Jean Marrapodi, the chief learning architect at Applestar Productions, is a lifelong educator and learner. She believes that universal design principles make eLearning a better experience for all learners. The eLearning Guild recognized Jean as a Guild Master at Learning Solutions 2016 Conference & Expo. She lives by her motto: It’s a great day for learning!

I spoke with Jean recently about universal design in eLearning and how emerging technologies might be used in learning and development (L&D). The interview has been edited for length and clarity. More of the interview will be published in September.

Pamela S. Hogle: There’s a trend toward creating online learning that is more accessible, more universally usable by more people, but at the same time, there’s a trend toward giving people more control: the on-demand, the just-in-time, the microlearning, short lessons instantly accessible on their phones. Is there tension between those two? Do they work together? How do people design for both custom use and a broad, accessible, generalized body of learning?

Jean Marrapodi: Well, I think universal design needs to inform any learning. Any learning we create should be accessible to all learners. The ADA compliance law, Section 508 [an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973], requires an equivalent experience. When we build learning, if it’s primarily auditory, we should have an option for a transcript. When we’re building something that’s primarily visual, we should have background coded in for the screen reader that’s going to be reading it. When we learn to make that part of our thinking, then there won’t be tension.

We’ve talked, Jane [Bozarth] and I, we’ve talked to organizations, and they say, “We don’t need to do that because we don’t have any blind learners” or “We don’t have any deaf learners in our community.” Well, no, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.

In the work that I did at New England College of Business, we prepared a transcript for every lecture that we put into the course. There were professors who were pretty boring on the tape, and students who could watch the video found reading the lecture was a much more efficient way to do that. That’s an equivalent experience for convenience.

In a lecture, if someone is writing on a whiteboard or drawing a diagram, it leverages the visual. I need to provide an auditory equivalent through a description. I’m not visually handicapped, but I’ll often listen to lectures from MOOCs driving in my car, relying only on the auditory. That’s a form of universal accessibility, available for me in a just-in-time format, so I can learn it in a way that’s convenient for me.

We have to be aware of that when we’re designing eLearning—that it’s not necessarily for ADA but it may be for learners’ convenience. Instead of clicking through an eLearning course, maybe someone would be just as happy reading an article to be able to complete the test. Now, that’s going into spooky waters there. What’s the best way to get the learning across so that it will be sticky?

PH: Some people say that the idea of learning styles, that some people learn better by reading and some people by listening and some by doing, is outdated and has been debunked. Even if you don’t accept the idea of audio, visual, or kinesthetic learning, it’s clear that people learn differently. People who grew up in a digital world learn differently from older people; younger people approach education with different expectations and experiences. How can we accommodate all of that? It sounds like you’re saying that universal design inherently accommodates that, even if that’s not one of its goals. Is that what you’re saying?

JM: Yes, yes. I would agree. The people who have thrown out learning styles did so because there were so many variants on it. People do have preferences in the way they do things. I would see this when I was doing software training. You had the person who wanted the teacher to give you step-by-step-by-step-by-step. You had the person who wanted to read ahead and try it on their own. And then you had the person who was just going to go clicking around and figure things out and get completely lost in class, and then try to catch up with where the teacher was. Those were preferences for the way they liked to learn things.

For yourself, when you want to learn something new, where do you start? Do you go to the library and get a book? Google it? Take a course? People like to do things in different ways. We can’t throw out the notion that people have preferences in the way they want to do that. I think for us as designers, we have to accommodate that by including variants in what we have and sometimes even giving the learner a choice—if they want to listen, if they want to just read, how they want to best learn it. Not every content fits that way, but it’s something to think about.

PH: So, if design embraces this more universal approach, we’re not only going to be accessible to a broader set of people with different abilities, we’re going to be able to let people control learning according to their preferences.

JM: Absolutely. And one of the things that universal design for learning thinks about is the remedial learner, the ESL [English as a second language] learner, and the gifted learner. So it encourages you to put supplemental materials in for the gifted learner, who wants to take it farther, who wants to look in the bibliography, who thinks, “Oh, this is just so awesome, I need to learn more about that.” And it also scaffolds the learning for the person who needs terminology definitions—it might include a glossary, it might include pronunciation code. It really depends on what and who in particular you’re teaching, what’s in there. It’s considering not just the deficit model but the supplemental model as well.

PH: Where do new technologies—virtual or augmented reality, big data, artificial intelligence—where do you see all of this fitting into eLearning?

JM: I see there’s a lot of potential for adaptive learning, but I know that it’s very complicated to build. I was in a workshop where we looked at the algorithms that you need to consider and the tagging that you need. It’s very, very code-intensive to build something that will remediate for the learner [who] hasn’t gotten something, that will give them additional practice. I see that in the teaching-reading software that I’ve used with the low-literacy folks that I’ve worked with; I’ve seen it in a program called ALEKS that teaches algebra; and Pearson has a product that has it built in. But it’s very expensive to do it, and do it well, at the discrete level that we want to be able to remediate.

We tend to look at things much more holistically—the person either knows this hunk or they don’t know that hunk. Well, they may know 80 percent of that hunk and miss just enough questions on the test that you’re thinking that they don’t know it at all. We need to look granularly.

Adults are more like Swiss cheese. They have background, but there are definitely holes and gaps in their information. … They’ve got most of the cheese, but they’ve got a couple bubbles in there. We’ve got to look at the bubbles. One way to remediate that is to provide feedback that is instructive and then give them an opportunity to test with an alternate form of the test. That makes the test a learning opportunity.

Virtual reality—to create those alternate worlds where people can practice stuff and experience stuff—it’s great because it actually gives the learner the kinesthetics, for lack of a better word, the experience of doing things and the visual sensation of what’s going on.

The brain doesn’t necessarily discriminate whether something is real or in your head. If I talked you through a scenario and took you to the top of the Empire State Building and had you go out on the patio at the viewing deck and walk to the very edge and look down, yeah, most people, the pit of their stomach would go “Oh!”—except your body is in a chair!

That’s your head experiencing something that you’re being told, and your brain has to fight that. It’s the same thing that makes you cry in a movie. Our brains get absorbed in the story of what’s going on and the actual experience. So, I think there’s potential for this kind of thing in our learning. I think that it’s still very expensive, and it’s not something we’re going to be able to whip together in a week, like we can do with some rapid eLearning. Now, what you whip together in a week is equivalent to what you whip together in a week—you get what you put into something. But those developments, the virtual and augmented reality, have potential, but need the time and resources to implement.

Now, things like Google Glass [an early augmented-reality experiment]—phenomenal. David Kelly talked about a mechanic wearing Google Glass, doing their job, fixing the engine. You’re looking where the mechanic is going, you’re watching his hands, able to do exactly what he’s doing, and you have a much better view than if you’re sitting next to the engine of the car, because you’re seeing what he sees, and you’re seeing what his hands do, that you lose from the angle. So there are tools that can absolutely help us and make things better because they can create the experience.

PH: Going back to what you said about the remedial reading and the adaptive learning and how expensive it is to do that really well—do you see artificial intelligence developing to the point of where we could do it that way? Have Siri tutor your child in reading?

JM: [Laughs] Nooo. Well, I’ve worked with software, where it’s done in small enough modules, and if they [the students] don’t get the module right, they go back and repeat it, but the module is short enough that it’s working on the discrimination in sound. … With reading, you can break it down into small, discrete components like that and figure out what they need help with. The advantage of computer-assisted instruction is, if your kid needs to hear the same thing 472 times, the computer never gets tired.

Look at the engagement that kids have with games, and look at the way games are designed. If you played Angry Birds when that came out, or Candy Crush, even Pokémon Go—any of those that are popular games—they all start you out with very simple tasks so that you are successful right away, and they add new challenges as you go. When you get into the higher levels, you’re getting added challenges that you have to figure out new strategies to solve. It’s not a random clicking around. It’s a very deliberate, sequential process that’s involved in developing those games. And that’s the way our learning should be. We should be building sequentially, scaffolding as we go, and then backing the scaffold away from the learner so they can do it on their own—or with the support, if they need the support. When they’ve got it down and no longer need the support, that’s fine. But they may always need the support if it’s something they only do once in a while. Don’t you whip out your cookbook to make things that you’ve done before?