Universal Design in Higher Ed Classrooms — Part II

UniversalDesign HigherEd PtII

In February, I wrote a blog on universal design in higher ed classrooms. In that blog, I covered the first four of the seven principles of universal design. This month, I am going to cover the remaining three principles. As a refresher, the seven principles are:

— Principle One: Equitable Use
— Principle Two: Flexibility in Use
— Principle Three: Simple and Intuitive Use
— Principle Four: Perceptible Information
— Principle Five: Tolerance for Error
— Principle Six: Low Physical Effort
— Principle Seven: Size and Space for Approach and Use

Tolerance for Error — The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Like many of the principles and concepts of universal design, this one is meant to be broad and encompassing. As we think of this relating directly to AV and higher ed classrooms, some considerations fall under this principle. In regards to AV usage, I believe this principle is related very closely to principle three, Simple and Intuitive Use, along with being a basic concept of user design. When we think of errors with AV, we often think of “user error.” How many of us have rolled our eyes at a user because they didn’t know how to do something? While that may blow off some steam for us, it does not make the user experience any better, and does not address the basic fact that we created a system someone could not figure out.

One of the most significant examples of this is in classrooms with a dedicated computer. We receive dozens, if not hundreds of calls per year, reporting that the AV in a classroom is not working. Upon arriving, we find that the computer is turned off. While it was very easy to blame the user, “Don’t they know how to turn the computer on?”, honestly, it is a design issue. We didn’t build the system simple enough for anyone to use. So, rather than continue to blame the user, we have made changes. We set it up so that the computers could be restarted, but not turned off. Additionally, we made it so if someone chose to use the installed computer, and the computer was off, it would tell them that, and tell them how to turn it on. Our next step will be to automatically turn the computer on if someone wants to use the installed computer. Another area to think about is what happens when someone presses the wrong button on a control system? How easy is it for them to fix the mistake that was made? Is it apparent to the person using the system how they can correct their error?

Low Physical Effort — The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

I enjoy thinking about this principle, as it is one of the more direct ones. For this principle, I challenge you to close your eyes and think about a space you have used with technology and find ways to apply this principle. Thinking through several different areas and room designs, some of the following things come to my mind. For conference rooms, I think about access to the control systems and the peripherals in the room. Is there a telephone in the middle of a table that takes someone stretched out across the table to reach? Is there a mouse and keyboard that is physically connected to something, and therefore dictates where people must sit? In a room with projection, is the screen manual, or is it motorized? If manual, is it designed in a way that makes it very easy to bring up and down? In a classroom, are the peripherals (computers, playback devices, etc.) all located in easy-to-find, accessible areas? Is there appropriate lighting in the areas where these devices are located so that people can see and use said devices? Are microphones placed in the regions that are comfortable to use, or do they require leaning over podiums to pick up a voice? Are keyboards, mice and monitors located in ergonomically correct areas for people to use for long periods without getting sore and uncomfortable? Also, for classrooms, think about the students as well, not just the faculty. Are the places they are sitting comfortable, and it is easy to have a full view of the room without having to crane necks or move around a lot?

Size and Space for Approach and Use — Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of a user’s body size, posture or mobility.

This is another tangible principle. Can people access and use the equipment and facilities, despite their body shape, size and mobility issues? Here, I often wonder about racks. I have seen many designs over the years that require people to get to a rack. They might need to take wireless mics out of a drawer, get to a playback device or insert a thumb drive into a class capture system. If you are having people interact with a rack in this manner, are you thinking about people of all different abilities and sizes? Are your lecterns or podiums electronically height-adjustable? I say electronically because manually having to adjust a podium or lectern does not fit with principle six.

Keep in mind, a post like this is not meant in any way to shame people or point fingers at what they have NOT done. Instead, it is intended to get people thinking about what they COULD do instead. Not all of these answers are perfect, and indeed, not every solution you can think of is affordable. But don’t let costs and worry of doing the wrong thing stop you. Keep pushing forward and make progress where you can. When you think of how products could be improved for universal design, let the manufacturer know. For example, as I thought about these blogs, one of the things I kept coming back to was manual screens in spaces. These hold many problems within the universal design principles. While a motorized screen solves those issues, it is not always an option due to cost and the added need for electricity. Could screen manufacturers create a display that lowers via a cable on the side of the screen that can be mounted to a wall, so it is always within reach, much like we see on vertical blinds?

As we are in the middle of trade show season right now, and still have InfoComm and UB Tech to come, it is a great time to look around at what manufacturers are offering that will help us make our spaces better for everyone to use. Always keep thinking, keep communicating and advance our industry and the concept of universal design.