Helping us see differently – Jess Mitchell

BCcampus, launched an important webinar series on Inclusive Design in February…and I missed all of them (sigh). But because the folks at BCcampus are digitally-aware and focused on openness and accessibility, they provided recordings of each session so I’m digging in to discover what I missed. If you are curious, here’s a brief overview of my take-aways from the first in the series: Inclusive Design, Jess Mitchell, Snr.Mgr, IDRC webinar recordingSlideshare presentation slides

Inclusive design means changing how you see; you need to take the time to reflect, to look around, to see what doesn’t work and think about why? Inclusive design works best when it happens before something is designed but, even afterwards, you can strive to make your course, your teaching, your presentations, whatever you create – more inclusive. It seems that, from Jess Mitchell’s perspective, it’s about the “why and the try”.

Inclusive Design is design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gener, age and other forms of human difference.

Jess Mitchel, IDRC,

Why should you try? Some of the benefits that Ms Mitchell shared (of using an ID approach to solve complex problems):

  • solutions have better = longer shelf life
  • solutions work better for more people
  • solutions address the gaps

Often the changes we make to support inclusiveness benefit unexpected or broader groups than we first think about. Jess pointed out the ubiquitous curbcuts that were a simple and widespread change that made navigating city sidewalks easier for people with mobility impairments. People thought it was just for the wheelchair bound but it makes it possible for moms w/strollers, elders with canes or pulling wheeled grocery carts, young kids delivering newspapers w/little red wagon – lots of people benefited.

It’s not just about accessibility – it’s about providing equivalent experiences. So the folks at IDRC talk, think, research about how to help everyone have a good experience – whether learning or working or just doing. She talked about making presentations and information multi-modal – and acknowledged the challenges of doing so – but encouraged us to try. She reiterated the power of taking the first step, and committing to the try.

Disability is a mismatch, between an individual and their goals and the tools they have available to them in their particular environment or context.

Jess Mitchel, IDRC

Thinking about disability – Jess pointed out that it might be more useful to think about mismatches. Walk around your environment and look for what doesn’t work – try to identify why? Talk to the people you’re designing for – “I find it helpful and important to ask…” Often disability is created by a non-thinking choice in the design phase; always think about how you can make your product, process, teaching accessible/digestible/navigable by more people.

Table as a metaphor
  • who isn’t at the table?
  • who can or can’t use this table?
  • is the table welcoming to all?
  • have people been at the table before?
  • when you invite somone to the table, do they know the culture of the table?
  • do they know how decisions are made at the table?
  • do they know how to have their voice heard at the table?
  • is the environment at the table safe and welcoming and open for everyone?
  • how is listening going to be captured at the table?
  • do these tables give people real ways to have an impact?
  • are people empowered to act on what is discussed at the table

There’s lots more – watch the screen recording – browse the slide deck. A great launch to a series on inclusive design. Thanks to BCcampus and Jess Mitchell.

References mentioned during presentation

Integrating UDL in Course Design

sketchnotes - Universal Design for Learning - Giulia ForsytheI’ve been a proponent of universal design principles since I worked for a national disability research centre many years ago. As I’ve taught and written about the design of learning, I’ve tried to keep a ‘UDL lens’ in place – not always successfully. I ruefully admit that my intentions were often overwhelmed by circumstances, resulting in fewer options for learners to engage or share their learning than I would have liked to offer. I keep trying – while exploring new technologies to aid me and reading and discussing different approaches with other educators whenever I can!

Over the last few years I’ve noticed periodic resurgences of interest and discussion around the three principles of UDL and the growing emphasis on “personalization” of education and learning. (Note: to learn more about the history and development of the concept of personalization, see UNESCO’s 2012 Personalized Learning Policy Brief).

CAST director David Gordon was one of the first to explicitly link UDL and personalization with his May 2015 article “How UDL can get you to personalized learning“.  A more recent article in ASCD’s 2017 Educational Leadership journal, “Personalization and UDL: A Perfect Match” by Kathleen McClaskey reiterates many of his original points but presents the application of UDL from both a teacher and learner perspective. McClaskey and her colleague Barbara Bray have been influential in the dissemination and application of the concepts underlying personalization in education.

PDPIE course design model

PDPIE model

The strong connections between the three principles of UDL and the underlying perspectives and applications of “personalization” are also found reflected in the various “quality” frameworks that are applied to online learning design. In the upcoming BCcampus workshop, Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) – Design, we’ll take a look at how UDL principles can be integrated within a quality framework.


Gordon, David (2015) How UDL can get you to personalized learning, e-School News, Retrieved from

McClaskey, Kathleen (2017) Personalization and UDL: A Perfect Match, ASCD Educational Leadership, “Getting Personalization Right”,  Volume 74, No. 6, Retrieved from

National Center on Universal Design for Learning, The Three Principles of UDL, Retrieved from

Sharif, Afsaneh, (2016) Quality assurance designing quality online course, UBC wiki, retrieved from

UNESCO Policy Brief (2012) Personalized Learning: A New ICT-enabled Education Approach, retrieved from


Are learning theories even relevant any more?

As a teacher, facilitator or instructional / learning designer, do you ever think about learning theories? What value do they have in your teaching or design practice?

Do you think back to what you learned about B.F. Skinner’s experiments as you “chain” events in a lesson to help your students learn a new procedure? Maybe you try to reward “good learning” with bonus marks or badges? Or do you recall David Ausubel’s theoretical perspective (cognitive) when you develop a new advance organizer to help students learn a complex concept or theory?

If you apply a traditional design approach (integrated, outcomes-based, structured weekly units with tests and assignments), do you reflect on the way you present information while you remember the cognitivist “information processing model”?

Lave and Wenger introduced us to ideas around group learning with their theories of situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation. Have those ideas influenced how you set up group learning projects?

When we piloted our new FLO-Design workshop in January 2017, we included an optional review of the three major groups of learning theories – behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism (and a fourth technology-focused perspective – connectivism – see below), to ground the participants’ work in selecting and applying different instructional / learning design approaches. But I’ve been reading and listening to discussions about some of the inadequacies of our current education system and our teaching approaches and wondering more and more how relevant or meaningful a “grounding” in somewhat outdated perspectives (and research) is for the increasing diversity of the learners we serve in online and blended learning?

Questions of relevance

Each learning theory or group of theories has its critics. A consistent criticism applied to learning theories is that they are too focused on one area or perception of the human experience of learning – from visible changes in behaviour (behaviourism) to how information that is collected by the senses is processed, organized and retained for future retrieval (cognitivism) to how to help learners “make meaning” from new material (constructivism) and finally to how people use virtual connections with others and with knowledge (through the Internet or other similar networks) to collect and use knowledge as they need it. Should we be seeking one unifying theory to show us how to understand the different aspects of learning or should we be continuing to develop separate theories that address how we learn different types and levels of knowledge in different stages of our lives?

But assessing the relevance of recognized learning theories goes beyond simply criticizing what is missing from each group of theories or the evidence that supports each proposed interpretation. We have recognized (remembered?) the powerful impact of emotion, beliefs and cultural understandings and the needs of diverse learners to feel empowered to take part in the teaching and learning interactions, environments and outcomes. Certainly in North America, educators are asked to consider “making space” for different voices and ideas to be heard; instead of following a particular theory or group of ideas of how people learn, perhaps we need to let the learners set the pace and identify ways they find helpful in making new learning meaningful?

A growing body of evidence is being shared by neuroscientists as they continue to refine technological tools like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to map the ways the brain responds to different stimuli and conditions such as stress, rest, and exercise. So, should we throw out the established learning theories and just follow what neuroscientists tell us about how they’re interpreting what they “see”? Although many of us are drawn to the science of cognition as a way to help us teach and learn more effectively, scientists have been advising caution in how we interpret their results and a recent article in Psychology Today points out some serious issues with the software that is used for fMRIs.

It is difficult to reconcile the limited scope of early learning theories with the breadth of possibilities we’re seeing in how we can teach and the increasing diversity of learners and what they want and need to learn. A first step is to revisit our reliance on traditional educational theories and to find better ways to support educators and instructional / learning designers to design effective learning experiences and environments.

A quick review from FLO-Design Workshop:

Behaviourism Cognitivism Constructivism Connectivism
How does learning occur? stimulus -> response; observable behaviour main focus, chaining events input -> process -> output (learning) structured, computational meaning created by each learner (personal);focus on social learning Distributed within a network, social, technologically enhanced, recognizing and interpreting patterns
What factors influence learning? nature of stimulus (reward; punish), timing of events existing schema, previous experiences Engagement, participation, social, cultural Diversity of network
What is the role of the memory Repeated experiences are remembered – timing & type of reward / punishment are most influential Encoding to long term memory, retrieval Prior knowledge remixed to current context Adaptive patterns, representative of current state, existing in networks
How does transfer occur? Stimulus, response Duplicating knowledge constructs of “knower” Socialization Connecting to (adding nodes)
What types of learning are best explained by this theory? Task-based learning Reasoning, clear objectives, problem solving Social, vague (“ill defined”) problem solving Complex learning, rapid changing core, diverse knowledge sources
Names of some theorists I. Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, J. Watson D. Ausubel, J. Bruner, R. Gagne J. Dewey, L. Vygotsky, E. von Glaserfeld S. Downes & G. Siemens

Note:  If you want to explore even further, check out the comprehensive and interactive learning theories map, created by Richard Millwood for a European Union project: HoTEL (Holistic Approach to Technology Enhanced Learning).

map of learning theories and ideas - Richard Millwood