UDL in Higher Education: Can Tech Help Create Belonging?
Universal Design is all around us. It makes sure that products and environments are usable to all people, by design. If we want all learners to succeed - we need to ensure that we are continuing their supports into higher education as well as k through 12. This bonus episode, Our host Joni Degner will be recapping a discussion on Can Tech help create belonging? That took place over on Think UDL (hosted by Lillian Nave) with Rachel Kruzel, Higher Education Specialist at Texthelp.
Joni Degner (00:00:12):
Welcome to a new season of the Texthelp Talks podcast, your space online to listen, learn and explore accessibility and inclusion. Make sure you're subscribed through your preferred podcast player streaming service so that you never miss an episode. I'm Joni Degner from Texthelp and I'll be guiding us through season two where we'll be talking about all things universal design, a topic that I'm very passionate about, and we'll be breaking down some of the myths, taking a deep dive into the Universal Design for Learning framework, as well as hearing about the impact of inclusivity by design from lived experiences.
During this bonus episode, we'll be listening to a conversation on can tech help create belonging? A discussion that took place over on ThinkUDL, one of our Texthelp's partners. The discussion really digs deep into how tech helps, hinders and relates to accessibility, inclusion and belonging but also how technology can be a catalyst for change. You'll be hearing from ThinkUDL's host, Lillian Nave, a senior lecturer in first year seminar and Universal Design for Learning coordinator at the Center for Academic Excellence at Appalachian State University. Lillian is joined by Rachel Kruzel, a higher education specialist here at Texthelp, with vast experience in higher ed institutions, building assistive tech programs, digital accessibility and accessible course materials around note-taking and assessment.
After their chat, you'll return to me. We'll all give you one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about. Without further ado, let's roll into their insightful conversation.
Lillian Nave (00:01:56):
Thank you, Rachel, for joining me today and spending your time with me on the ThinkUDL podcast. I'm glad to have you.
Rachel Kruzel (00:02:03):
I'm glad to be here today.
Lillian Nave (00:02:05):
Yes. I have some questions. So a lot of things I want to talk to you about because of your scope in dealing with a lot of higher ed institutions and accessibility and inclusion and belonging, but before I get there, I wanted to ask you my favorite question, which is what makes you a different kind of learner?
Rachel Kruzel (00:02:26):
I had to think on this one a little bit, just thinking back to learning as an adult, learning as a student, and what I've come to learn about myself is I comprehend any type of auditory information way better when I have it in writing in front of me. Whether that's interview questions, I think back to job interviews like having them printed in front of me helps tremendously to help comprehend and understand. I think about trainings, webinars, even sitting in a lecture as a student. Having something printed just helps me comprehend it that much better.
I think back to all of the inclusion work that's been done on campuses around transcripts and captions that are just part of the curriculum now, how much of a game changer that would have been when I was a student 20 years ago in college, for example, and how that just would have made a huge difference. I would've been able to comprehend more, and not that I was a struggling learner, but just those things help everybody, not just those that are struggling.
Lillian Nave (00:03:24):
Absolutely. As I do, every time I interview someone, I have a notepad where I just keep writing and it helps me to process, so I know exactly what you're talking about and I have to write down a couple of keywords. But I remember when I was teaching art history, I would have students who would use that paper and doodle, and I remember thinking, being offended actually because I didn't know what I was thinking and didn't know what I was doing when I was 24 and teaching art history, and they were doodling and I thought, "What are these people" ... I didn't understand that that's just another way to process what's going on. How people take in information can be so different. And it took me a long time to figure out, oh, they're just doing the same thing I'm doing, except they need to write something different than I need to write. I would much rather have captions now for everything. It's just a different world that we have that accessibility for.
Rachel Kruzel (00:04:33):
Well, I think about professionals even at conferences or in meetings that I see pull out their knitting needles, and some people are so offended by that and it's like, no, they're just processing. That's how they process. They need something to keep their hands busy, something to help them focus their attention. That isn't the speaker necessarily. And that's true for any learner these days too, anytime that we are processing and intaking information.
Lillian Nave (00:04:53):
Yes. And I'm reminded to make space for that and to provide that flexibility so that I'm not stopping my students or people listening from learning because they have to process in their own way. Great. All right. So we'll just keep writing and processing during our interview. So you've worked on and with a lot of universities over the years, and I wanted to ask you to start off with who are the students that you're serving? What is included when you describe today's diverse campus? If I put those two words in quotation marks, what is a diverse campus? Because you've seen quite a few and worked with a lot.
Rachel Kruzel (00:05:37):
I have. I've been lucky enough to work with tons of universities and colleges throughout my tenure. I started my career 10, 12 years ago working in disability resource offices when they were very much that reactionary accommodations, working mostly with students with disabilities. But really given the work that I was doing around assistive technology and thinking that bigger scope outside the institution, or within the institution outside of my office is what I should say, there were things around assistive technology that we learned in the mid 2010, 2014, 2015 where assistive technology was good really for any learner that there were benefits for anybody.
And so my work started to bring me outside of just the disability resource office then really became the push for digital accessibility, working institutionally on those type of initiatives. Then being lucky enough to, because of that work being so innovative at the time, working in the state of Minnesota and then in the Midwest around these initiatives and getting to get outside of just my institution but those neighboring institutions as well. And then working eventually nationally with AHEAD, for example, and being able to work with all of these different schools across the country and working alongside them and learning from them and networking.
And because of that, really having this ability to see campuses as this lens more holistically, not just these learners with disabilities in this single office that I've worked with but really nationally. And now in my role here, what I'm doing, being able to see that again from a more assistive technology, digital accessibility lens. When we think about disability resource offices, the staff that are working in those offices are primarily working with those students that are coming to that office saying, "I have a disability and I need accommodations and support," which is great, but that's typically 10%, 12% of a college campus. Maybe if you're pretty innovative, pretty getting the word out there, you're getting maybe 15% of students coming to your office if you've really broken down some of those stigmas around support and having a disability.
But you've got this whole other population of students on your campus that fit into all these other diverse categories essentially. We think about students who have a disability but aren't coming to the disability resource office or accessibility resource office for a variety of reasons. They don't know about it. They don't want to because of the stigma. Culturally, they can't say that they have a disability even though they know that that's probably what's going on. That's anywhere from another nine to 12% of students on campus.
Then we get into the student population of students who maybe have a disability but aren't diagnosed with one for a variety of reasons. Again, culturally, financially or they aren't diagnosed but not diagnosed with the right diagnosis or they've got multiple diagnoses. So that's an additional group of students.
Now with this big push nationally around neurodiversity, that's anywhere from 11% to 33% of our student population that's being considered neurodiverse.
So slowly, we start building up these groups of learners that have a disability or fit into that group of learners. But then even more widely when we think about diversity and inclusion, we've got those learners that are coming from different cultural backgrounds, different socioeconomic status backgrounds, different racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds. And then just even on top of that, the preparedness level of students coming in, students who right now, three years in COVID learning online, what is their preparedness level coming in? What are their life experiences that are bringing them to the table?
So disability is a huge part of any campus population. It's in the fabric. It's who campuses are. There's so much richness. But again, we can start to think more broadly of really who these students are and we really need to be understanding that, recognizing that, giving space for that, honoring that and making sure that when we are creating our classrooms, when we are creating our learning spaces and our campuses, we're making sure that we're taking into account all of this diversity. Diversity isn't going away. It's growing every year with our learners coming in between, within, amongst them, and we just need to know that that's where we're at. That's today. That's tomorrow. That's months and years to come, and we need to be making sure that what we're doing, we're supporting these learners really as they are no matter what population, what intersectionality they're coming into campus with.
Lillian Nave (00:10:07):
Yeah. Your answer to the first question about wanting to see the questions written and as you're hearing them makes me think about that last category as you were broadening out students who come from a different cultural or specifically a language background. So how important and how helpful it would be if you're listening to a lecture and you come across a new word that might be within the context of this subject matter, chemistry or something that you are unfamiliar with, but you wouldn't even know how to spell it. So if you had the correct name for this chemical compound, you could actually go stop the video or go back and find out what that answer is. And that could be for somebody who speaks English as a native speaker, but imagine even so much better that we got somebody from a different cultural or ethnic background.
And I say a different cultural background too because I found that I use phrases or different analogies and realize that my students, who are now my children, I have three children all in some form of college right now, and they'll laugh at me like, "Mom, that doesn't mean what you think it means," or, "What are you even talking about?" And realize that I'm using a metaphor or some cultural reference that doesn't make any sense. And to be able to look that up or to be able to have a way to investigate that further means my students aren't just sitting there lost in a lecture. What does this even mean or how does this connect to?
And I'm now starting to really pay attention to that. So when I talk to faculty that are in other countries, which I've done before, I'll ask them, I said, "Do you know" ... And they're teaching English, so English is their subject matter. And I've had the great fortune to work with some Fulbright fellows who go back to their home countries all over the world and teach English. And I give them five different phrases and ask them, "Do you know what this means, if I ask you to put your John Hancock on this?" And I said, "Well, in the US, many people, at least my generation, would know that means put your signature on something," but they had never heard of it and it's very confusing.
Just realizing that there are barriers that sometimes we don't even know we're creating. And even just having that accessibility that a transcript that a student can go back and look further into it or even now write an email and say, "You said this during lecture, and I'm not sure exactly what this means." We just didn't have that 20 years ago. I couldn't go back and get the spelling of something that I didn't quite understand.
Rachel Kruzel (00:13:09):
Well, I think about my work, working with students, being this hub of support on campus. When I did work on campuses in disability resource office, we had innovative faculty on campus or ones that were so in tune with student support that would bring some of their international students or those students who were here to learn from another country, English learners, for example, or even just struggling learners who came to us and said, "What can you do to support this learner?" We had some barriers because again, we were charged with supporting learners with disabilities on our campus. That's what we were doing. We had to be careful that we weren't making accommodations for learners without disabilities given our role. But also, those faculty were really pushing the bounds saying, "I'm noticing that this student is learning differently and I know that what you're giving these learners with disabilities would benefit these other learners that are in my classroom."
And so a lot of the conversations we would try to have with them would be around, "Well, are there things you can do that would support this learner or any learner?" If they're coming, saying, "Hey, I think this student would benefit from a comprehension standpoint to have a little bit more time on their tests, like your learners who maybe have learning disability or executive functioning or disability that impacts executive functioning. Can you do that here for this student?" No, we can't, but can't you just build that into your classroom? Can't you just give students as much time as they need or give students a transcript? Or can you just turn on closed captioning type? There's things that we can do and build that in from the ground up. That again can help every learner from the Universal Design for Learning perspective.
Lillian Nave (00:14:43):
Right. Oh my, goodness. You're totally moving me into this next question. In fact, you started to answer it, but I'm still going to ask you for more about so what are some of these successful ways you've seen campuses create a culture of accessibility? But I'm even going to push further because I do talk a lot about accessibility on this podcast, but I'm really interested in how that moves into inclusion and belonging because that's where I really want us to be, and I think UDL helps a campus to get there. So what are some successful ways that you've seen?
Rachel Kruzel (00:15:17):
Yeah, there's a variety of different things that I'm seeing going on, on campuses and have historically as well. I think first and foremost, there will always be a need for the current time for us to be reacting and supporting learners with disabilities in some type of a disability or accessibility resource office. We haven't moved the needle enough from a systemic level to be able to say there's no need for that.
Lillian Nave (00:15:36):
Rachel Kruzel (00:15:37):
So having a robust office with enough resources for students with disabilities, to be able to have that there, to get the support they need, to get those accommodations in a timely manner. And likewise, from a more inclusive perspective, making sure that there are offices on campus for those other learners based on the diversity of needs that they have, whether they're international students, students who might be struggling just from an academic preparedness perspective, students who might be on probation because of poor grades one semester, things like that. Having those offices that students (a) can go to, but then also making students aware that they're there to get that support that they need is really going to be key.
One of the things I hear all the time when working with providers in student support offices is we're being pushed to do more with less, and we don't have the resources financially or student personnel wise. And one of the things that I really try to work with them on is there are resources on your campus just around making a case for that and getting allies to help you make the case to say, "We need more resources." And being able to provide data and reports as to why this is, as well as being able to provide impact statements from students saying, "By having the opportunity to work with these offices, this is what it means to me as a student. This is the type of support I'm getting." So I think that's really one way.
Traditionally, our instructional designers, our faculty training have been really focused on Universal Design for Learning, inclusive pedagogy, one working with faculty, whether it's in-person classrooms, whether it's online, those hybrid classes that are so popular right now for students, but making sure that faculty are attending these trainings, making that something that's mandatory. I know that it can be challenging to have faculty join these things with all of the commitments that they're doing, but knowing that being on the cutting edge or learning something from a training that you can bring back to your classroom to meet your students where they're at, given the diversity of the population of students that's coming in, is really going to be a game changer. By you working with students in a way that's going to, again, support them, they're going to look back at that faculty and say, "Wow. That faculty really cared about me. They really get me. They get my classmates. They get where we're coming from."
So I think that's really key. And some of that is around, again, that UDL, just more inclusive pedagogy, but also from a digital accessibility standpoint as well. There are things that faculty can do with a little bit of training to make their classrooms that much more accessible for students with disabilities and inclusive for everyone else. There are campuses that are doing huge amounts of works, leaps and bounds around digital accessibility right now, huge initiatives, lots of staff, lots of resources towards this. They know either from the legal perspective they need to be doing that, but also from a sort of it's the smart thing to do. It's the right thing to do. These learners, these staff are on our campuses. We need to be making things accessible.
We see schools who are in a very different place, just dipping their toes in the water on this, but what I would say is even tiny steps on digital accessibility, even some small, little low-hanging fruit can really make a difference on campus and get you some of that momentum to get that work moving forward and to build interest and to get supporters around this as well.
Likewise, some of these larger accessibility initiatives like we've been talking about captioning and transcripts and what a difference that can make, that's going to be huge for learners no matter who they are. Even small things, PDF files, making sure that they're optical character recognized at a minimum when they're being posted online so students can interact with that in a way that works best for them to be able to interact with that PDF. Have assistive technology available for learners or, again, we know that ET that's out there, a lot of these educational technology tools can really support any learner.
The other thing we're really seeing right now is these diversity, equity and inclusion offices. We've really realized in the last handful of years the necessity for having an office like this or a person on campus who is really paying attention to this, again as a result of the history but also who our learners are that are coming to our campuses. We know that diversity fuels innovation and it brings different voices to the classroom and to our environments and our workplaces and it's always a positive thing. And so now, we have people who are really being tasked at making sure that the institution is being inclusive and is being equitable.
What we find a lot of times is that these professionals or these offices tend to be well resourced. They have the backing of the board, the senior leadership, and they have some influence on campus to get work done around this, which I think is really key. And they have the ability to bring people together around this, people who are more so working independently of each other or trying to do what they do on a day-to-day basis, but they have the ability to really look at this from a top-down approach.
One of the things that I wish that we could do more of is have disability really be prominent in these DEI initiatives. Right now, they're working on so many different things, so many different groups of individuals who fit under the DEI umbrella, but we see so often that disability gets overlooked or isn't included as prevalently compared to these other groups, but yet it's a huge part of our population like we were talking about, somewhere upwards of 33% of our individuals on campus have a disability or being considered neurodiverse, and that's a huge number of their population. So if we can get more of that work spearheaded under DEI offices to get some of that momentum and those resources, getting those voices at the table, I think it can really shape campuses in an important way.
Lillian Nave (00:21:32):
Yeah. A lot of the things you just mentioned has a lot to do with money. Like you said, can we get more data? When you're talking about doing more with less, we need to support these offices and you need more resources. I know funding models for different state institutions, and I'm not sure how all the private schools work, but you lose revenue when the student fails out. And if you don't have a good graduation rate, your bottom line, sadly, we have to think about this, is worse off.
And so when we actually fund these initiatives and fund a disability office that's not just disability services but maybe a disability cultural center to flip the script and make it more positive and have a higher profile on campus, neurodiversity brought to the DEI initiatives. I've heard many people say it's not really a DEI initiative if you're not including neurodiversity. But when these different areas are funded where they have the staff and they have the right people, well, I hate to say that, but the people in charge who can do this are giving resources to it. It actually works out better for students and it works out better for the university because we have higher retention, students are passing more classes. So that DFW rate, which is you get a D or fail or withdraw, that goes down. It creates a more equitable learning environment.
So a lot of the disparities between let's say well-prepared students and under-prepared students, the gap is closed when we are adding even these small things like digital accessibility, captions and transcripts and readable PDFs. So that when I used to get a paper packet, that's what you got. There was no digital, but some of those paper packets just became pretty much a picture on a screen and then you can't read that. The computer can't read that because it's pretty much a picture. It's gotten so much better now. Many of them are. But even just paying attention to that.
It seems like it's the wrong thing to think about the money, but in essence, it fixes the problems to invest in this area. And then you're not having to recruit new students because you still have the same students that you have, and then they become successful and also helps our students because nobody wants to go to two years of school, incur debt and not have a diploma at the end. That's just not a good result at all. It happens too much in this day and age.
Rachel Kruzel (00:24:41):
And that's really what students are on campus for. Ultimately, they're there to get a degree, to gain skills, to learn something. And if you work in education, that should be why you're there. That's part of your why, is making sure these students are getting through school, ultimately they graduate, they're persisting, they're retaining, they're passing their classes. And again, we don't want to make it success-based like K-12 when we're talking about higher education, but can we make it such that these students have the ability to learn, to show what they know and ultimately get through to ultimately where they want to go, which is graduation to take those skills with them. So what can we do as campuses? What can we do as groups on campus, offices, faculty that are going to meet those students where they're at to help them ultimately get to their end goal? That's key.
And then that does tie back to everything you just said around pension and resources and recruitment and enrollment, which is a whole other-
Lillian Nave (00:25:41):
Oh, boy. Yes.
Rachel Kruzel (00:25:42):
... topic right now in higher education with the enrollment that's been looming for years and is now officially here.
Lillian Nave (00:25:48):
Yeah. So fewer and fewer students are going to be enrolling in higher ed and colleges don't know what to do because so much of the funding basis is based on enrollment and growing your classes. And now, there was a dearth of births about 18 years ago, so we're going to need to find more students or do something differently. And I say we're finding something different. Yeah.
Rachel Kruzel (00:26:14):
We are. It's one of the top five priorities that boards and college presidents and senior leadership are worried about. When you look at any of those organizations out there that work with higher ed that do these analyses every year, it's enrollment, and with that comes again student support and retention of students. They all go hand in hand. We have to be doing something different, otherwise we're never going to survive as institutions and campuses. And a lot of that I feel like feeds back into this conversation we're having of meeting our students where we're at and recognizing who these students are that are coming to our campuses and making sure that the resources are there to ultimately support them in what they're looking to do, which is again, gain skills, learn, persist and ultimately graduate.
Lillian Nave (00:26:57):
Yeah. So many of the things you mentioned about disability offices, diversity offices, even programs you said to support students with executive function. I see a growing number of supportive programs for students who are degree seeking who have autism, who are autistic, so having programs like that to help students persist. And that is a lot of the social parts. And so many of this is social identity groups and things like that.
In the last couple of years, especially when I've been doing a lot of work about online teaching, excellence and things like that, learning about something called the community of inquiry model, which looks at three parts of a course, and there's a social presence. And so it just means that on an online course, you know that there's actual real people, that your teacher is a real person, your instructor is, the other students are real people in the class, that you're actually having this intellectual but social discussion.
And then there's the teaching presence. So are you attentive? Are you giving feedback, that sort of thing, as the instructor?
And then the cognitive presence, which is the last part there, which is are you connecting with the actual material? We often just think of just that one, the material. Here's the material. Get it in your heads. And we forget that teaching presence as the facilitator or the instructor, the sage on the stage or the guide on the side, whatever it's going to be. But the groundwork is, the very beginning, the building block and the foundation is the social presence.
So if you've got students who feel disconnected and unsupported and they feel like they don't belong, then they're not going to persist and they're not going to graduate, all these things. And I think we've forgotten how important that social part of even being a college campus is that, yes, that community of inquiry works for a college course, but I'm pulling it out to the whole campus. There has to be a social identity and a social belonging, sense of belonging. Otherwise, why do we even have a campus at all? Right? Why do we even need to be there? It could just be take these classes from home, that sort of thing. We have such a diverse group of students now. We need to be really supporting and creating these spaces where they feel ... like everybody feels like they belong. Everybody wants to belong.
Rachel Kruzel (00:29:32):
Well, I think back to the students I've worked with and they come in at the end of a semester, they'd come in the middle of a semester and they'd say, "Rachel, this faculty just gets me. I'm just really connecting." Or you hear time and time again, the faculty whose name just bubble up to the surface, and I can name six, 10, 12 of them off the top of my head right now at the institutions I worked with where students would just say, "Oh, they're the best faculty." And you'd ask them what it was, and it was that social connection, that feeling like I'm cared about that faculty wants me to succeed. This is something that I had known for years, working in higher ed and that we would just hear all the time.
But a student who connects with at least one adult on a college campus really feels heard, really feels listened to, whether that's a professional support staff member, whether that's a faculty member, it doesn't matter who it is. As long as they have one person where they really feel supported and heard and valued by, that student is more likely to succeed every semester, to pass their classes, to persist and then ultimately graduate.
And so I think if we sit and think about that as professionals, as faculty on campus, that if I can make sure that every student that I'm working with feels connected, whether it's with me or with somebody else, ultimately, again, it goes back to that student is going to work their way through college and ultimately get to that end goal of graduation. And that's something I always thought about when I was working with students. Am I showing up for students, giving them the support that they need, or are we getting them the resources and getting them to somebody else who can be that person?
Lillian Nave (00:31:04):
Rachel Kruzel (00:31:04):
That's for me, I feel like.
Lillian Nave (00:31:06):
Yeah. So we're talking about ... You've listed a bunch of all these things that are helpful for identity groups, Office of Disability Services or a cultural center, our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, our chief diversity officer. So we've got all these various parts on campus, which you and I have both worked on college campuses. Those tend to be siloed, meaning it's got a little fence and a nice little yard around each office. So what do you suggest how, what ways, how can all these various siloed parts of campus come together in a more systematic way to better support our learners?
Rachel Kruzel (00:31:50):
Yeah. Siloing I feel like is one of the biggest hindrances in moving a college campus forward, and it's not necessarily anyone's fault, fault. It's not something we're intentionally doing. There are some schools across the country that are doing a great job working across offices. They just have this cultural collaboration and these silos really have been broken down historically, but there are so many that I work with that you're so stuck in your silo because you're just trying to get through a day and you're just trying to support the learners that you're doing that you don't have time to get out. And that's something I hear all the time, is, "Rachel, I don't have time to get out of my day-to-day work and do that bigger work on campus. I know it's going to be useful. I know it's going to be beneficial, and this is the fun work. This is why I got into this, is really moving the needle and creating systemic change. But then you get the butt of laundry list of all these other things that you're doing."
And so when I work with schools, I very much recognize this. I understand it. I very much am like, "I've been in your shoes. I've been in those weeks where literally it's back to back to back students. There's not even time to have lunch or to run on the hall and do what you need to do type of thing." But I really push them on two things. One, advocating for those resources like we talked about. Ultimately, if you can get those resources that you are needing, you're going to be able to do that more systemic work, again, if you have the funding to be able to have those resources, to have the right amount of staffing. And that doesn't come overnight.
That comes with lots of advocacy and lots of, like we talked about, making a case and not taking no for an answer and continuing to really push and show with data that this is what supporting students looks like in our office. If we had X, Y, Z, this is how it would be different and we're going to better support our learners. And then also with that comes the time and the ability to do that more systemic work, to break down those silos, to work across campus with these other offices.
The second thing I really push with them, which is easier said than done, I fully admit, is really making the time. And you're putting on your calendar that these two hours on Wednesday afternoon or Friday morning from 10:00 to noon until lunchtime, that is my dedicated time every week of working on these more systemic issues on campus. And this can start very simply of just meeting with offices, seeing what's going on, being able to see how can I help you, you help me, and what we're doing, and really breaking down these silos and starting to do this more systemic work.
Again, I hear all the time, is, "I don't have time for anything outside my office. My students have priorities. I can't give up any more time." But what professionals know and what we see is that if we can take a couple of hours a week or an afternoon once a month to really push these wider campus initiatives, while it's maybe two or four hours a month or a week or whatever, you're going to see that return come back exponentially over time. And what we see is when we're able to get these more systemic student supports across campus or, again, these wider initiatives where we're working with other offices from a top-down approach, we see a lot of times that the amount of reactive work we're doing on campus around accommodations or around student support, if it's just built into the fabric, it actually lessens that load. It lessens that work that we're doing.
So yeah, it's going to take more work upfront and it's going to change how you do your work, but ultimately, it's going to better support our students. Now that we've got these wider initiatives around digital accessibility, now that we've got these cultural centers, now that we've got these people in positions of leadership around diversity, equity and inclusion. I think if you can be a leader or if you can start the charge, if we can get these people all at the table together and say, "How can we work across campus because what you're doing here is similar to what I'm doing here? Why would we keep doing the same thing in our own little silos when we can partner and actually maybe save time or work collaboratively on this and ultimately push campus forward?"
But again, I think that takes the resources and it also takes honoring that time. It's going to be better for our students. It's going to be better for our campus. It's going to take us further, faster, farther, and ultimately, be better for all of us to be innovative to support our learners.
Lillian Nave (00:36:18):
Yeah. It's the same thing that I hear, now you're talking systemically, but as a UDL practitioner, it's extra work at the front end but it makes the back end so much better. It makes my teaching life easier when I can design for this. So this is just campus design to get this accessibility, get the connections going. That social part is going to help all of our students and our offices and our people to better serve our students, and then everybody is successful in their goals, in essence.
Okay. So you work with tech. So I'm going to start asking you some technology questions. We talked about the social part, like people just getting out and having lunch and getting to know each other and creating these connections. But how can technology then be a catalyst and perhaps not a hindrance, because that happens too, to support our learners? What ideas do you have around that?
Rachel Kruzel (00:37:27):
Yeah. As you said, I've been working with tech for 13 years of my life in a higher education setting, in an educational setting. This comes with the knowledge of we live in a tech-centric world. Tech runs our life, like our cell phones, our wearables, our whole day. There's not a piece of our day where technology isn't infused in it. And so when people talk about, well, why would we use technology as a catalyst to support our learners? It's like, well, why wouldn't we? We use it everywhere else in our day-to-day life. Why wouldn't we consider this a key way of supporting our learners? And that's something that always boggles my brain when we get pushback from people around implementing technology to support learners. Why wouldn't we? There are so many things we do on a daily basis where technology supports us and helps us to be more effective and more efficient.
We've known for the history of assistive technology, which is my background, that technology can help individuals with disabilities. We've known what's good for some. A lot of times, it ends up being good for all. This then throughout history came the blurring of that line of assistive technology becoming just educational technology. Again, that was good pedagogy to have that happened in the last five to 10 years or so. And because of that, there's a huge market for this now in the technology space. Tools that can support the way that we learn, the way that we complete work, the way we read, the way we write, the way ... any of those things. We know that it's good for learners who have different disabilities, but it's also good for that diversity as well.
My background is mostly working with students with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, mental health disorders. I think about this from the basic type of technology that I worked with students on every day, some type of literacy support or text to speech. So it's no wonder now that I work for a company that does support and provide this technology across the world to learners because we believe, we know, we've seen the studies that these types of technology that's going to read aloud a passage for a student, whether they're reading a textbook, they're reading a test question, they're reading an article online, a journal article. It's going to help with comprehension. It's going to help with the ability for them to learn more effectively, more efficiently.
Being able to have things like dictation, and so many people take advantage of their dictation tools that are on their phones or on the computer. And that again, goes back to being a piece of assistive technology that we've just ubiquitously adopted as a society because it's more effective. It supports people when they're learning. Executive functioning tools, being able to have organizational support. To-do lists online, being able to regulate time management.
The list goes on and on of all of these different tools that if we stop and think about how they intersect with our daily lives, they're there and they're supporting us. So why wouldn't we provide these to our learners if we know that it's going to help them be a better student, if it's going to support them? It's not a question of if a student is going to struggle sometime in their educational career. It's a matter of when, and why wouldn't we proactively provide tools to learners so that they can self-select and say, "I'm struggling today. I need this extra support. This is a better way for me to learn this content or to create content to show what I know." Why wouldn't we make that investment if it's ultimately going to help our students that are coming to our campuses?
Lillian Nave (00:41:03):
Yeah, we need to. And everything is tech. It used to be you write with a slate and a piece of chalk, and that was tech, and then paper comes around and wait a second. You don't know how to use a chalk and slate. We need to make sure we did it the same way we used to. And this just keeps getting better and better, and we can do so much more. And I find often my students can teach me a lot about how I can better use tech just like my college-aged children often have to do, and I can get so much more done. It makes me a better teacher the more we can embrace it.
So my next question, I might want to open up a little bit about how can faculty work with and embrace this technology to create, this is the end, we want a more equitable learning environment, just like you said? But the new thing that we are dealing with lately are things like AI, artificial intelligence, and programs that can now spit out papers for students. Whoa. And if you want, they could write my lesson plan for that matter. Well, what do we do about that, Rachel? I want to know.
Rachel Kruzel (00:42:23):
We might open Pandora's Box a little bit here.
Lillian Nave (00:42:28):
Rachel Kruzel (00:42:29):
There is huge potential in the emerging technology area. Emerging technology is nothing new per se. It's just what is considered emerging technology in this day and age. If we look back three years, something was emerging technology, five years, 10 years. It has incredible potential for us to really transform the way that students learn, the way that our classrooms are constructed, how classes are held. It's thrilling and exciting and it's invigorating. And for those faculty and those classroom creators, it's cutting edge. As a society, as a world, a lot of times, we can get caught up in the thrill of something which it's human nature, wanting to be on the cutting edge because something is flashy and something is exciting and it's the latest and the greatest and it's fantastic.
But a lot of times, we don't always stop and think about what those implications and those impacts are on the populations that are using them or that are around us, or in the case of education, those learners who are using the tools until after we've gotten caught up in it or potentially even implemented it.
So I think with all of this excitement that's going on, we need to take pause just briefly whenever we're thinking about these types of technology and implementing them and thinking about and being able to answer a couple of different questions around (a) are these tools digitally accessible for all or almost all of the learners that are in my classroom? Is this going to actually make my classroom more equitable and more inclusive or is it actually going to create some type of a fissure or a divide? Or if there is already a divide around accessibility or inclusion and equitability, is it going to make that actually bigger and have two different groups of students? So while I'm intending for this to really be innovative and exciting and bring my learners together in some way, is there something that you're not thinking about of it actually excluding?
The other thing I think we need to be mindful of is really who is building these technologies and are they reflective of the people that are using these tools? I think when we think about these technologies, again, who is building them? Who is creating them? Who is on the cutting edge? Who is on the forefront of this? Do they look like are they reflective of the population of learners that are using these tools? Do they look like them? Are they the same diversity? Do they have students or people with disabilities creating these tools? Do we have people from different cultures having their voice in this process? Because if not, and I think this a lot with AI, for those people building AI and machine learning, if it doesn't look like and isn't reflective of the population, it's not a true representation of who is going to be using this.
Lillian Nave (00:45:23):
Rachel Kruzel (00:45:24):
And so because of that, again, we're creating these fissures and these divides.
Lillian Nave (00:45:28):
Rachel Kruzel (00:45:34):
So I have a couple of examples if you want me to dive into them if that's helpful.
Lillian Nave (00:45:34):
Sure. Yes, I do.
Rachel Kruzel (00:45:34):
So I think about these lockdown browsers and testing platforms that have become extremely popular over the last three, four, five years. They came into our market with the intent of helping with academic integrity and making sure that students who were taking tests in these online environments weren't cheating and actually showing what they know, which is fantastic. It's a need that colleges have. And then when the pandemic happened and everyone was online, we needed something like this. But a lot of times, campuses adopted these without going back and asking those exact questions I said around: are these tools equitable? Are they inclusive? Are they even accessible? And what we found is that they're really not in many ways.
Lillian Nave (00:46:17):
Rachel Kruzel (00:46:18):
If you let them use it all or seen the lawsuits that have come out, it is again creating that divide of the students who can use it and the students who cannot for a variety of different reasons. And so now, our friends in the disability, accessibility resource offices and our cultural offices on campus who are working with our learners that again, are maybe international students or Latino, Latinx or name the cultural group here who are struggling to get access to these tools, we're actually creating more work for those offices. They're having to be more reactionary. They're having to come up with accommodations in order to get these students access to these tools, which again, good intent of bringing them in, but had we taken pause and stopped and thought about, is this going to, again, create inclusion, create accessibility while also solving this problem we have or is it not?
Lillian Nave (00:47:11):
Rachel Kruzel (00:47:12):
I think about the metaverse right now, which is all a buzz right now. Is this going to be like the internet where it's taken years and years and years and years for us to make sure that the internet is accessible, for example? Or is this something where, yeah, they are thinking about accessibility from the get-go so that it is going to be more inclusive. But right now, it's few and far between these conversations around accessibility I'm hearing. And then like I talked about with machine learning, AI right now, who is building it? Is it reflective of our community? Is it reflective of our world?
I think that we as schools, we as faculty, we as staff, those who are creating these communities for our learners to come and learn in, we have an obligation to make sure that whatever we're adopting is accessible and inclusive. We've already seen in the last five, 10 years that we've adopted technologies with the best of intents, but yet we come to find out on the backside that we have excluded a group of learners. It's not truly accessible.
So we need to stop this cycle of perpetuating exclusion for these groups who have traditionally faced exclusion. If we really want to be inclusive, if we really want to be accessible, we need to stop repeating history and after the fact saying like, "Whoops. It's not accessible. We've got to figure it out, or this need on our campus trumps the need for accessibility and inclusion," because that's not the direction of our society. I don't think anybody on a campus wants to exclude someone, wants to not be inclusive and equitable.
So again, we have this obligation that no matter how flashy or how cool technology is, we're at this point in history and we're at this point in academia where these are questions that need to be at the forefront. They need to be some of the first questions asked, not an afterthought or not something after we've decided that this is where we need to go. Because again, like we've talked about, these learners, they've come to our campus for a reason and we need to make sure that we're holding up our end of why they've come and make sure that our campuses are inclusive and accessible so that they can ultimately graduate without facing all these barriers and feeling like I don't belong here.
Lillian Nave (00:49:32):
Yeah. Going back to the beginning of our conversation and your work with neurodiverse students, students with ADHD, on the autism spectrum. These are the students that are targeted by the lockdown browsers. If your eyes are moving around, if you're distracted in your environment, you're going to get flagged. It's because, just like you said, who is making this? If you're a neurotypical that's making this lockdown browser, then you're going to base your metrics, what is good and bad on a neurotypical behavior. Then it becomes, in essence, I'm going to use some air quotes on a podcast, "illegal" to be neurodivergent because you're now outside that norm and that norm has been made the only way to pass or the only way that is considered the legal, in essence, way to pass the class, to get the exam done or whatever.
And so if you're not modeling on neurodiverse students, then they're going to be kicked out, they're going to be flagged, they're going to be wrongfully pointed out. And then like you said, the office of disability has to then, or somebody, hopefully somebody can rectify it rather than here are these students who are marginalized, are now marginalized even more.
And same thing with cultural backgrounds, differences where if the AI, if the computer is based all on one ethnic group, then if you start to have students who do not come from that one ethnic group, then they're not recognized. I've seen colleagues and have learned about if you're trying to do a virtual background, they don't even recognize what is the face, what is the actual human because the AI is based on only let's say Northern European or an American or something like that. And if you are Southeast Asian or come from a different part of the world, that technology doesn't actually serve to do its intended purpose because of who is making it and not thinking about all that diversity that could be the people who will eventually use it.
So again, we've jumped into these things and we're like, "Oh, this is great. Oh, perfect. Just in time for the pandemic." And then we use them and then we realize, oh, we didn't see that glitch. We didn't see that blip in the matrix, and now we've excluded the people we are actually trying to serve.
Rachel Kruzel (00:52:16):
You hit the nail on the head right there. And I just think about students who they already have so many things that they're bringing to campus with them as learners, what shaped them? And then to be a part of these different marginalized groups and maybe potentially the anxiety, the imposter syndrome, all these other things that students are bringing to them. And then to sit down and take a test, which is already an anxiety invoking situation for most people. Most people don't breeze through a test and love being assessed in academics. And then have to stop and worry about or come into this test or be doing this test, trying to focus on the content and showing what you've learned but making sure that your eyes don't look up into the left too far so that you're flagged because that's just the way you process information. Or needing to have that text read out loud because you have a disability or it's beneficial to hear it read out loud because again, we're talking about inclusivity, but that technology that you rely on for access is not being welcomed in this environment.
So it all just builds on each other. And again, we're creating these barriers, these hurdles for our learners, whether mostly not intended but yet they're there. So how do we react? How do we go back and rectify that situation?
Lillian Nave (00:53:39):
I really appreciate the questions that you gave us about thinking before you adopt this technology to really think about how accessible it is. What gaps is this going to perpetuate or worsen? Will it actually close the gap we want it to close? There are some universities that do really well with this. I know. And then there are some that barely can get by with we need to just grab this and go with it. And so these are really important steps to be thinking about as a head of learning technologies at a campus or even a professor who is ready to jump onto a new technology needs to be asking before we do it.
I remember when I shifted everything online in 2020, and actually I was a little ahead of the curve because we were trying to get a course online before that, and going through all of the new technologies about, oh, I want this to be interactive. Can we use this on our learning management system where it asks questions? I have this great video and students can interact. And then find out that as much as I've done, there's no captions or it had one thing that made it completely inaccessible, and I had spent so much time, and then that's when I was like, now, every time I'm going to find out from the very beginning before I put all my work in, is this an accessible technology so that I won't have two years down the road, five students who say, "I can't even do this because it has this glitch in the matrix that's not allowing me even to participate."
Rachel Kruzel (00:55:28):
Yeah. I focused on lockdown browsers, but I could go back to 2010, 2009 when I started working in this field, and I could list off half a dozen different technologies that has been at the forefront of conversations around accessibility and adoption and, again, best of intent around this. But yeah, if we can't get students access, if we are building these courses without thinking about at some point there might be a learner who can't access this, again, it's not a matter of if. It's a matter of when. And so if we can just think about at some point in my tenure, I am going to be teaching a student who has a learning disability. I'm going to be teaching a student who might be deaf, a student who is blind or low vision. You have to assume that that's going to happen.
Again, if we do that proactive work, if and when that student does arrive in our classrooms, whether we know it or not, especially now with this online and hybrid learning, you might never know that that student is blind or is deaf or has a learning disability or has ADHD, whatever, insert disability here. If you build it inclusively, you don't have to do any of that retroactive and reactive work to make your course all of a sudden accessible or have to change or at the last minute, adopt this technology or find an alternative. You just have done it from the ground up with, again, thinking about UDL, thinking about inclusion, thinking about equity, thinking about digital accessibility. If you do that from the forefront, you're just, again, you're creating, you're building these spaces that honor the students that are coming to us.
Lillian Nave (00:57:08):
Yeah. And like you said at the very beginning, the first or second question you were answering after your learning question, is it doesn't ... Even when we do all this, there's still a place for our Office of Disability Services. We're not saying we're going to completely get rid of it, but it does make it so much more accessible and equal for a wide number, a wide variety, a large number of students. And I've seen it in my own classes, whereas I used to get so much more of, can you do this? I need this help or I need this different, slightly different. And if I had just chosen a different tool, I wouldn't have had that problem. If I had just done a little homework in the very beginning and chosen between two tools and found the accessible one, then I wouldn't have had that trouble so I can switch over and do it. And so it's these steps to take as we're looking at new things to be really systematic and think about this as we plan.
So I'm going to ask you about advice. So you've done this a lot. You've been in this field a lot. You've told us a lot actually, I appreciate that, of the decision trees we need to be doing. But what are some advice for first steps to make, either an individual instructor or maybe a campus to make your learning environments more accessible, inclusive and provide that sense of belonging, that social aspect that's so important?
Rachel Kruzel (00:58:50):
I think first and foremost, it starts with a recognition with ourselves internally as a group, whether it's a department on campus and/or campus as a whole that, again, there's this variability coming to campus in our students that not everyone is like us and everybody learns like us. Again, diversity is here. That variability is here. It's not going away. It's only growing every year. And so if we can recognize that first and foremost, it's going to help us get to the next step of the actual what we can do. If you don't buy into the recognition of why this is going on, it's going to be more challenging for you to even want to make things more accessible or inclusive or make your campuses more have that belonging in your classrooms, for example. So that recognition first and foremost I think is really what's key.
Once you recognize this, once you get the why behind it, once you get that this is good for learners, there are countless number of things you can do to make your learning environments, your classrooms more inclusive, more accessible. I think the key and one of the push-backs we get a lot is this is going to lower that rigor or by doing this, it's going to make my class easier for students. That's not the case at all when it comes to making classes more accessible, more inclusive, making sure students feel like they belong. That's not it at all. I think that's the second piece in this puzzle, too, is what you're doing is not lowering that rigor or not lowering that standard.
So once you again recognize that those students are here, not everyone is like you, and then also knowing that you can still keep that rigor, there are tons of things you can do. Documents, you can very quickly and easily make sure that they're accessible. And even just baseline, very basic accessible, making them more accessible, making sure they're OCR. We talked about that. So if students are using technology to access and interact with them, they're able to do so without having to take extra steps. Thinking about Universal Design for Learning, which is a great framework and pedagogy for making classrooms more inclusive and accessible, giving students voice and choice in their assignments. Not having every class or every assessment be a test. I'm sure that we know faculty, we are faculty, where we have four assessments throughout a semester and a final exam and that's it. That's the only way that students are assessed in your class.
Even adding a couple papers in there. There was a faculty I worked with many years ago who at the end of every part of the course, it would be an exam and it would be a paper that was equally weighted so that students who excelled at taking tests had the ability to show what they know that way. They also had the ability to, if you excelled writing a paper, you could also write a paper and have that be equally weighted again. And that doesn't take a lot more time. It doesn't take a lot more energy for you to grade a hundred-question exam versus a 50-question and then adding a two-page paper in there type of thing. You're still grading type of thing. You're still having students show what they know.
Thinking about not having the same type of class every ... Not just being, like you talked about, that sage on the stage and lecturing every day for an hour or 75 minutes or however your class is. And then again, having students take that assessment. Can we make it be group work once in a while? Can there be some type of interactive assignments? Can we meet students with what they're doing? There's a million creative ideas out there of what you can do to make your classes more inclusive, more accessible.
Again, there's tons of ideas out there and the sky is the limit. Again, if you're willing to put a little bit of work in at the forefront of a class when you're planning, when you're updating, when you're going back and revising it for the next go around, again, and then that student is going to feel like they belong in that classroom. Students are coming from K through 12 having this type of classroom. This is their expectation. So when they come to our campuses and it's not like that, there's a whole other learning curve that they're having to get up to speed with, that this is the way things are done.
So again, if we can look at what's being done, again, we're not lowering standards, we're just giving students a different way to learn. And a lot of times, those things students are learning, they're able to make different connections. They're able to have that sink in. They're seeing how what they're learning really applies to the real world, and that's ultimately what they're going to take with them wherever they go next. Whether that's furthering their education or getting a job somewhere, they're going to see how this all fits in the bigger picture and make them better citizens, better critical thinkers, ultimately better preparing them to really push our world forward. And that's, again, I think what we want. We want these students to leave here and to make an impact on the world around us. And if we can do that at the highest degree when they're at our institutions, it's just better for our learners at the end, better for our campuses and better for our world.
Lillian Nave (01:04:04):
Absolutely. I can't even add on to that. That's what we want. I believe, you believe here that our Universal Design for Learning, all of these tools can help get our students where they want to be, where we want them to be. It's not a competition. It's a collaboration to move our students forward so they can learn.
So thank you. Thank you so much, Rachel. I really appreciate having the chance to talk to you and learn from you and have this really a systematic way of thinking about how to use and choose technology and what to do, and also how to integrate that into our campuses to make a place where our students belong and can persist and eventually, be those better people and successful people. So thank you very much for your time.
Rachel Kruzel (01:04:59):
Thanks for having me. There's so much potential here for creating more accessible, inclusive and equitable campuses, and that's what's so exciting, is we have so many places we can go with this.
Joni Degner (01:05:09):
Welcome back. I don't know about you, but this conversation has really got me thinking on a different level. Big thanks to Lillian and Rachel for sharing that with us. And thanks to all of you for listening. But before you go, remember, I promised that I would always leave you with one thing to know, one thing to think about and one thing to do. So here we go.
One thing to know: 18% of full-time undergraduate students and 12% of full-time graduate students have a disability or neuro-diversions in the United States, according to pnpi.org.
One thing to think about: If students feel socially disconnected and they don't belong, they're less likely to progress through their degree. A student who feels connected to and heard is more likely to persist and graduate. Think about whether your students or anyone you know who is a student feels connected and heard at the college setting.
And one thing to do: Make sure your PDFs have optical character recognition, that's OCR, as a minimum so that they're more accessible. Teachers can easily convert printed text into a PDF with Texthelp's OrbitNote, one-click optical character recognition scanning technology. We'll also link a blog in the show notes highlighting the importance in research behind how OCR can benefit learners. And don't forget to subscribe to Texthelp Talks, and thank you to you all, on your preferred podcast player or streaming service to catch the next episode. So thanks again for joining us. Take care and goodbye.