Universal Design for Learning – with Technology

De Montfort University (DMU) [my current employer – Oct 2017] has undertaken an institution wide strategic initiative to introduce Universal Design for Learning (UDL) across its teaching, learning and assessment provision. One of the key drivers in this decision being the UK Government’s changes to the Disability Support Allowance (DSA) which requires HE institutions to take more responsibility for the support of students with disabilities and specific learning needs – both financially (through the withdrawal of some central funding) as well as in direct relation to their studies. To this end DMU are taking a proactive approach to the potential ramifications of the changes to the DSA in seeking to employ UDL as a mechanism by which to help mitigate the impact of the withdrawal of certain support services on the students’ educational experience. However, UDL is not solely being employed as a mechanism to address potentials shortfalls in the DSA provision. It also represents a significant and in some respects fundamental shift towards further enhancing inclusivity across the curriculum for undergraduate and post-graduate students.

What is UDL?

Universal Design for Learning is a framework which facilitates inclusive practice in teaching, learning and assessment. It is underpinned by “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.(udlcentre.org). Rather than developing curricula in which specific adjustments for students with specific learning needs are made on an individual needs basis, UDL seeks to develop educational environments which from the outset offer options for diverse learner needs – to be as universally inclusive as possible. (Meyer, Rose and Gordon, p.3)

UDL as a potential methodology emerged in the early 1990s through the work of Anne Meyer, David Rose and David Gordon in the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), drawing in part on the principles of Universal Design which concerned “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Centre for Universal Design) Making a philosophical shift towards addressing a perceived disability in schools in the generally practiced approach to education (the learning environment) rather than students (the learners); UDL recognises that many learners – not just learners with disabilities – face barriers and impediments that interfere with their ability to make optimal progress and to develop as educated and productive citizens. (ibid)

The idea was predicated on the notion that in general, curricula are designed to meet the needs of an imagined, idealised average student and one who is adept at learning via predominantly text-based media. Whereas this might appear to be a reasonably sound statistical method for meeting the needs of the broadest range of learners, it fails to take into account the realities of learner variability. As a consequence it excludes “learners with different abilities, backgrounds, and motivations who do not meet the illusive criteria for “average”. (UDL Centre.org)

The UDL framework supports the creation of a flexible learning environment, one that can be customised, as much as is possible by the student to meet their individual learning needs. It effectively empowers the student to have more control over their learning process which also helps them to recognise and understand how they learn as an individual – they learn ‘how to learn’. In this environment students can progress their learning in ways which are most suited to their needs, rather than through narrow prescribed mechanisms that are based on the learning needs of an imagined average student.

The three core principles of UDL

UDL is underpinned by three core principles:

  • Provide multiple means of engagement – ways in which to stimulate interest and motivation for learning. “Some learners are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while others are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. Some learners might like to work alone, while others prefer to work with their peers. In reality, there is not one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.” (ibid)
  • Provide multiple means of representation – presenting information and content in different ways. “To reduce barriers to learning, it is important to ensure that key information is equally perceptible to all learners by: 1) providing the same information through different modalities (e.g., through vision, hearing, or touch); 2) providing information in a format that will allow for adjustability by the user (e.g., text that can be enlarged, sounds that can be amplified). Such multiple representations not only ensure that information is accessible to learners with particular sensory and perceptual disabilities, but also easier to access and comprehend for many others.” (ibid)
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression – differentiate the ways that students can express what they know. “It is important to provide alternative modalities for expression, both to level the playing field among learners and to allow the learner to appropriately (or easily) express knowledge, ideas and concepts in the learning environment.” (ibid)

This principle applies to assessment – the mechanism by which the expression of learning is mapped against the required learning outcomes.

Digital technology and the interface with UDL

Critical in the emergence of UDL was the ability to utilise the flexibility of digital technology in the development, design and implementation of inclusive educational practice. Emerging digital technologies in the late 1980s and early 1990s offered the potential to become powerful agents for change across many aspects of society; one such area in particular was education.

“When we were forming CAST in the 1980s, we envisioned the new technologies as learning tools that could be radically different from the medium of print. Because digital tools offered flexibility in how content was displayed and acted on, we believed that they could be powerful levers for students who most needed better leverage – students with disabilities.” (Meyer, Rose and Gordon, p.1)

Indeed, given the arguably unprecedented advances in digital technologies over the two decades since the inception of UDL – in particular the ways in which we can now access, interact with, adapt, customise, personalise, synthesise, represent and disseminate information and knowledge – such breadth and variety offers significant opportunities in terms of how knowledge can be constructed in educational contexts. As a consequence digital technologies can now play a major role in facilitating the implementation of UDL.

“With the power of digital technologies, it is possible to provide a malleable curriculum in which content and activities can be presented in multiple ways and transformed to suit different learners.” (Hitchcock et al, p. 9)

It is this malleability afforded by digital technology that situates it as a prominent agent in the effective realisation and implementation of UDL.

Engaging with technology for UDL

The ability to effectively use technology to facilitate teaching, learning and assessment is a learned, practiced and situated skill. It requires:

  • the ability to use, implement and pedagogically operationalise particular technologies
  • knowledge and understanding of the pedagogic effectiveness of technology and technology facilitated approaches
  • the ability to articulate the pedagogic rationale for the use of technology and technology facilitated approaches to learners
  • the ability to support learners in their use of technologies and technology facilitated approaches

This requires a certain level of digital literacy in terms of;

a) practical knowledge: which technologies are available, what each technology does, and how to use it;

b) theoretical understanding: how to use technology in relation to teaching, learning and assessment practice in the situated context of localised educational practice;

c) in the context of this article – towards fulfilling the requirements of UDL.

The situated aspect of this requires educators to have a level of independent ability to incorporate technology into their teaching practice and their students’ learning and assessment objectives. Given the nuanced diversity of this situated practice across the varied curricular, the implementation of UDL requires that educators are afforded thinking space and time to reflect on their own teaching practices and the broader curricular in which these practices reside. Educators need this reflective space and time in order to identify and understand where change is required in order to embed inclusivity; to identify which technologies can offer the means to achieve greater inclusivity; and to engage in training and development around the effective use of these technologies and approaches.

One of the challenges in this regard is to ensure that a robust training, development and support infrastructure is in place to ensure that all educators reach the appropriate level of digital literacy in order to be able to confidently and effectively utilise technology to independently implement the requirements of UDL. The extent of this challenge and the range of potential solutions are beyond the scope of this article. Therefore one particular approach is presented as it represents a reasonably sound point of departure for facilitating an initial engagement with technology and technology facilitated approaches towards UDL.

The three core principles as a point of departure

The three core principles of UDL can offer the educator a point of departure and framework when developing their learning environment in general, but can also be particularly useful for exploring where certain technologies and technology facilitated approaches can be used to implement UDL.

The tables below present a list of technologies and technology facilitated approaches mapped on to the core principles of UDL. The list is by no means exhaustive – but offers a general overview of some typical technologies and associated approaches and can be a useful curriculum development support aid for educators. In particular a potential point of departure for those who may not be aware of the range of technologies available (either in the use of local core educational technologies, or more general technologies) and where these technologies might interface with the three UDL principles. In effect the resource can be used to broker the connections between the technology and the implementation of the technology in satisfying some of the requirements of UDL. However, it should be noted that this resource represents just one mechanism through which educators can be supported in their use of technology and technology facilitated approaches towards the implementation of UDL. It does not pretend to facilitate any depth of reflection and engagement with the deeper underlying principles of UDL and the relation between these and particular situated teaching, learning and assessment practices; which is a critical requirement in the effective implementation of UDL.

UDL PRINCIPLE 1: ENGAGEMENT

Provide multiple means of engagement

Technology/approach Inclusive practice facilitated
Online group work Supports students who effectively learn in group settings; who work best in a shared/collaborative/dialogic space.
  • Wiki
A shared space that affords interactive collaboration and shared group work
  • Discussion forum
A space that affords shared dialogue doesn’t require all participants to be present at the same time in the same physical space.
  • Virtual classroom
A space that affords collaborative interaction in real-time without the need to be in a shared physical space – one in which the teacher actively participates.
  • Virtual group space
A space that affords collaborative interaction in real-time without the need to be in a shared physical space – one in which only the students actively participate.
Social media Supports students who learn most effectively in social/communal/collaborative spaces. Utilises informal yet familiar spaces (e.g. Twitter, FaceBook) for students to engage in learning activities.
Information repository (online) Supports students who prefer to learn independently. Provides resources to support them in accessing information and knowledge.
  • Make text-based files available to students
Provides information resources that offer immediate and direct information and knowledge.
  • Provide links to internet resources
Provides links to content that requires a more active approach in terms of exploring the content to find the appropriate information/knowledge – can include multimedia content which supports varied learning modes.
  • Live lecture/teaching session recordings
Provides an alternative representation of what is a temporally finite learning experience – a live lecture/teaching session. The recording means that it can be revisited and reviewed multiple times by students. Can be of particular use to students who have difficulty note taking.
Provide pre-session materials (online) Supports students who do not easily assimilate and comprehend knowledge when presented in a lecture-style format. Offers a general overview of what the content/context/key themes of the session will be.
  • Make text-based files available to students
Provides information in a text-based format.
  • Provide an audio/visual synopsis of an upcoming session
Provides an alternate modality to text-based materials.
  • Provide links to online resources
Provides an alternate modality to text-based materials.
Classroom response technology Allows students to ask (and answer) questions anonymously, which benefits students who are uncomfortable in this situation, allowing them to participate in this interactive modality.

Facilitates anonymised pop quizzes during a session for formative knowledge checking. Students can also use this to self-evaluate their depth of understanding. Supports students who learn independently.

Reflective group role-play video recording Supports students who benefit from group activity and peer feedback and/or are kinaesthetic learners. Effective as a means of formative feedback and self-reflection on practice-based activities.
Online-scenarios and case studies Provides an alternate modality to essay style, text-based materials.

 

UDL PRINCIPLE 2: REPRESENTATION

Provide multiple means of representation

Technology/approach Inclusive practice facilitated
Make PowerPoint and MS word Files available to students online Provides text-based content in a format that can be modified by students (such as students with visual impairments).
Use digital media (multimedia) such as:
  • Fixed image-based content
Supports students who effectively learn via a visual modality.
  • Audio based content
Supports students who effectively learn via an aural modality.
  • Moving image content (video, animation)
Supports students who effectively learn via a visual modality.
  • Hyperlinks to web content
Supports students who effectively learn through active interaction with information sources.
  • Create an audio/visual recording of a live session/lecture and make it available to students online
Provides an alternative representation of what is a temporally finite learning experience – a live lecture/teaching session. The recording means that it can be revisited and reviewed multiple times by students. Can be of particular use to students who have difficulty note taking.
  • Create an audio/visual resource away from the live classroom and make it available to students online
Can be used to re-present key points/concepts/themes, in a shorter and more easily digestible format, than a recording of a live session.
Audio/visual recording of practical techniques Offers an alternative to the representation of practical techniques via text description, and/or a series of fixed images.

 

UDL PRINCIPLE 3: ACTION AND EXPRESSION

Provide multiple means of action and expression

Technology/approach Inclusive practice facilitated
Automated online tests (using question formats such as Multiple Choice, True or False, Fill in the blank, etc.) An alternative assessment approach that can be particularly effective when used in a formative context, and for student self-evaluation of knowledge.
Digital storytelling1

[Students express their knowledge through the production of a multimedia object created via their own mobile device or one provided for them.]

Alternative means of expressing knowledge, or reflecting on experience/practice – can be assessed. Can effectively connect to students’ familiarity with digital media via their use of personal mobile devices.
Audio diary [podcast]

[An audio only reflective diary/journal – can be created via their own mobile device. Can be shared with their peers or private between student and instructor]

Alternative means of expressing knowledge, or reflecting on experience/practice – can be assessed.
Video diary [podcast]

[A video-based reflective diary/journal – can be created via their own mobile device. Can be shared with their peers or private between student and instructor]

Alternative means of expressing knowledge, or reflecting on experience/practice – can be assessed.
Virtual presentation/viva (online) A means of delivering a presentation (can be for assessment) that does not require the student to be present in the same physical space as those being presented to. Benefits students for whom physical travel can be problematic.
eJournal A reflective journal approach that due to its electronic nature allows the student to utilise not just text, but multimedia as forms of expression.
ePortfolio A practice-based portfolio approach that due to its electronic nature allows the student to utilise not just text, but multimedia as a means of evidencing practice.
Video role-play for reflection Affords the opportunity for students to engage in practice-based activities that are not situated in real-world spaces; and have these assessed (most effective as formative assessment). Offers an alternative mechanism for students to express their knowledge as a situated practice/social practice.
Group assessment (via online means, e.g. group wiki, discussion forum) Affords the opportunity for students to express knowledge that is formed as a collaborative endeavor, in contrast to that which is a purely individual endeavor.
Classroom response technology Allows students to anonymously test their knowledge in a large group environment, which reduces the fear that some may feel in expressing themselves in a large group setting.
Peer assessment (via online means, e.g. group wiki, discussion forum) Benefits students who learn best when expressing their ideas in a group setting and getting feedback in this space.
Blogging Provides an alternative approach to the formal essay. Due to the electronic nature of a blog it allows the student to utilise not just text, but multimedia as forms of expression.
Audio feedback (from teacher) Provides feedback on assessment via an alternative modality to text alone – NOTE: should not be used in isolation as this would not be accessible to hearing impaired students, must be accompanied by text transcript.
Video feedback (from teacher) Provides feedback on assessment via an alternative modality to text – NOTE: should not be used in isolation as this would not be accessible to hearing impaired students, must be accompanied by text transcript.

1For information about educational uses for Digital Storytelling see: University of Houston (2016) Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling [online] Available at: http://digitalstorytelling.coe.uh.edu/

From a training and development perspective, at DMU a version of this resource is used which includes links to case studies. The case studies offer examples of situated practices by DMU teaching staff which are relevant to the particular technology facilitated approach. For example:

Online-scenarios and case studies Provides an alternate modality to essay style, text-based materials. View online case study2

2De Montfort University – The Centre for Enhancing Learning through Technology (2016) Teaching and learning via a virtual, fictional community in Blackboard: The High Street [online] Available at: http://celt.our.dmu.ac.uk/effective-practice/elt-case-studies/developing-high-street/

Such situated case studies can be an effective way of disseminating inclusive practice, as educators can see how their colleagues are utilising technology to meet the requirements of UDL and may be able to adapt this practice to their own teaching. Presenting the contact details (email) of the educators upon whose work the case study is based, can also facilitate face to face conversation and dialogue around the use of technology in developing inclusive practice. Facilitating such dialogue around the sharing of ideas can contribute to the emergence of a community of practice, which itself can be an effective mechanism through which to not only disseminate effective practice, but to provide a support mechanism – community of practice as a shared endeavour.

Providing such situated information is one critical component of staff training and development in the use of technology for UDL. On the one hand, attending a training session wherein you learn how to use the technology – which buttons to click to make it function – is important, but (to reiterate a previous point) understanding how to situate the technology as part of an inclusive teaching, learning and assessment approach can require a significant process of reflection in terms of the extent to which it serves a genuine pedagogic function as part of a cohesive curriculum. “UDL “happens” both in the design, and in the use of the design to facilitate the appropriate, dynamic interaction between learner and context.” (Meyer, Rose and Gordon, p.9) Given this, it is important to note that technology is by no means the sole mechanism by which UDL can be implemented. UDL is about a fundamental, underlying philosophy, ideology and methodology for learning.

“The purpose of UDL curricula is not simply to help students master a specific body of knowledge or a specific set of skills, but to help them master learning itself—in short, to become expert learners.” (National Centre on Universal Design for Learning)

Embracing UDL as a core method underpinning curricula, and ensuring that digital technology is utilised wherever it can effectively contribute to the facilitation of the underlying principles of UDL, requires educators to become more aware of how technology can be brought to bear on their teaching and how their students effectively learn at the interface with technology. For those educators who have not previously chosen to and/or have not had a requirement to engage with technology for teaching, learning and assessment – this can present a significant challenge in terms of their ability to independently integrate technology into their local curriculum. Given this it is critical that they are afforded thinking space and time to reflect on their own teaching practices and the broader curricular in which these practices reside. Such reflection must also be underpinned by a training, development and support infrastructure which clearly articulates the palette of possibilities presented by technologies in terms of meeting the educational aims of UDL.

References

Cast.org (2015) About Universal Design for Learning [online] Available at: http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.V5cgJE32aUk [Accessed: 26 July 2016]

De Montfort University – The Centre for Enhancing Learning through Technology (2016) Teaching and learning via a virtual, fictional community in Blackboard: The High Street [online] Available at: http://celt.our.dmu.ac.uk/effective-practice/elt-case-studies/developing-high-street/ [Accessed: 18 August 2016]

Edyburn, D.L. 2005, Universal Design for Learning, Special Education Technology Practice, 7 (5), pp. 16-22

Gamoran, A, Secada, W.G., Marrett, C.A (1998) The organizational context of teaching and learning: changing theoretical perspectives, in Hallinan, M.T (Eds), Handbook of Sociology of Education

Hitchcock, C., Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Jackson, R. 2002, Providing new access to the general curriculum: Universal design for learning. Council for Exceptional Children 35 (2), pp. 8-17

Kumar, K. L., Wideman, M. 2014, Accessible by Design: Applying UDL Principles in a First Year Undergraduate Course, Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 44 (1), pp. 125-147

Mace, R. L., Hardie, G. J., Place, J. P. (1996) Accessible Environments: Toward Universal Design [Online] Available at: https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/pubs_p/docs/ACC%20Environments.pdf [Accessed 18 August 2016]

McGhie-Richmond, D., Sung, Andrew, N. 2013. Applying Universal Design for Learning to Instructional Lesson Planning, International Journal of Whole Schooling, 9 (1), pp. 43-57

Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and Practice.[online] Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing. [Accesssed 26 July 2016]

Centre for Universal Design (CUD) (2008) [Online] Available at: https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/ [Accessed 18 August 2016]

Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., Abarbanell, L. 2006, Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education: Reflections on Principles and their Application, Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19 (2) pp. 135-151

Rose, D.H., and Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal Design for Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rose, D.H., and Meyer, A. (2005) The Future is in the Margins: The Role of Technology and Disability in Educational Reform [online] Available at: http://www.udlcenter.org/sites/udlcenter.org/files/Meyer-Rose_FutureisintheMargins.pdf [Accessed 18 August 2016]

Udlcentre.org (2012) What is UDL? [online] Available at: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl [Accessed: 26 July. 2016]

University of Houston (2016) Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling [online] Available at: http://digitalstorytelling.coe.uh.edu/ [Accessed: 18 August 2016]

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