Text: Merja Saarela, Ed.D
Principal Lecturer, Research Group Leader in Multisensory and Assistive Technology (MATEC), Häme University of Applied Sciences (HAMK), Research Unit of Smart Services
Multimodality and learning: Increasing understandability and accessibility
Human rights for learning
According to WHO (2015) about 15% of the world’s population or one in seven people with disability. This means more than 1000 million people with disability globally, and of those around 80 million people in the EU. People with disability face widespread barriers in accessing services such as education, employment, and social services. The bricks these barriers are built of are diverse: for example inadequate legislation, problems with delivery of services, a lack of awareness and understanding about disability, negative attitudes and discrimination, a lack of accessibility. Huge positive changes are currently taking place in Europe and in the world concerning general legal and human rights issues. The United Nation Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been revised, the WHO Global Disability Action Plan 2014-2021 and the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 have been set in action (Figure 1). All these official documents put pressure on all parties to carry out actions that contribute to the realisation of equal rights on education and training, work and employment as well as accessibility on the whole.
Equality for learning despite struggle with texts
Educational equity does not sufficiently materialise for those with learning difficulties and different abilities. Specific barriers exist that hinder persons with disabilities from expressing their opinions as well as seeking, receiving and imparting information on an equal basis with others and through their chosen means of communication. People struggle with written texts because of their special needs in reading or writing skills, or due to their sensory deficits. In the case of people with special needs, people with different abilities and people with immigrant backgrounds, we face the question of accessibility and equality in issues that deal with written language. In addition to individuals with special needs, a growing number of young people are reluctant to read and write long texts, stories or books. In their case we see the cultural and social change in our society. These findings challenge current education. Reading and writing skills have always been seen as the educational corner stones of our western society and values. Current cultural, technological and social changes shake this dominance and challenge us to think about the role of reading and writing in education, in working life and in society in general. Could we address some learning difficulties, foster educational equity and prepare a new kind of citizenship by making our society and information more accessible by widening traditional ways of understanding, creating and sharing information, creating new knowledge and setting frames for working life with multimodality, multimodal interaction and digital literacy? As the digital revolution shakes society and its structures in many ways, could it also have positive side-effects as increasing accessibility for society?
The European Parliament has enacted legislation EN 301549:2015, in which it defines accessibility requirements suitable for public procurement of ICT and services in Europe. The purpose of this legislation is to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the internet and mobile apps, to participate in society to a fuller extent and to lead a more independent life. The directive covers websites and mobile apps of public sector bodies. It refers to standards to make websites and mobile apps more accessible. This directive has put great pressure on large ICT-companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple to issue accessibility features for their products, including computers, tablets, mobile apps, software, cloud tools etc. These new accessibility improvements will ensure that there are many more possibilities to meet current educational challenges and provide access for those who previously were denied access because of their disability or different ability. Current ICT and mobile tools set the table for multimodal communication with accessible courseware, learning tools, learning environments, learning tasks and assignments, and ePortfolios (Figure 1).
Transforming learning experiences with multimodality
Multimodality is defined as the capacity of the system to communicate with a user along different types of communication channels and to extract and convey meaning automatically. Communication mode refers to the communication model used by two different entities to interact. Multimodal interaction systems allow users to interact with computers or other devices through many data input modalities (e.g. speech, gesture, eye gaze) and output channels (e.g., text, graphics, sound, avatars, voice synthesis). The multimodality core is intertwined with digital technology. Multimodality can enrich the learning process, make some tasks easier and information accessible for us all while it helps people with different learning styles, special needs, learning difficulties and disabilities (Figure 2). In many cases digital technology can make things possible that were previously impossible. Thus, multimodality is the extension of digital technology into new modalities of interaction that make new possibilities viable.
In this OEB Roundtable, Multimodality and Learning, it will be especially interesting to learn how the use of multimodality and multimodal interaction has been met internationally. What kinds of multimodal solutions have been developed for accessibility for various stages of the learning process and for the transition period from upper secondary education to higher education or to the labour market. It will be great to hear, what other participants have found around this area.