‘What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn if provided with appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.’
– Benjamin Bloom (1976: 7)
Traditionally, learning has taken place in face-to-face contexts, where educators have relied on lectures and print materials as a means of disseminating information. While this unidirectional, industrialised model allows for the scaling of mass education (Hibling, 2020), the one-size-fits-all approach hasn’t always successfully accommodated individuals with diverse learning needs.
According to Garrison (2017), the pedagogical developments that have been made possible by technological advances are transforming education. However, the shift toward online education has, once again, highlighted the need for learning solutions that cater to individuals with diverse learning needs. As a result, accessibility has become a key focus area for EdTech professionals.
In this article, we discuss how individual learning needs can be addressed through appropriate eLearning design, resulting in increased accessibility and more effective learning.
Defining learning needs
Pierdicca et al. (2020: 229) define learning needs as ‘the necessities that every learner might have during a learning experience’. Each of us prefers to consume information in a particular format, through a particular channel, and in a particular language. Furthermore, we learn more effectively in certain environments than in others, and we also have differing abilities that affect the way we learn.
In short: we all have unique learning needs.
This article focuses on the learning needs of the following groups of learners:
- Those with reading difficulties
- Those from diverse language backgrounds
- Those with visual or hearing impairments
- Those from diverse cultural backgrounds
- Those with varying levels of prior knowledge
We’ll also discuss how effective eLearning design can be used to address some of these needs, thereby enhancing the online learning experience for such individuals.
eLearning design for learners with reading difficulties
In the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), South Africa placed last out of the 50 countries surveyed (Rule, 2017). The study found that many South African pupils were unable to read with comprehension, with 78% of Grade 4 learners struggling to understand what they were reading. While this data speaks to reading comprehension, other reading difficulties relate to fluency and the ability to visually recognise new words (McArthur and Castles, 2017).
Such difficulties have an impact on both writing and the recall of information (Pirttimaa et al., 2015). Additionally, the effects of these difficulties often persist throughout the learner’s secondary and tertiary education. For example, MacMillan (2014) found that many students entering higher education have difficulty making sense of academic texts. This can result in slower rates of learning in comparison to peers, which has a negative impact on students’ self-esteem. It can also leave them feeling socially isolated and, consequently, less motivated to learn.
So, how can eLearning designers create digital learning solutions that cater to the needs of learners with reading difficulties?
Digital solutions for addressing reading difficulties
The good news is that there are various tools and strategies available to eLearning designers, which can be used to make digital learning materials more accessible to learners with reading difficulties. Some of these are listed as follows (Scharaldi, 2020; Alghabban et al., 2017; Rosita et al., 2020; Košak-Babuder et al., 2018; and McLoughlin and Leather, 2013):
- Incorporate literacy support toolbars into online learning platforms. These toolbars enable learners to identify, define and translate challenging words. Picture dictionaries are an especially valuable feature of these toolbars, as they aid learners in forming a visual association between a new word and its meaning.
- Include a glossary. Glossaries can be used to look up unfamiliar words. Alternatively, pop-up definitions can also be used to explain more complex terms.
- Use multimodal interfaces. These enable learners to interact with the system through multiple human sensory modalities.
- Include audio or a text-to-speech functionality. This enables learners to receive content aurally as well as visually.
- Have an online tutor or facilitator present. This provides learners with additional support for content-related questions.
- Include visuals. Visuals, such as mind maps, can be used to present an alternative format for processing complex information.
- Encourage learners with reading difficulties to switch to OpenDyslexic typeface. Individuals with learning difficulties like dyslexia may benefit from this typeface, as it mitigates some of the common reading errors associated with dyslexia.
eLearning design for learners from diverse language backgrounds
A concept that relates to reading difficulties is the issue of language in learning. Delivering instruction in a language other than the learner’s mother tongue can be a barrier to learning. A study conducted by Lakbala (2016) found that courses taught only in English are a key factor affecting the success of eLearning solutions.
English is a lingua franca in education. However, more than 71% of Internet users don’t consider English to be their native tongue (KnowledgeCity, 2018). It’s therefore becoming increasingly challenging to produce digital learning content that is accessible to all learners (KnowledgeCity, 2018). To illustrate this point, the 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report estimated that approximately 40% of the global population is unable to access education in a language that they understand (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2016: 1).
Accessible eLearning for speakers of different languages
When English is the main language of instruction in an online course, it can hinder non-native speakers from mastering more complex concepts and achieving higher-order learning outcomes (Smith, 2017). While many of the tools and strategies mentioned in the previous section can benefit these learners, there are additional guidelines that eLearning designers and content creators can follow, to make digital content more accessible to learners from different language backgrounds. These include the following (Jha, 2017; Gehr, 2019; and Gernsbacher, 2015):
- Limit the use of metaphors and expressions that may be misunderstood or cause confusion.
- Include tools like text translators in order to bridge language barriers.
- Add hover-to-reveal text definitions or explanations. This enables learners to gain a deeper understanding of the text.
- Add subtitles and transcripts to video and audio content. These can provide learners with additional opportunities for translation, and can also aid listening comprehension.
- Include visual content where appropriate, especially where such content can be used to communicate more complex concepts or processes. This aids learners in understanding, interpreting and retaining information more effectively. (The adage, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ rings true in this regard.)
eLearning design for learners with visual and hearing impairments
Language isn’t the only potential barrier to successful eLearning. Two groups of learners that require special consideration in terms of their learning needs are those with visual impairments and those with hearing impairments.
Online learning solutions for visually impaired learners
According to Naidoo et al. (2015), visual impairment is the leading form of disability in South Africa. As such, online learning solutions should be designed in a way that caters to these learners. Visually impaired learners often experience challenges in navigating and accessing learning materials in online learning environments.
Some strategies that can be used by eLearning designers to address the learning needs of visually impaired learners include the following (Taylor, 2016):
- Ensure that the digital learning environment is compatible with accessibility tools, such as refreshable braille displays, screen readers and screen magnifiers, and encourage learners to use these. Refreshable braille displays are electronic braille devices that convert digital text to braille characters on a keyboard, while screen readers convert digital text to speech. Screen magnifiers, on the other hand, can be used to enlarge text to an appropriate size on-screen.
- Create an integrated learning experience, where learners don’t need to access various types of resources in different locations. A fragmented learning experience hinders learners with visual impairments, thereby affecting their overall quality of learning.
- Avoid materials that can’t be rendered by screen readers, such as scanned texts and images.
- Include alt text for any graphics that are included. These text descriptions can then be accessed by learners using screen readers.
- Avoid the use of colour as the sole means of conveying meaning. Symbols or text, for example, can be used in addition to colour, to ensure that content is more accessible.
You can learn more about this topic in our previous article, ‘eLearning for the Visually Impaired Student: Barriers to Online Learning’.
Online learning solutions for hearing-impaired learners
Turning our attention to learners with hearing impairments, approximately 2.9% of the South African population over the age of five suffers from mild to moderate hearing difficulties. A further 0.7% of the population experiences severe hearing difficulties (Modjadji, 2016). Because hearing is critical to the development of speech, language and communication skills, it has a direct impact on learning. However, according to Mapepa and Magano (2018: 3), support for learners who are hearing-impaired is limited in South Africa. When it comes to eLearning, these individuals may find audio-based resources, such as videos and audio clips, to be particularly challenging to navigate. For this reason, it’s vital that digital learning environments be designed with the needs of these learners in mind.
It may be helpful to consider the following practical guidelines for making eLearning more accessible for learners with hearing impairments (Bell, 2020; and Brokop, 2008):
- Ensure that all audio and video content is accompanied by written transcriptions and error-free captions.
- When creating transcripts and captions, avoid lengthy sentences and distinguish between different narrators clearly.
- When creating the videos themselves, remember that learners with hearing impairments need to attend to both the captions and the visuals. To make this easier, the video should be designed to include well-paced narration with frequent pauses, giving learners the opportunity to digest the information being presented.
eLearning design for learners of different cultural backgrounds
Cultural differences among learners can enhance learning if educators and eLearning designers account for them when creating instructional materials. These differences relate to lifestyle, belief systems, values, ethnicity, nationality and language, among other factors (Hameed et al., 2016). However, when these factors aren’t taken into account, learners from different cultures may feel alienated, which may reduce their motivation to learn (Damary et al., 2017).
How does culture influence learning?
Studies have found that cultural differences can affect learners’ willingness to collaborate and contribute to discussions online (Mittelmeier et al., 2017). Using Hofstede’s (1980) Cultural Dimensions Theory – a framework that can be used to understand intercultural differences – let’s consider this finding from the perspective of the power-distance index (PDI). The PDI speaks to the extent to which hierarchy and inequality are accepted within a culture. Learners from cultures with high PDI scores are likely to feel more comfortable receiving knowledge from an authority figure, such as an educator. On the other hand, learners from cultures with low PDI scores may prefer to learn by collaborating and engaging peers in discussions.
Moreover, in examining the impact of culture on learning, Joy and Kolb (2009) found culture to have a substantial impact on learning preferences. Learners from cultures that score high on Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance index (UAI) prefer structure, rules, and clearly defined goals and expectations. Conversely, those from cultures with low UAI scores require less structure, are more open to change, and embrace open-ended learning (Mind Tools, n.d.).
As we can see, culture has a significant impact on learning needs. So, how can eLearning designers strive to accommodate learners from different cultural backgrounds? Some strategies include the following (Kumi-Yeboah, 2018):
- Create opportunities for cross-cultural communication and collaboration, by implementing a computer-supported collaborative learning strategy.
- Include tools and activities such as conference calling, discussion forums, wikis etc. Such tools can encourage collaboration and provide opportunities for learners to express themselves.
- Strike a balance between instructor-led ‘sage on the stage’ and self-directed approaches to learning.
- ‘Internationalise’ content by including examples or themes that learners from all cultures can relate to and understand easily.
eLearning design for learners with differing levels of prior knowledge
Learners with low levels of prior knowledge about a particular topic have different learning needs to those with higher levels of prior knowledge. For example, studies have shown that learners with low prior knowledge of a subject have higher levels of anxiety and uncertainty, leading to a general slowness in learning and disengagement from the work (Kennedy and Lodge, 2016; and D’Mello et al., 2014). Those with high prior knowledge, however, tend to be less anxious and uncertain, leading to increased persistence and more successful learning (Arguel et al., 2016).
Addressing different levels of prior knowledge: The importance of scaffolding
To address the individual needs of learners with both low and high levels of prior knowledge, educators and eLearning designers must consider the degree of scaffolding required in order for meaningful learning to occur. Scaffolding refers to the support given to learners by a knowledgeable teacher, to aid them in performing a task that they would not be able to do independently (Wood et al., 1976). The concept of scaffolding is related to a learner’s zone of proximal development – a theory developed by Vygotsky (1978).
The zone of proximal development is the difference between what a learner can do without help or support, and what can be achieved with adult guidance, or through collaborating with a capable peer. According to Dabbagh (2003), learners who have higher levels of prior knowledge on a subject, and who are highly motivated, require less scaffolding than learners with little prior knowledge, and who have lower levels of motivation and higher levels of anxiety.
When designing eLearning solutions for individuals with lower levels of prior knowledge, the following strategies should be implemented (Swibel, 2019):
- Prior knowledge should be activated and linked to the new content.
- Tasks should be broken down into manageable steps and clear instructions should be provided.
- Learners should be provided with support that gradually decreases. This support can include hints, tips and formative feedback.
- Learners should be provided with examples of tasks that were completed both successfully and unsuccessfully. In this way, they can learn what worked or didn’t work, and why.
- Formative assessments should be included to gauge whether or not scaffolding has been effective.
Advances in information and communication technologies have resulted in the proliferation of eLearning. This represents a shift away from traditional learning environments. This shift has been accompanied by a recognition of the importance of accessible eLearning design that caters for individuals with diverse learning needs. While this article has discussed only a few of these diverse needs, it has highlighted that online learning can be designed in ways that facilitate more effective learning for individuals with different learning needs. By taking these needs into account, eLearning designers can create more accessible learning experiences, thereby enabling more effective learning overall.
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