are as unique as our fingertips; thus, one-size-fits-all learner experiences will likely fail to engage all. Knowing that all learners have variabilities (variabilities = differences, uniqueness, what makes learners who they are, part of their identity), we can design flexible learning environments through the lens of universal design to better ensure students can participate in the learning experience. 

Conquering Accessibility

One of the quickest ways we can boost engagement in our learning environment is by conquering what one may consider to be the initial layer of student engagement: accessibility. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it is difficult for a student to be excited or motivated in the learning environment if the student has learning materials that do not fit their unique needs, such as amplified audio or sound, closed captions, access to screen-readers, or translation supports. While there is not one means of instruction or technology that will be optimal for all learners in all learning environments, technology can be a powerful tool to provide options for all learners. Our students with IEPs, ILPs, and 504 plans have documented needs for additional support in the learning environment or materials in an accessible modality to their needs; however, other students without a legal document requiring accessibly designed materials may also benefit. The student in the back of the room may benefit from having closed captions available for video if the student is far away from the speaker or cannot see the captions on the screen. The multilingual learner may benefit, too, from closed captions as he is learning a new language. The student who stayed up working late last night to help support her family may benefit from a printed copy of the video transcript and the option to watch the video again via the LMS because she is sleepy and needs to process the content at her own pace. While designing and providing accessible materials following accessibility standards seems simple enough (it is), it can go a long way in minimizing threats and distractions in the learning environment so that all learners feel welcomed, recognized, planned for, and supported. It honors learners' needs and ensures they can engage in the lesson activities without unnecessary barriers. 

Providing Voice and Choice

Providing students with voice and choice is another means to dig into another, upper crust layer of engagement and better excite, motivate, and educate our students. Providing students with voice and choice from the onset, rather than retroactively, allows students to select the tools, learning resources, and learning activities that are most appealing and accessible to them. By providing options to learners, we honor their uniqueness and ultimately follow accessible design principles by recognizing that video may not be the best learning option for all, writing an essay may not be the only way to show understanding, and taking a test is not the only way to measure understanding.

To boost engagement, in addition to designing accessible materials, educators should look at their learning goals and consider where flexible choices can be provided to students to help them show mastery of the goal. This may include rewriting your learning goals to truly identify what you are hoping to measure. For example, if I were a middle school social studies teacher and my students were studying a unit on ancient China, one of my learning goals may be: students will explain the importance of inventions from ancient Chinese dynasties. There are many ways students can show mastery of this goal; why limit it to just one way that may present barriers to learning for some of our students? If I wrote the goal to say students had to explain the importance of the inventions through writing an essay, I have narrowed this lesson down to measuring essays as the sole way of determining mastery, whether I intended to do this or not. Some of my students may be able to create fantastic video projects that demonstrate this learning goal. Others may create graphic novels highlighting the achievements of Chinese dynasties and draw connections to the ongoing use of these inventions in modern times. However, by making my goal tied to the means by which my students must show mastery, I have squashed this creativity, and I'll never get to see the wonderfulness that is graphic novels and video projects. This is a lose-lose for everyone!

When considering engagement in the learning environment, therefore, it is instrumental to think about your goals and where you can provide options. Adding options opens another door to creativity and learning that may be the most exciting for students. By providing options, you also help to ensure that there are barriers to learning removed-such as barriers to mobility, reading, etc., and, again, champion the design of a more accessible environment. Thus, by carefully examining your learning goals, you can truly boost learner engagement. Consider what type of goal is your focus and where you can provide options. If providing a content-focused goal, provide choice in the means by which students show mastery of this goal (activities, projects, outputs). If focusing on a skills-based goal, consider options in the content students include in their output (choice of topic, etc.).

Providing students with accessible resources can help remove barriers to learning by providing students with a resource that supports their unique needs. Providing students with options in learning resources and activities to show their understanding of a learning goal, too, can support engagement by providing learners with flexible, accessible options as well as an outlet that may spark creativity. Both of these considerations dig into the layers of engagement and can help capture student excitement and interest in the learning environment.

Promoting Empowerment

However, engagement does not necessarily promote active involvement or ownership over learning. Consider this example: you go to a movie theater to watch the newest action movie. While in your seat and watching the movie, fully engrossed in the special effects and amazing stunts, you might be completely engaged. The experience of watching the movie, however, is passive. As much as you are into the show, the plot, and the atmosphere, you are not empowered by it. In contrast, consider when you are participating in an activity related to a topic of high interest to you. Perhaps you have seen a problem and felt the need to do something about it. You have been given the power to use whatever tools you choose to act upon your desire. Creating, making, and doing something that makes a point or a difference by educating or engaging others is truly empowering. The experience is personal to you, and because it is personal, you are empowered by your passion and the personal decisions you make along the way in your effort to learn more, do more, and take action around this topic. Participation spawned by internal motivations to do and learn more drives curiosity and promotes active learning. When empowered, students are willing, active participants who take ownership and responsibility for their learning. The Future of Jobs Report 2022 captures survey data from businesses worldwide, and the 2022 survey indicated that future jobs will need flexible thinkers, problem-solvers, and resourceful individuals. We build these skills by giving our students the autonomy to shape and drive their learning experiences and the environment itself. We do this by giving them choices and the opportunity to select for themselves while we coach them along the way. It takes time, and there may be some missteps along the way, as well as willingness to share power, but it is worth it-trust me!

In one of my classes of 7th grade social studies students, one of my students, José, moved to our school mid-year and was quite shy. He loved school but often was quiet in class and was working on his confidence in speaking in English in front of his peers; he spoke Spanish fluently. When José joined our class, I made a conscious effort to ensure all of the videos I provided in class had Spanish subtitles available, as well as the ability to use tools like Immersive Reader to provide picture dictionaries, dictionaries, and translations. I made sure I added more visuals into my materials, too, so that another accessible form of information was available to José. Additionally, I spent time showing him how to use translation tools on his Chromebook, accessibility tools, and text-to-speech features in Canvas LMS. 

In the study hall class I had with him, I noticed he was using the tools in his other classes, not just social studies, because he felt empowered by the option to utilize them. As the year progressed, I also noticed José showing other students how to use the tools, too, often sharing his "hacks" and tips for using the tools in all of his classes. He not only felt empowered to use the tools himself but wanted to support others who may have needed the option. Fast forward several months ahead, and Jose is a much more confident student in class. 

For his final project, José chose to create a digital eBook with a peer. In the eBook, he included text, images of concepts, audio narration, a glossary of terms, and the audio narrations were in both English and Spanish, as were the dictionaries and text. When presenting the project, he even showed his classmates how one could easily translate the whole book into any language they wanted. When talking to José about his project, I asked him what drove his decision to add the different multilingual elements to his project, and he shared that he wanted his family to be able to understand the book he created, specifically his little brother, but he also wanted to create a book that anyone could read.

If I had given José a project where I defined the parameters, he could have possibly come up with a project similar to this, depending on the output I specified; he could have still shown mastery of the learning goal, too. However, I cannot say that by limiting his options in this assignment, he would have felt as empowered to create a product with so much personal significance, meaning, and impact, as what he produced in this one. 
By providing José with the flexible options he needed, the autonomy to use the supportive, accessibility tools he wanted whenever he wanted, and the freedom to show his understanding in a modality he needed, he demonstrated the qualities of an expert learner. He was empowered in the learning environment-not just engaged. 

In the end, wouldn't we all agree we want our students to emerge from their time in school as responsible, empowered individuals? Don't we all want to create learning experiences so that students have that awesome moment and continue to have those moments, like José? Thus, when thinking about student engagement-take it a step further. Think about how the environment can empower students. Think about what barriers you can remove through accessible design and what flexible choices you can give students so that they have valuable co-designing roles in their own education. When you think about learning, think about empowerment first, and everything else—including engaging, transformative learning experiences—will follow!

Hall, T.E., Meyer, A., Rose, D.H. (2010). Universal design for learning in the classroom: Practice applications. CAST publications.

Knudson, K.C. (2022, October 18). How UDL prepares students with the necessary skills needed for tomorrow’s workforce. Novak education.

Rose, D. (2012, May 7). Transforming education with universal design for learning. The White House Blog.

World Economic Forum (2022, May). Jobs of tomorrow: The triple returns of social jobs in the economic recovery. World economic forum. 

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