The NeuroDiverse ! Part 2 : Designing for Neurodiversity

I’ve left off writing the second part of this post for a week or so while I thought over the best approach to take. As you may remember from part 1 after surveying the playing field of neurodiversity I decided there was too much to cover in a single entry. I think what I was starting to see at that point was how this issue is intertwined with the broader issues of accessibility and inclusivity and as such the approach to designing learning in reference to neurodiversity is also bound up with the wider concerns of inclusive accessible pedagogy.

Lets try and put that another way…

When one learns about inclusivity, one actually starts by learning about diversity, minorities and the issues and discrimination that may effect those individuals. Like wise when on starts to learn about accessibility, one actually learns about groups whose access may be hindered by a condition or a situation. It is important to understand these groupings, these divisions, these differences in order to understand the issues and challenges they face, but to engage with the wider issues you need to expand and invert your thinking. In two respects:

  • We are all diverse. We may fall into wider groupings or stereotypes but each of us is a unique mix of experience and background (nature and nurture if you like) (which contributes to the learning style that suits us best) and so each of us faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities.
  • Inclusivity is about transcending these differences. Accessibility is about making access easy for everyone. We don’t design for difference per say – we design to include regardless of difference.

Maybe thats a bit too aspirational in its tone, but its close to what I’m trying to say.

And where does that thinking lead us?

Back, I think to a topic I covered in my PGCHE blog (soon hopefully to be imported into this blog) – UDI or unabridged : Universal Design for Instruction.

You may remember there are 9 guiding principals in UDI – I’ll list them again here (with my original notes on my classroom practice):

  1. Equitable use – useful and accessible to people with diverse abilities.
    I make class materials available online and in handout format. Notes are typed in sans serif fonts which are easier for students with dyslexia to read. Supporting text with images and video or visa versa means greater accessibility for students with differing learning styles.
  2. Flexibility in use – designed to accommodate a wide range of abilities.
    With large groups there is an inevitable diversity of ability particularly with digital literacy issues. This means it is important to provide a grounding for students of lower ability while giving students who are more able tasks that can challenge them and encourage independent learning (the holy grail of software tuition) whist more support may be needed for others. The fear here is that the best students loose interest if the level or pace of the class is too low.
  3. Simple and intuitive – straightforward
    Who sets out to make their classes unnecessarily complicated and inaccessible? I like task based approaches to learning where they are appropriate as the students can see something in context and there is a easily understandable journey for them to reference.
  4. Perceptible information – communicated effectively regardless of conditions or sensory abilities.
    I check rooms in advance to make sure projection / display facilities are functioning properly. I encourage students to sit where they can see and hear. I discourage idle chat during demonstrations. I also encourage peer support so if a student can see their neighbour has a problem and they can help they should!
  5. Tolerance for error – anticipating variation in learning pace and prerequisite skills.
    Similar to (2) I try to engage with tasks that the weaker students can work through with support where necessary but that don’t limit the stronger students. In an ideal situation the latter will master the basics of the tool or technique and delve deeper into its use, incorporating their own ideas and creativity. This in turn is inspiring to weaker students. Peer review during class lets people share and discuss their experiences with the work.
  6. Low physical effort – minimum effort to allow maximum attention to learning.
    I discourage students sitting uncomfortably or where they have to strain to see the demonstrations. Computer teaching rooms are equipped with good mobile seating and sensible height desks. Monitors are easy to re-position.
  7. Size and space for approach and use – regardless of body size, mobility and communication needs.
    Where necessary provision for equipment can be negotiated if a students needs are declared. For example we have a regular open access user suffering from muscular issues so provision has been made for a special mouse and keyboard mat. She also receives direct staff support for operating this equipment.
  8. Community of learners – promote interaction and communication among students and faculty.
    I use peer discussions and reference my own communities of practice as well as online communities and encouraging students to talk about the class content with friends and colleagues as a way of improving their skill set and feeling like they belong.
  9. Instructional climate – welcoming and inclusive.
    I feel the first ten minutes of the first lesson with a new cohort of students is very important! First impressions count lol! I have to establish a balance of welcoming friendliness and a class room demenour conducive to good working. Friendly and fun but not so much so ti becomes unprofessional. I always try to ask students if they need extra support or if their are further questions and provide options for how that support can be provided.

So those are some overarching issues that relate to all aspects of teaching and learning inclusively and accessibly.

One thing I think its important to consider here is that one size will not fit all. In fact even when you present words, images and video content to offer a variety of ways for students to engage some will query why all three were necessary. Also in this respect content that you produce for a learner with an auditory visual learning style may not help a learner with a tactile or visual learning style. You have to provide for all styles! To some extent this boils off to ‘mixing it up’ in the classroom and beyond, engaging students with a range of activities and challenges that enable everyone to participate and let students push their own abilities in areas they are confident learning in as well as some more challenging ones.


What I still haven’t really done here though is approached this from a very Ed Tech point of view but there is a reason for this and I’ll try and outline it here.

As I’ve just explained there is no single solution. Beyond that there isn’t even a nice set of solutions. The solutions we do implement need to be responsive to our users and they need to be iterative as technology advances. I don’t really want to get into a listing exersise of this screen reader, this note taking software, this magnification tool because firstly the tools would probably be out of date before I finished writing (and in terms of voice recognition software that is particularly true) but also because there is a wide range of tools and although I have experience of some I think the nature of the web means you would be better off researching yourself what best fits the needs of you course and students.

Actually thats nearly my advice, but not quite…. 

Rather than just researching and designing yourself… make sure others are included in that process. Its very common for all designers to seek the opinions of others when reviewing their work. When designing learning materials use the same logic. If it is for other people then let other people steer your design. And in particular people with neurodiverse needs… if you are looking to make your course more accessible to dyslexics, then ask a dyslexic to tell you if its worked…!

Instead what I’m going to list is some links to some other repositories which, if used with your own research and with the principals of UDI in mind, offer building blocks to create great classroom, blended and online experiences for students. – Dyslexia skills resource for Falmouth and Exeter

Basic definitions of Neurodiversity – much better than my Defining ND post!

Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Dyscalulia (SpLDs) – University of Reading on the three D’s…

E learning and Disability in Higher Education – Academic text

Offending E Learning & Dyslexia – Guidance for designing learning

British Dyslexia Association Technology advice – Straight from the sauce!

Moodle (ELE and LS) guides for Accessibility features like keyboard navigation….

Edinburgh Uni on creating accessible VLE content – Very concise guide 🙂

Bruce Lee guide to Learning Styles (What’s your Learning style…)

(I’ll be adding more here as I find them)

Thanks for reading : Keep it Ed Tech !


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