Universal Design for Learning at Babbel Live

When it comes to learning, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

All learners have different learning styles, preferences and abilities. At Babbel Live, we’re committed to making language learning inclusive and accessible to all. That’s why we recently organised a workshop for our Babbel Live Teacher Training team and a group of Babbel Live teachers exploring the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) with disability consultant Carsten Otto from KnowDular. This workshop was an extension of Babbel’s existing partnership with Carsten after having previously collaborated on projects regarding the accessibility of the Babbel app as well as the Babbel office building in Berlin.

The workshop came about in response to feedback from our teachers, who identified a need for further training on how to best respond to visually impaired students in the Babbel Live classroom, an online classroom hosted on Zoom. In a hybrid format, four Babbel live team members and three Babbel Live teachers joining virtually from different parts of the world took part in the workshop at the Babbel headquarters in Berlin. During the workshop, we looked at how UDL could be applied to remove barriers to learning, focusing on how it could benefit learners with visual impairments.

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

UDL is an approach to teaching which aims to create an inclusive learning environment that eliminates barriers and supports all learners, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. 

It focuses on diversifying three aspects of the learning experience: 

  • means of engagement (why we learn)
  • means of representation (what we learn)
  • means of action/expression (how we learn)

By focusing on these three areas, UDL encourages engagement and supports learners in achieving their goals.

UDL aligns with the social model of disability, a framework that says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things, like learning another language. The social model of disability promotes a focus on removing those barriers and creating a more inclusive society, rather than on “fixing” or “curing” the individual. Removing these barriers is a step towards a more equitable society and offers people with disabilities more independence, choice and control.

UDL in practice

When it comes to teaching, UDL is all about giving students meaningful choices in order to help them engage with the content and motivate them to learn. In our workshop, Carsten did just that. He explained that we would adopt a two-way communication approach, meaning that everything that can be seen must also be heard, and vice versa. 

He also asked us all to share how we learn best: What do we need to be an engaged learner and what activities do we need to express ourselves best? Throughout the workshop, Carsten offered us different options for resources to interact with, including video, text, or a combination of both, to cater to the diverse learning needs and preferences of all participants. 

“Not only was Carsten a skilled and engaging moderator, but he also provided clear examples of UDL in action during the workshop (walked the walk) by giving us multiple options to engage with the content and achieve the learning outcomes,” said Teacher Trainer Tim. “This demonstrated the essence of UDL principles – principles that could be developed further in our product.”

UDL at Babbel Live

In the second half of the workshop, we were invited to think about how to design the Babbel Live learning space to be accessible for all learners. We considered the choices available to us in the online setting, including the features of the Zoom technology, like breakout rooms and the chat box, as well as the Babbel Live lesson materials PDF and general access to the internet during the class. We considered the options for how students can engage with the content provided as well as ways students can express themselves i.e. how they can re-produce the language they have learnt. “UDL is not about problems, it’s about solutions,” Carsten reminded us. 

To practise applying the principles of UDL to the Babbel Live classroom, we focused on learners with visual impairments as an example and used visual simulation glasses to understand the barriers that these learners may face. Babbel Live teachers were invited to plan and conduct part of a Babbel Live class via Zoom, with the in-person participants wearing the simulation glasses acting as students in the Babbel Live classroom.

“With just minor adjustments and considerations we could integrate diverse types of learners and ensure they can participate and improve their skills,” noted Babbel Live Spanish teacher Edwin. 

Takeaways from the workshop

We were pleased to discover that many of the principles of UDL were already aligned with the Babbel Ecosystem, which includes our App lessons, Live classes, Podcasts and Games. Babbel Live students are able to self-regulate their learning with our flexible booking system and the ability to progress through the curriculum in a linear or non-linear fashion, as fast or as slowly as they wish. Moreover, the Babbel Live approach focuses on student engagement and output and encourages teachers to adapt to their students’ needs. 

We also recognised that there was still more work to be done to ensure that our product experience was entirely accessible to all learners. “Our teachers depend on many conditions such as students’ access to the product and the lesson material to facilitate an effective learning experience for all. However, these factors would be irrelevant if students were to meet teachers who have no awareness of the topic of accessibility and who are not well-equipped with strategies for diversifying their channels of instruction,” said Teacher Training Manager Moritz. “Carsten’s guidance on taking a holistic approach has been invaluable to us.”

There is no doubt that the recent workshop with Carsten Otto was a crucial step in our journey towards a more inclusive product experience. The Babbel Live Teacher Training team will continue to explore how we can further develop our product and empower our teachers to apply the UDL approach to the Babbel Live classroom. 

“Learning about the UDL model has prompted me to re-examine how we approach language teaching and learning,” said Teacher Trainer Carla. “By embracing a model that eliminates barriers, we can foster an inclusive, accepting, and generous learning environment for students, as well as a more effective and fulfilling language teaching experience for everyone involved.”