Why inclusive design is key to empowering all learners

Jul 05, 2022
Our Work

Apps for Good is aiming high in its approach to creating inclusive course content for students. It’s important to us that all students have an equal opportunity to develop tech innovation skills to enable them to thrive in a changing world, regardless of their learning needs. That means, making sure our courses are accessible to everyone.

Following feedback from special school teachers experiencing a lack of appropriate resources to teach digital skills to children with special educational needs and with funding from the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, we tested an adpated version of our App Development course with four special schools.

Student innovation came from very personal passions and interests, enabling them to take action on the things they care about most. One student created an app idea, designed to tackle misinformation about autism. Another focused on educating others about different religions and one student set out to create an accessible guide to repairing things through video and audio.

Teachers reported that students were most enthused and engaged during the active, app building sections of the course, highlighting a need for more interactive computing content early on. This feedback aligned with the improvements we’ve made to early versions of our new Innovate for Climate Change (ICC) course, now available to schools after an extensive pilot phase - and now packed full of interactivity!

Why stop there?

As we learnt more about inclusion, it became clear that the best way to deliver an equitable learning experience is not through having a stand alone SEND course, but by working smarter, with experts, to ensure all of our courses are accessible to all learners, while enabling teachers the freedom to modify their teaching to meet the needs of particular students.

In advance of developing the new ICC course, we worked hard to improve our approach to developing accessible courses for mixed ability students. To enhance learning for all students, we took a user-centred design approach – considering the users and their needs at each stage of development. For example, when deciding how best to present the information; how to structure the sessions; as well as identifying which content can be more interactive.

That’s why we have adopted Universal Design principles as our tenet for an inclusive practice, where design is:

  • Usable by all people
  • To the greatest extent possible
  • Without the need for adaptation or specialised design

We didn’t stop there. In addition to adopting these principles ourselves when developing the course resources, we have also introduced students to Universal Design so that they learn about and practice inclusivity.

Teaching approaches

We use teaching approaches which specifically allow for differentiation. Pair Programming is an approach that was developed for professional programmers in the technology industry, and it has now been adopted in educational settings. By forming pairs, teachers match students with slightly different abilities such as cognitive and/or social maturity.

‘Use, Modify, Create’ is another teaching approach which scaffolds the process of learning. First a working program is provided to students who modify the code as an important step towards creating their own programs from scratch. Modification improves students’ confidence and helps to maintain their interest in learning to program.

Presentation Matters

We have ensured resources, including presentation slides and workbooks, are accessible to all learners. We have reduced the amount of text we use and have considered the reading age of our learners (approximately 12 years-of-age) when simplifying language.

To increase readability, we have increased the font size and line spacing, avoided italics or underline and used bold for emphasis. Where possible, links have been given in full sentences so that a whole link defines what it relates to. Using the Style Guide resource from the Dyslexia Association, we have gone for a lighter background to all text: for white backgrounds we have opted for a very dark grey text colour and for coloured backgrounds we have used a black text colour. High contrast is important to readers but, interestingly, not the highest contrast – black on white can be, for some readers, challenging to read.

One principle that has been impactful to how we organise information is to avoid, where possible, using colour as the sole indicator of meaning. For some, distinguishing between colours is challenging. For example, an arrow or an area cannot simply be distinguished through colour. They would need to also have a distinctive border pattern or text as well. We have found that descriptions are often filled with colour. It is something we have had to check ourselves against constantly.

We have been more generous in our inclusion of relevant and meaningful images in order to support written content. We have broken up content using ‘white space’, used short paragraphs and plenty of bullet points to break down information - especially step-by-step instructions.

Reducing the load

It’s beneficial to learners to have a number of routes to access information. We are therefore trialling information offered via audio as well as text-based. We’ve included QR codes in our classroom posters, which take readers to an audio version.

We want to reduce the cognitive load for students wherever we can, so have created a series of classroom posters of course keywords available to students as a way of teaching them key vocabulary. Importantly this means students avoid using their working memory on keywords and instead focus on a keyword’s use within a context.

Structure of Activities

We have reduced the number of activities to allow more time for each one. Throughout the course, students routinely strengthen their digital literacy with screen-based activities. They use online tools and editing shared files with varied tasks – from written output, to creating a computer program, to researching images.

We have created a How-To Guide for programming in App Lab. Learners can now work at their own pace and utilise support when required. The benefit is that teacher instructions need not be remembered and it builds independence, meaning students are more likely to stay on task because they do not have to wait for support. It gives teachers more time to offer verbal support to individual students.

Essential skills

We have made life skills more explicit by working with Skills Builder and their eight essential skills – we highlight one or two essential skills in every session. As well as being part of the presentation slides, the lesson objective and session outcomes are also included in the students’ Digital Workbook so they are reminded what the deliverables are.

Lastly, diversity needs to be considered an important part of inclusion. Representation of names, images and gender aim to reflect all learners. Students’ lived experiences are embedded in the learning process – they develop a prototype app for a community which they are familiar with or a social challenge they care about most. Although real-world and meaningful engagement has been an important part of Apps for Good’s approach for many years, we’re aligning it more and more to our overall inclusive practice.

Looking forward

We know we could always do more. We’re already planning to explore an increased range of unplugged ideation activities so that student teams can develop their ideas away from the computer. We are also going to trial access to audio versions of key text within the digital workbooks.

Not only do we begin the next academic year with an exciting new and inclusive computing course - Innovate for Climate Change, but we’ve also validated a fresh collaborative new approach to creating courses that are inclusive for all learners, while following industry best practice. Over time, we’re looking forward to refreshing our App Development and Machine Learning courses through an inclusion lens.


Apps for Good’s new approach to inclusion has been developed in consultation with inclusive computing expert, Catherine Elliott. A huge thank you Catherine! As a member of CAS include (a working group committed to increasing diversity and inclusion in computing), author of a Report on Computing in Special Educational Needs Settings; a columnist for Hello World: Inclusion and Diversity and a presenter on Teach Computing’s podcast on ‘Supporting all students in Computing', Catherine is very well placed to guide us on inclusion.

We'd also like to say a huge thank you to students and teachers at Glenwood School, Pentland Field School, Springhallow School and Stony Dean School for their feedback and guidance on inclusivity in our courses.