Universal Instructional Design

In my opinion, the challenge of universal instructional design is a much broader and deeper question than one of overcoming disability. It is a question of the philosophy of education: what is the purpose of formal education? Structural design for universal access is certainly important for residential buildings, but not so much for roller coasters. The purpose of the structure determines the value of making it accessible. Is anyone going to pay for an elevator to the top of Mount Everest just so everyone can have equal access? Certainly the views are spectacular, but nearly everyone is plagued by their disability to climb such a high mountain.

Is education a matter of reaching the top of the mountain, of learning how to climb, or of choosing whether to practice climbing or to practice swimming? If education is a process of learning how to climb, it is thwarted by building an elevator to the top of the mountain so that individuals in wheelchairs can reach the top. If the point of education is reaching the top of the mountain, why would anyone bother learning to climb when the elevator works much more quickly? If education is about helping the individual recognize and develop their preference for swimming over climbing, its purpose is defeated by forcing everyone to practice mountain climbing.

The point is that every individual has a different skill set and ability that can be developed by education. Unfortunately, there is often an assumption that every student needs to climb Mount Everest. A few will succeed at this challenge, but many will not. Some are even scared of heights. Does this mean that they need additional psychological support so they can reach the same goal as everyone else? Perhaps they simply need to recognize that their natural condition makes them much better swimmers than climbers.

The suggestion that I hope to make by this example is that the future of education may not be about helping everyone reach the same summit no matter what obstacles or disabilities they may face. Rather, it shifts the challenge of teaching from one of how to make everyone a great climber to one of helping individuals decide if they want to climb at all – and if so, which mountain…and how. In fact, it even allows for individuals to recognize they are not physically built to be climbers and to take up swimming instead. After all, not all mountain climbers can also be good at swimming. This is the idea of restructuring education around the individual (Human Centered Learning). By creating an educational environment in which a multiplicity of abilities are developed and valued, universal instructional design can create a level playing field for students of varying abilities.

Race and Education

I think that in dealing with the subject of race most of us will run into the problem of defining our terms at some point in time. It is clear that there are differences between people, whether this is skin color, height, or age. Whether or not it is possible to argue that they are a result of genetic history or geographical history, physical variations do exist. The issue under question is one of how we respond to these differences.

This is a difficult task for individuals who inherit a historical and cultural context in which wealth and opportunity are often divided along the lines of certain physical features. For example, certain studies have shown that taller men have greater earning potential. Tall men who make more money and are able to afford a healthy lifestyle will most likely give birth to more tall men and pass on this genetic advantage. Similarly, individuals whose families have lived in cold parts of the world and adapted to this environment over the centuries will probably have an advantage in outdoor sports like skiing where their bodies can focus on performance and not simply on staying warm. If we lived in a society where skiing was the only mode of transportation and it was always cold, individuals with a certain genetic history would probably end up in control of resources and opportunities. Does this mean that people who don’t know how to ski are in some way less human? No. However, they are at a disadvantage to participate in a society that revolves around skiing.

I would like to suggest a logical transition from this scenario to one of our own. Individuals who grew up in a tropical jungle may find it difficult to adapt to the corporate jungle. This does not make them inferior, but if they attempt to compete in an environment they are not familiar with, they are at a disadvantage…and vice versa. The corporate individual would be at a disadvantage trying to survive in the jungle. Does this mean that there is a problem with the jungle or with corporate America? Not necessarily.

The problem comes when individuals have no opportunity to learn how to survive and compete in environments they were not necessarily prepared for. This is where education comes into play: offering individuals the opportunity to overcome the natural disadvantages they inherit that are beyond their control. How can a short man learn to stand tall? How can a jungle native learn to develop a fashion sense and table manners? Through education. Education is the key by which these individuals can open access to experiences beyond their reach. But if education as a system is designed to only serve the needs of individuals who are properly prepared, it has failed in its responsibility to society. It has become an inaccessible outcome rather than a process of preparation. The question I am left with from this week is how to create an environment of education in which individuals from any background can prepare to succeed in the real world?