Teachers have always had students who, for whatever reason, have difficulty participating fully in class. In the past, these students were dismissed as "problem children" or declared unable to learn. Today, however, teachers are increasingly using a set of principles termed the universal design for learning (UDL) to reach all their students.
The mainstreaming of students who traditionally would have been placed in self-contained classrooms has led to increasingly diverse classrooms. Among the challenges students and teachers face, according to the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), are these:
- Learning disabilities such as dyslexia
- English language barriers
- Emotional or behavioral problems
- Lack of interest or engagement
- Sensory and physical disabilities
Despite the push for national academic standards, classroom instruction cannot be one-size-fits-all. According to CAST, by implementing UDL, teachers provide students with
- Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge,
- Multiple means of action and expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know,
- Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners' interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.
You can read the full guidelines, as well as see examples, resources, and research, at the National Center on Universal Design for Learning.
The Ohio State University has an excellent definition of UDL as it ought to be applied in higher education:
Universal design is an approach to designing course instruction, materials, and content to benefit people of all learning styles without adaptation or retrofitting. Universal design provides equal access to learning, not simply equal access to information. Universal Design allows the student to control the method of accessing information while the teacher monitors the learning process and initiates any beneficial methods.
To borrow a phrase from disabilities activists, professors should be "building in" UDL principles rather than "bolting on" accommodations for students who ask for them. Unfortunately, in my experience, this isn't happening as much as it should be, mostly because faculty don't always understand the huge variety of learners in the classroom. Indeed, in a recent survey at my university, faculty expressed a great deal of interest in making all aspects of their courses accessible to students with physical or learning disabilities, but then many said that they had either had one or zero students with disabilities in their classes. Estimates vary, but as much as 10% of the population might have a disability of some kind, so it's unlikely that professors who routinely teach courses of 100 to 300 students would never have had students with disabilities. It's just that those students aren't disclosing their disabilities because in academia, a disability is too often viewed by others as an inability.
There are a ton of bloggers, many of them teachers and teachers-in-training, writing about UDL. It's great to see so many people swapping ideas and evidence of learning. Here's a round-up of recent posts:
Anita's blog Thinking UDL is packed with interesting posts. I especially enjoyed this piece on ableism and her results on using UDL to help students learn to read.
The Assistive Technology Blog from the Virginia Department of Education's Training and Technical Assistance Center offers frequent quick tips and resources on teaching and learning with UDL.
Fran Smith's blog Recognizing Differences offers plenty of food for thought regarding technology--assistive or otherwise. Definitely check out her site if you're looking to watch some interesting embedded videos from education and brain research experts.
Christine Morano McGee has a thought-provoking post up on Universal Design for Learning and the Arts:
Universal Design for Learning offers foundational tenets for truly egalitarian education where no one is marginalized by being labeled as having “special needs or exceptional needs” rather, UDL widens the circle so that every learner is considered unique and has a full compliment of accommodations offered to them to support a holistic educational experience. Accommodations become invisible, embedded in the classroom and integrated into the way we teach and learn. In this same way the art studio classroom allows project based learning and portfolio assessment to be the norm. Students work collaboratively and the teacher becomes a facilitator or guide. Both models move away from lock step “one size fits all” curriculum and instruction mode to a classroom which allows the student to take control of their learning by integrating rich and varied tools that allow for multiple ways of showing knowledge. The studio and UDL embedded technology break down the barrier between teacher and student by making the teacher a facilitator and guide while the student takes active control of their learning.
Cynthia Curry has posted at the Maine Learning Technology Initiative about how UDL can serve as a lens for meeting learning needs in the digital age.
Dana writes about how assistive technologies are helping new classes of users, including students who are poor readers and writers but who may not have been identified as having a learning disability. Check out the post for a cartoon panel that provides one metaphor for thinking about assistive technologies.
What about you? Do you benefit from technologies designed for users with disabilities? (I have a friend, for example, who uses speech-to-text technology to write e-mail or comment on student papers.) What technologies or practices would make it easier for you to learn? And if you teach, how do you make sure you're reaching all students?
Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.
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