University of Cape Town: CILT project aims to build a more inclusive learning environment

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) is heading up a three‑year project focused on the promotion of inclusive, digitally enabled education through the redesign of blended courses, using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles.

Intentional design will focus on creating a variety of learning materials and activities to cater for diverse student contexts, different learning needs (including disability) and digital literacies. Incorporating UDL principles can increase accessibility and help deal with contextual barriers and challenges (such as power outages, data costs and poor connectivity) as well as supporting student choices.

The project aims to make use of existing resources to develop support for teaching staff in redesigning courses by promoting the use of UDL principles in a variety of blended course designs.

“Incorporating the UDL principles can increase accessibility and help deal with contextual barriers and challenges.”

UDL is an approach to designing education that incorporates flexibility in how information is presented (representation), how students are supported in expressing their developing knowledge and skills (action and expression), and how students are engaged in the learning environment (engagement).

These three principles are at the heart of UDL, and the goal is to enable students to become more self-directed, expert learners through designing learning that recognises and provides for their diverse learning needs.

This approach moves away from a deficit model of seeing certain groups of students as requiring accommodations to one which has inclusion in design as an upfront principle.

Partnership approach

The CILT project draws on expertise locally and internationally through partnering with the Including Disability in Education in Africa (IDEA) Research Unit for assistance in developing flexible and locally appropriate course models.

The UCT Disability Service also sits on the project committee and offers advice and resources on the accessibility considerations in technology for students with disabilities.

The Humanities Education Development Unit is a project partner working on training teaching assistants in various inclusive pedagogical approaches including using accessible technologies, creating engaging learning activities, promoting student well‑being and building resilience to navigate exclusion/inclusion and diversity.

Building the capacity of teaching and support staff is key to creating a more inclusive learning environment in blended courses.

While focused on the UCT teaching environment, the team is also tapping into existing networks for resource and information sharing – such as CAST, an international non-profit education research and development organisation, and the International Collaboratory for Leadership in Universally Designed Education (INCLUDE), which recently hosted a webinar about the UCT project.

Why now?

The project team draws on lessons learned during the COVID‑19 crisis, which required South African universities to respond with emergency remote teaching (ERT). This revealed the painful and enduring social inequalities around unfavourable living conditions, access to devices and internet connectivity, which echo old racial and economic exclusions.

Across the world, teachers and commentators highlighted the differential impact on students’ capacity to keep learning, which exacerbated existing disadvantages.

“The COVID‑19 crisis … revealed the painful and enduring social inequalities around living conditions, access to devices and internet connectivity, which echo old racial and economic exclusions.”

As UCT now moves beyond ERT toward intentional design within a range of in-person, blended and online modes, the opportunity arises for inclusive learning design that addresses educational inequity and which will support the development of new approaches to teaching and building capability.

UCT’s Vision 2030 commits the institution to curriculum revisions, which include the incorporation of blended learning and educational technology in ways that provide all students with more meaningful and interactive learning experiences.

The university has recognised this imperative by supporting a three‑year project in the promotion of inclusive, digitally enabled education through the redesign of blended courses, which is funded by the national Department of Higher Education and Training.

EdTech advisors

A group of postgraduate students have been recruited and trained to serve as Education Technology (EdTech) advisors. A special virtual training programme developed by CILT learning designers combined knowledge, practical and hands-on skills development with opportunities to critique and reflect on inclusive learning through the UDL framework.

The EdTech advisors offer support to teaching staff to create inclusive, accessible and multimedia-rich learning materials and activities, based on UDL principles that are aimed at enhancing student access to and inclusion in blended courses for improved student learning outcomes.

Open webinars and customised staff training on implementing UDL in course design are being offered to accompany a wide range of existing and new resources.

Pilot courses

Starting with some existing courses, such as a Disability Studies postgraduate diploma module, the team is piloting methods for redesigning courses to maximise student inclusion through improving alignment of learning outcomes and assessments.

An overarching goal is to consider the relevance of learning approaches for the diversity of students in the class by introducing new tools and to intentionally allow for different forms of engagement, student outputs and assessments.

While the project is still in its early stages, the UDL approach is finding resonance at UCT and is now frequently referred to in curriculum discussions. The challenge is to integrate the flexibility and responsiveness of a UDL approach into blended learning which requires new ways of thinking and doing.