Sustaining mobile learning in inclusive environments: A universal design for learning approach
Mobile technology is being adopted at a rapid pace by both schools and families, essentially being repurposed as assistive technology for students with disabilities (Gentry et al., 2010). This recent technology appears to have the potential to ameliorate many of the issues connected to the lack of sustainability of traditional forms of assistive technology implementation, which include: (a) stigmatisation; (b) cost; (c) maintenance; (d) sustainability; and (e) lack of alignment with the principles of Universal Design for Learning (Wehmeyer et al., 2008). As mobile technologies are being widely adopted as educational tools for all students, their potential importance as assistive technology for students with disabilities cannot be overstated. Many students with disabilities rely heavily on assistive technology to participate more fully in most environments in their lives. They use this technology for mobility (wheelchairs, electronic navigation systems), communication (Dynavox, PECS systems), social skills acquisition (video modelling), learning (computer software), literacy (screen readers, audiobooks), etc. (Merbler, Hadadian, & Ulman, 1999). Some students require several different devices; this can be impractical when moving from one environment to another. Through the use of a variety of personalised applications, mobile technology may possess the capability to provide many kinds of support with one device. For example, a screen reader application could be used to assist with literacy, a communication app with communication, and a movie app for social skills lessons.
Globally, students with disabilities have been included in the general education classroom in increasing numbers over the past few decades. The inclusion movement has left some general education teachers struggling to adapt their pedagogy to support an increasingly diverse student population. Global legislation such as the United States’ Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004), Australia’s Disability Standards for Education (2005), the United Kingdom’s Special Education Codes of Practice (2001), and the European Union’s Support for Children with Special Educational Needs (2013) all provide frameworks to ensure that students with disability can access education on the same basis as other students. These policies require all education providers to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that students with disabilities are treated equally with their non-disabled peers. Often this is accomplished through the use of accommodations and modifications to the environment, the curriculum, teaching, and learning.
Accommodations and modifications are not always the optimal way to accomplish accessibility for all students. The environments and educational materials should be planned from the onset in such a way that they are accessible to all individuals (Edyburn, 2010). This underlines the importance of a teaching and learning framework that incorporates evidencebased practices that work for diverse populations of teachers and students from the outset. Accessibility is preferable over accommodation because it does not require extra effort in the form of time and resources, or moving to a special location, which is exclusionary. This type of built-in accessibility is an integral feature of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which designs curricular materials and activities to be flexible in matching learner strengths and needs to assist students in reaching their learning goals (Gargiulo & Metcalf, 2010).
In order for assistive technology to be effective, it must be available across environments, and all individuals supporting the students must be well versed in the technology’s use (Brown, 2011). If these conditions are not present, students with disabilities experience distinct disadvantage and difficulties with full participation in inclusive environments. Therefore, it is imperative that both theoretical and operational frameworks are available to guide the collaboration between school personnel and home in all areas of technology implementation. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) lends itself well as a theoretical framework to support using mobile technology as assistive technology to allow students with disabilities to more fully participate in inclusive environments. This framework is supported by the pedagogical approaches differentiated instruction and explicit instruction in inclusive learning and teaching settings.