Mobile Apps, Universal Design, and Accessibility in Schools: Creating an Inclusive Classroom Experience

Mobile Apps, Universal Design, and Accessibility in Schools: Creating an Inclusive Classroom Experience

Tseday Alehegn (Marymount Manhattan College, USA) and Richard Keller (Columbia University, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 27
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9351-5.ch012
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How can mobile applications may be used to enhance accessibility for individuals with disabilities in educational settings as well as to encourage the development of apps that embrace universal design principles? Smartphones and tablets, often by default, provide alternative accessible features addressing the needs of individuals with visual, auditory, and/or physical disabilities. As schools make the leap into the mobile age, it is imperative to explore mobile applications developed with the universal design learning framework in mind and intent to provide equal access in learning environments. Increased use of mobile apps in the classroom goes hand in hand with the growing popularity of these tools in everyday life outside of the school context, and this chapter is a call for greater engagement with mobile applications that have been designed to be accessible for individuals with disabilities, and to promote a more collaborative and equitable learning environment.
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Since the introduction of mobile applications for Apple Inc.’s iPhone in 2007 (Strain, 2015), their use has diffused into various sectors of society including in classrooms and institutions of learning. Prensky (2007) refers to the youth of today, whose lives are inevitably intertwined with the use of the Internet and social media, as ‘digital natives’ while Gardner & Davis (2013) dub these youth as the ‘app generation.’ Acknowledging the popular use of mobile apps among the student population Antonucci (2014) cites several reasons why such technologies should continue to be promoted in classrooms for purposes including: providing alternative texts in e-book format, the retrieval of supplemental learning resources, and to assist with fieldwork or research. Within classrooms teachers of primary, secondary and college-level students have used mobile phones and apps in various creative ways ranging from the design of assignments incorporating QR codes for additional information on a subject to the production of videos or podcasts, as well as a medium for crowdsourcing and sharing learning materials (, 2012).

Teachers, like their student population, have increasingly embraced the utilization of mobile technologies in classrooms. A survey of pre-service teachers by O’Bannon & Thomas (2015) has shown that while 25% of pre-service teachers supported the use of mobile phones in the classroom in 2013 that number had increased to almost 50% by 2015. O’Bannon & Thomas (2015) further note that as use of mobile phones in the classroom increased so too did teachers’ perceptions of its potential benefits for schoolwork.

Despite the obvious enthusiasm among both teachers and students to integrate mobile phone and apps into the classroom experience, teachers express apprehension about cyber-bullying, cheating, and disruptive behaviors including texting that impede student engagement and performance (O’Bannon & Thomas, 2015). As a result a majority of secondary schools across the nation have continued to prohibit the use of mobile phones in their classrooms (O’Bannon & Thomas, 2015). Contrary to this trend, in March 2015 the Department of Education in New York City ceased its ban of mobile phones in classrooms that had affected approximately 1.1 million students (NY Daily News, 2015).

More importantly, a significant barrier to using mobile phones for instruction in classrooms includes an app’s lack of accessibility or universal design, which in turn affects the equal participation of students with disabilities. This chapter focuses on the issue of mobile app accessibility and the inclusion of the needs of individuals with disabilities in the formal learning setting. In addition to featuring existing examples of accessible mobile technologies used by students with disabilities, this chapter delves deeper to inquire about the overall design of mobile apps in use in classrooms today. Are these mobile apps being developed with the principles of universal design in mind? Are we as educators shifting our attitudes from using assistive technology to advocating instead for accessible mobiles that help foster inclusive classroom environments?

This chapter provides an overview of U.S. disability laws that govern equal access to instructional tools and technology including electronic information and use of mobiles, relevant qualities of universal design, and the synergy between the use of accessible mobile apps and the enhanced classroom experience.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Assistive Technology: A technology or system that is usually designed specifically to enhance the abilities or assist a person with a disability.

Disability: A medical, physical, psychiatric, or cognitive condition that limits or impairs one’s abilities or sense(s) when participating in daily society.

Inclusive Classroom: A classroom design that promotes equal access to instruction materials and sessions for students of all backgrounds including those with disabilities.

Universal Design: A design that is accessible for populations across all spectrums of society including individuals with disabilities, non-disabled persons, the elderly, or anyone with any type of limitation.

Barrier: Any situation or item that blocks or prevents access or movement without impediments.

Mobile Application: Applications that are used on mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, or wearable and portable technologies.

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