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Higher education engineering curricula

Higher education engineering curricula

Edited by Dr. Carlos A. Velasco, Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT Web Compliance Center.


The rationale for including Universal Design in the ICT engineering curricula is based upon demographic data, combined with the increasing spread of technology, which argues that unless Universal Design is included at the design stage, we will increasingly find ourselves with Information products, systems and services that are inaccessible to the majority of intended users. Without awareness of these issues, and the corresponding education in methods and techniques of Universal Design, future engineers will unknowingly incorporate impediments in existing and coming technologies. Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that existing engineers have also a demand for Universal Design training, thus they can cope with the needs of those users in their professional environments.

Curriculum design is also becoming a key issue because of the harmonization efforts occurring in some parts of the World, like the Bologna agreement in the European Union. We will present the results of the IDCnet project,  which classified the necessary knowledge and skill sets necessary to design Universal Design curricula, after a thorough research on existing initiatives and interaction with interested parties like higher education institutions and the industry. This work is taken on by the DfA@eInclusion project, which investigates the adaptation of these topics to the training needs of professionals.

Designing a curriculum
Traditional curriculum design methodologies demand to establish the boundaries of a subject, the areas contained within the boundaries and the linkages between them. Within engineering curricula, there is always a need to establish a balance between academic offerings and industry needs. In the area of ICT, the gap between both areas is sometimes wider than desirable due to the rapid evolution of technologies like Web 2.0 or the Mobile Web.

For Universal Design, it is not at all clear that it should be taught as a separate subject. The debate about whether to aim at mainstreaming Universal Design in education, or to aim for having it as a separate ‘value-added' course has its strengths and weaknesses.

The research undertaken by IDCnet led to classify the subject areas in a taxonomy of knowledge sets and skills. These sets can be used to define curricula, as proposed in some of the pilot projects studied. The key sets identified are:
1. Universal Design Awareness
This knowledge category serves most often as an introduction to Universal Design. By various means students are encouraged to think of users in a wider category than just mirror images of themselves, to understand how barriers are unintentionally put up when user needs are not sufficiently understood, and to understand that Universal Design does not mean design for disabled, but for diversity of users and contexts. An exemplary topic under this area could be the social, functional and medical models of disability, like, e.g., the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

2. Why Universal Design? Ethical, legal and commercial considerations

As part of ethical considerations, students learn about the history of Universal Design, the move from segregation to integration, from specialized solutions to inclusive solutions and equal opportunities for all. As part of legal considerations, students learn about various pieces of legislation, how they have come about, their impact, and what is set to happen in the future.

As part of commercial considerations, students are introduced to the commercial benefits of Universal Design, and various supporting arguments, such as demographics, the problem of retro-fitting design, etc. Other requirements, such as the importance of making sure that products appeal to all and do not carry stigma are re-iterated since the ‘specialized solution' design that is non-aesthetic is often rejected, even though it may fulfill its functional requirements. An exemplary topic will be the presentation of population statistics in different parts of the World, making special emphasis on the aging of population in Western countries.

3. Recommendations
This knowledge category is a ‘catch all' for work such as Principles, Guidelines, Standards, Recommendations, and Specifications that have a bearing on Universal Design. Students are made aware that such bodies of knowledge exist. They should be encouraged to search for such work and consult the relevant ones as a first step. At the same time, it is acknowledged and explained (and illustrated) that these are not always easy to find, and rarely in a format that is easy for them to use and implement in specific contexts. The ‘jargon' of each type of recommendation is also a consideration. An exemplary subject in this area is Web Accessibility, and in particular the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in its two versions, and how they influence ICT accessibility legislation in different parts of the World.

4. Interpersonal Skills for Teamwork

This category is slightly different from the preceding ones because it centers on skills rather than on knowledge. However, it can be stressed to students that behavioral skills such as team work, communication skills, information representation, information retrieval, etc. are very important to design work practice in general and to Universal Design in particular. This is because Universal Design is not widely understood or accepted as yet. Designers with Universal Design knowledge may find themselves the only person in the team. They will have to work to convince their co-workers, at many different areas within the organization of its importance. An exemplary exercise could be the search of examples of god and bad design.

5. Accessible content: knowledge about documents and multimedia
In this category the emphasis is on making sure that ‘content' (mostly information and interactive Web pages) is accessible and usable. Students develop the ability to understand when content is problematic and why. They learn about current methods and techniques to produce accessible content, or to convert content. Depending upon type of student/course, they may develop the ability to produce accessible content/convert content. An exemplary topic could be taken out of the Web by using Cascading Style Sheets to separate content from presentation in (X)HTML documents, thus allowing multi-purposing of content.

6. Accessible interaction: input and output

This category deals with hardware and software enablers of interaction, but abstracted from human users. Materials in this area must include demos (e.g., videos) and descriptions of the different technologies. It includes:

  • Knowledge about assistive and adaptive devices that enable alternative input and output, e.g. speech synthesizers, screen reader software, screen magnifiers, alternative keyboards, etc., as well as different types of browsers and operating systems that allow different manipulation of the content, etc.

  • Knowledge about different types of modalities: speech, haptics, gesture, sketch, force feedback, scanning, bio-sensors, etc.

  • Knowledge about different bandwidths, device capabilities, etc.

7. New paradigms of interaction
The justification for the creation of this category was to be a place for the work that is mostly in research state currently, but within the next five years - the typical time span of an undergraduate and master's university education - could breakthrough into mainstream development. Topics that can be distinguished are affective and social computing, a range of smart computing applications, smart homes, clothes, cars, ambient intelligence, etc. Examples of such paradigms could be virtual reality, emotional and wearable computing, etc. and how they can influence the future of Universal Design.

8. User-centered design
Into this category go all the human, user, usability/accessibility philosophies, methodologies, techniques that apply to requirements and evaluation phases of design, etc. Many of these are routinely taught as part of HCI courses, but as they are currently used they do not always include diversity in users and situations. Exemplary materials could refer to the design and planning of user evaluations for the development of products, creation of questionnaires, etc.

9. Application domains and research
This category can refer to ‘application domains', and separately to research issues and challenges that go with them, or it can view these two activities as related, dependent upon the case. This category has a wealth of areas, such as public access to information, authoring environments, health monitoring, smart homes, etc. Figure 1 presents a graphical overview of the different areas. It is evident that the first four areas have an overarching perspective and could be applied outside the ICT area like in Transport or the Built Environment, while the rest have a concrete focus on ICT.
Figure 1. Graphical representation of the taxonomy of Knowledge Sets and Skills for curricula design (coming soon).

The industry perspective
As mentioned earlier, there is not only a need to train future professionals, but to provide training to active engineers in the different aspects of Universal Design. However, the training must be tailored to the different type of users found typically in the industry, and with different levels of granularity:

  • Management

  • Marketing and Customer Relationship

  • Design

  • Quality Assurance, Human Factors, Usability

  • Software and Hardware Development

The taxonomy of topics listed for the higher education institutions is being adapted to the industry needs under the scope of the DfA@eInclusion project and will be standardized in a CEN Workshop Agreement that will be started in the coming weeks.

This section has presented briefly existing research efforts on the design of Universal Design curricula in the academic and professional environment. The uptake of Universal Design in ICT curricula in both environments is still anecdotic and mostly due to some kind of top-bottom approach. Under the scope of the demographic changes of our society, the widespread adoption of these knowledge sets must become a priority to enable a truly inclusive Information Society.