World Vision, Illustrative Math Use CAST Curriculum Review to Make Learning More Accessible
Illustrative Math (IM) — a non-profit organization committed to creating a world where learners know, use, and enjoy mathematics — needed more than just basic web accessibility to meet the needs of learners and achieve real breakthroughs for understanding with is problem-based curriculum. Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, IM enlisted help from CAST’s curriculum review service for a more flexible approach right from the start.
“What we really kind of needed was how do you make materials accessible to all learners and honor our instructional intent,” says Karl Nelson, Chief Information Officer at Illustrative Math, a nonprofit focused on students’ growth in mathematics.
For example, a complicated math problem might involve bars, graphs, and other images that require long descriptions or alt text to explain what’s in the image. But, how do you provide that information without giving away the answer to the math problem?
“It’s not purely a technological problem. It’s not purely a curriculum issue,” Nelson explains. “How do you kind of blend the technical accessibility with the curriculum, with the instructional intent, and end up with something that’s going to work for all learners?”
When students aren’t able to engage with learning materials — due to accessibility issues or other reasons — that becomes an impediment to the student’s development and advancement.
For that reason, organizations like IM, and more recently World Vision and Maryland Public Television — which aim to elevate their communities through educational outreach — are choosing to draw on CAST’s depth of experience and dynamic approach to curriculum review to support all educators and learners.
Allison Posey, CAST Senior Content Editor & Producer
CAST developed Universal Design for Learning with a vision to “change the environment and reduce barriers in the curriculum and in the design of a learning environment, so students are able to do their best learning,” says Allison Posey, CAST Senior Content Editor and Producer.
Ideally, educators must integrate UDL into the development of curriculum from the very beginning, Posey says. That includes designing materials in a way that’s optimal for each and every student, so teachers — even if they’re not aware of UDL’s role in improving curriculum design and the learning environment — are better able to meet their students’ needs.
CAST’s tagline is “Until learning has no limits.” Limitations to learning can be reduced when design anticipates how different people learn in different ways, says Posey. “UDL is based in the learning sciences and what we know about the learning brain,” she adds. “If we can be proactive from the start, anticipate that variability in our learners and design for it from the start, then we’re more likely to make those experiences engaging, accessible, and meaningful.”
UDL Promotes Curriculum Review Collaboration
After familiarizing clients with UDL, a process already deeply integrated into the education system, there’s some natural back and forth in the CAST curriculum review process to figure out what works best in a particular learning environment.
“UDL isn’t a checklist,” Posey says. “It’s not like you have to do everything.”
Instead, the curriculum review process is intrinsically collaborative. Organizations share their ideas, CAST provides guidance, and both work together to fine-tune curriculum and support teachers and students.
At World Vision, CAST is looking at how some of the nonprofit’s literacy rubrics can support educators, coaches, and all students, especially those with disabilities. CAST’s work with World Vision isn’t yet complete, but one major focus centers on increasing students’ literacy access.
UDL often requires a strong focus on learning goals, Posey says, and CAST collaborated with World Vision to identify which core literacy skills they wanted to support. Then they looked at how teachers were implementing literacy practices and achieving some of those goals in the classroom.
The intent is not to create a one-size-fits-all curriculum, Posey says, but instead to provide a roadmap for how to make the curriculum flexible from the beginning, so it ultimately meets the needs of all educators and learners.
One of the outcomes CAST hopes to achieve with World Vision and Maryland Public Television is to see both teachers and learners develop a better understanding of their literacy goals.
You might compare it to deploying GPS, Posey says, where you know the destination from the beginning. Then you make choices — akin to taking the scenic route or the fastest route, or even riding a bike instead of driving — about how you want to get there.
Giving options from the beginning empowers students to choose the route that works best for them, so ultimately they’re able to learn better and reach their goals.
CAST Curriculum Review Team: A Dynamic Trio
The curriculum review process starts with Posey and two other CAST staff, Luis Pérez and Lynn McCormack, providing introductory detail on UDL and reviewing the client’s educational materials through its unique UDL lens.
It’s a people-powered process that taps the deep, dynamic experience of CAST staff. “The three of us together really complement each other,” Posey says.
She brings the experience of understanding how to implement UDL at a broader level and from a classroom perspective.
Lynn McCormack, CAST Senior Technologist
CAST Senior Technologist McCormack understands both the technology and its applications.
“Lynn is unbelievable at understanding technology and tech tools through the lens of accessibility,” Posey says of McCormack, who also has a license to teach math in Massachusetts.
Then there’s Pérez, a technical assistant specialist in postsecondary education and workforce development at CAST. He’s also involved with the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials for Learning at CAST, and authored the CAST Skinny Book Learning on the Go: How to Personalize Education with the iPad.
CAST Curriculum Review through a Personal Lens
Pérez excels at understanding accessibility, and he draws on personal experience to create solutions tailored to the individual. That’s precisely what he needed — but didn’t exactly get, at first — when he was a student.
When Pérez was in school and requested an accommodation for reading, he’d almost invariably get the standard: Large Print. Educators simply assumed he experienced low vision and needed large-print materials to be able to read.
While a solution for some, it wasn’t the right choice for him. That’s because Pérez has what’s called retinitis pigmentosa, which gradually results in the loss of peripheral vision or a more constrained field of vision.
Luis Pérez, CAST Technical Assistance Specialist
“Actually large print would be the worst accommodation you can give me,” he explains.
For Pérez, larger text means viewing less content in his central vision, requiring him to scan more and straining his eyes.
Rather than making assumptions, the CAST curriculum review simply provides a range of options. For instance, Pérez might change the margin while reading, so he can view more text in his central vision. It’s easy to do that now and many features or formats offer reflowable text, where the text can be made larger but still fit within a given space.
“We really need to pay attention to the user experience, especially as it relates to accessibility,” Pérez says, “to make sure everybody can participate and make progress as independently as possible.”
Where UDL was originally designed to address disabilities in K-12 education, it’s now applied much more broadly for learners of all types. Solutions benefit educators and learners of all ages and backgrounds, whether in the classroom, in a virtual learning environment, or in a hybrid learning space.
“It’s not just disabilities that we’re designing for,” Pérez notes. “We’re designing for different environments. So if you make something have high contrast, it means not only can I use it if I have low vision, but I can also use it when I’m at the beach and I’m on a tablet dealing with lots of glare from bright sunlight.”
The same goes for captioning, which can help not only a person with hearing difficulties but a student in a loud environment as well, Perez says. In the latter scenario, even if that person uses headphones, they may not be able to hear clearly and will benefit from turning on the captions.
Incorporating Curriculum Review From the Beginning
One might be forgiven for thinking CAST’s curriculum review necessarily takes place after a client’s curriculum has already been established. While organizations do ask for help later in the process, it’s far less resource-intensive and much more effective to begin that collaboration in the early-going before print and digital materials and educational videos have been fully developed — with or without accessibility in mind.
“If you wait until the end, you’re never going to do as good of a job as you would have if you had done it in the beginning,” McCormack says. “What we really hope for is that the learning experience will be richer, not just for students with disabilities, but really for all students.”
With that in mind, McCormack is working with Maryland educators to design new courses amid a pandemic that continues to keep many students learning from home as new outbreaks of COVID-19 emerge.
The goal of the Maryland Public Television and CAST partnership is to develop a series of K-12 courses in math, science, social studies and foreign language that will be available for online, hybrid and in-person learning. Prompted by a pandemic that’s driven home the need to be nimble in unforeseen circumstances, the development of these courses “will allow Maryland flexibility in delivering course material in unknown situations,” McCormack says.
Accommodating variability from the beginning requires curriculum designers to understand the capacity and preferences of not only students, but also educators. That may mean improving options for a blind teacher or a teacher with mobility impairments, or accommodating stylistic differences. For instance, some teachers are more boisterous and speak loudly, while others are more quiet and introspective.
“There’s just variability in all of us,” McCormack emphasizes. “So, it’s about being respectful of that variability and making sure you aren’t making recommendations that may be outside of people’s comfort zones, or trying to teach them in a way that isn’t their preference.”
CAST Curriculum Review Process Adds Up to a Better Experience
As it turns out, curriculum variability gives some educators a super power for solving complex problems. CAST has been working with Illustrative Math for nearly six years, and its needs could hardly be met by singular solutions.
“We weren’t coming to CAST with really easy, straightforward questions. We collaborate on complicated problems,” says Nelson of IM. “It’s not easy work to make our content as fully accessible as we want it to be. We have tens of thousands of images. We have tens of thousands of equations. At this point, we have a K-12 curriculum, and there’s an awful lot of content.”
CAST’s curriculum review service helped IM improve the interactivity of its applications, making graphics more accessible for visually impaired or blind learners and adding image descriptions for complex mathematical problems. A focus of the latter included making algebraic and geometry equations more accessible to those with sight impairments. The process also uses charts and diagrams to engage students and explain mathematical concepts.
“If you can’t see the chart, we need to describe what’s in that chart through text, and do it in a way that allows the learner to do what they need to do with it,” Nelson says. “That’s a complicated problem. That’s something we needed their help to think through, how we train our writing team to write that alt text.”
For CAST and the organizations it serves, it’s all about drawing on each other’s strengths to find solutions for better learning.
“CAST obviously recognizes we’re the experts in our content, and I think they’ve also done a really good job of understanding what constraints we face,” Nelson says. “Both organizations enter into this collaboration with the same goals. We all want to make our content more accessible to all learners.”
Story by Red Pen Content Creation.
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CAST works with organizations and stakeholders in a number of fields to find ways of improving learning opportunities in today's rapidly changing world. We regularly partner with organizations in the public and private sectors to explore challenging questions in education through our consultation and curriculum design services.