How Technologies Designed for ‘Specific Learning Needs’ Are Helping Everyone

By: Verbit Editorial

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The University of Notre Dame holds the highest four-year graduation rate in the country at 93%. However, the traditional four-year degree, one-size-fits-all college experience no longer holds up for most students in today’s climate. For institutions to remain competitive, they often need to break free from predictable molds. Many students are no longer enrolling in 12 or 18 credit hour semesters consecutively.   

While Notre Dame, Babson College and the University of Chicago continue to see amazing four-year graduation rates, a significant number of today’s students aren’t doing all eight semesters in a row. At Verbit, we’re seeing that colleges that don’t offer flexible methods for learning or customize student experiences are seeing enrollment and graduation numbers dwindle. 

Rather, institutions that reconsider their offerings, add more technologies into the experience and engage diverse students with varying needs will prime themselves for greater success.

Students learn differently & expect education to reflect that

This notion isn’t a new concept. However, shifts to remote and online learning tested the waters on all of the different ways education methods could account for diverse student needs. Institutions that continue to take these learnings into account well past the pandemic are going to be the ones retaining their students. With this notion of considering diversity in learning styles or Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in mind, institutions are creating more inclusive environments.  

In the past, offering different ways to communicate course information and customize offerings would only happen after students with varying learning abilities made formal requests for accommodations. These accommodations served to comply with the law. Most of the time, technologies and in-person note takers offered assistance. However, now research demonstrates that many specific accommodations, such as accessibility for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing, are helping the entire student body. 

As more institutions take on the mentality of enlisting more education technology into the process as a standard, they’ll see a dramatic impact on the sense of inclusion as a result. Adopting more technologies and inclusive practices, which were once thought of only for specific students who made requests with the disability services departments, is helping institutions recognize greater retention and graduation rates across the board.  

Additionally, institutional leaders who are rethinking practices to make them more inclusive are able to better support the many students with disabilities who aren’t coming forward and reporting their needs to their institutions.  

Why UDL is so important

It probably comes as little surprise that no two brains are the same. The UDL framework is driving more universities to consult instructional designers and not just provide accommodations for those with disabilities. Instead, they’re delivering experiences that meet different learning styles from the get-go. This, in turn, support students with disabilities who, as mentioned, often aren’t coming forward. 

Institutions that are adopting UDL practices are seeing increases in retention. For example, providing captions on videos won’t just help a student with a reported disability. Rather, these captions offer all students an additional way to engage with the content. 

“UDL gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn and provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution, but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs,” according to the Center for Applied Special Technology. 

Designing courses with UDL principles means all learners stand a stronger chance of retaining information in a way that speaks to them, which increases their chances of high academic performance. Captions support this effort as they’re useful for: 

  • International students who are non-native speakers and benefit from an additional visual aid
  • Students who struggle to take notes gain ability to rewatch content
  • Students with children or full-time jobs who cannot always study or consume content with the audio on

Data uncovered in a 2008 study suggested that interactive materials could better engage all students. Afterall, everyone faces daily challenges and environmental factors, not just those with disabilities. Offering more ways to engage with educational materials and experience campus life helps remove barriers to their success. 

Going outside of the classroom itself

It’s important to understand that UDL considerations need to occur outside of the four classroom walls or Zoom room as well. Captions and additional technologies can help these students have better interactions in other areas of the student experience as well. 

Whether it’s sports events, guest lectures, fundraising activities with speeches, college podcasts and more, more are considering how students with disabilities and the entire student campus can participate in them. 

When universities offer technology, accommodations and options for choice in these many scenarios, every student can participate in the way that suits them best. The ability to personalize the experience to their unique needs will help them to connect with these experiences and, therefore, your institution on a greater level. Plus, accommodations for many of these outside experiences are also necessary for meeting ADA guidelines when schools field formal requests by students and for public-facing events. 

Stats on ed-tech solutions like captions helping everyone

While these ideas may sound nice or flowery, there is substantial research to back up how solutions like live video captioning and transcripts for note taking can benefit all students. An amazing study by San Francisco State University and Robert Keith Collins, its assistant professor in the College of Ethnic Studies, showcases this idea.  

Collins uncovered that test scores and student comprehension improved significantly when learners used captions while watching videos. This two-year long study began with finding a baseline for student comprehension. Collins then started offering captions and marked the changes he noticed in the performance of learners. 

“Not only were students talking about how much having the captions helped them as they took notes, their test scores went up,” he said. “During the baseline year, there were a lot of Cs. In the second years, they went from Cs, Ds and Fs to As, Bs and Cs.” 

With the exposure to captions, Collins said discussions among students became more lively too. The learners were able to remember specific details from videos and comprehension had improved. 

“Our students are so distracted by technology that they sometimes forget where they should focus their attention when engaged with technology or media,” Collins continued. “Turning on captions seems to enable students to focus on specific information.” 

In fact, the class average when exposed to captions was 7.18% higher. The study also documented a full GPA point increase n when students watched course videos with captions.

Oregon State University research backed this idea up 

An additional study conducted by SIGCSE looked at the performance of learners in a computer class who were consuming captioned video as well.  

Some students watched videos with captions and some without captions. SIGCSE found that those who used captions said it helped “reinforce video material, maintain focus, and enhance comprehension.” 

Then, Oregon State University’s Ecampus Research Unit polled 2,000 students at 15 US universities. They saw that disabilities aside, a majority of students were opting to use closed captions. 90% of those students who were using captions said they were at least moderately helpful in the learning experience. 

OSU also saw that:

  • 14.6% find that captions help them retain video information when studying 
  • 35% often or always use closed captioning when it’s available 
  • Students who did not report disabilities were using captions almost as frequently as those with reported disabilities – more than 50% were using them sometimes or more often, while about 10% were using them less than those with reported disabilities. 

Greater research on this concept

USFSP’s Distance Learning Accessibility Committee also took it upon itself to see what, if any benefits came about when offering students with and without disabilities captions on their media content. 

They analyzed 241 students enrolled in a course which was captioned and compared it to the 334 students who enrolled in the course prior to it being captioned. Then, they surveyed 66 students for more findings. 

They found that 13% of respondents had a disability, but only 6% of them were registered with disability services. This discrepancy is true for most institutions, highlighting another reason that proactively providing solutions like captions makes sense to help those who may be struggling silently.  

In this study, 99% of the students surveyed said captions helped them. 49% of them went as far as to say they were ‘extremely helpful.’ 

USFSP’s work showcased that captions were helping students in several ways, including:

  • Environmental challenges: “The closed caption helped when viewing [sic] the videos at home, because I have small children and at times they can be loud. The closed caption allowed me to read when I could not hear what was being said” and “Helped me because it’s not my first language. It was extremely helpful and I took tons of notes.” 
  • Understanding: “They clarified any misunderstandings or miscommunications. Made the information easier to learn because I am more of a visual learner.”  
  • Niche terminology: “If the professor said a word I didn’t understand I’d go back and read the caption, there were many legal terms that I did not know of and the captions helped me learn how to spell them.” 
  • Notes: “They helped because when I was taking notes I was able to pause the video and use the captions rather than rewind and repeat the video. 

What to take away from all of this intel

Instructional designers and advocates for UDL are getting more buy-in from university stakeholders. While budgets always come into play, far fewer are disputing the impact that technologies once deemed to assist with access for those with disabilities can have on all students, as they learn in different ways.

Captions and additional technologies not only will continue to deliver access to those with learning disabilities who need them, but are being offered proactively at growing rates. These solutions are also helping to solve one of the primary challenges universities today are facing: engagement. Keeping students engaged in their courses, in campus events and student life is a surefire way to increase their chances of retention.

Solutions like Verbit’s captions are being used by universities globally to support the need to meet ADA regulations and avoid lawsuits when disabilities are reported. However, leaders are rethinking their impact on student comprehension and retention overall. The universities that continue to offer students greater learning options and flexibility within their courses and in their degree programs will surely see higher retention and graduation rates.