Universal Design For Learning

Why UDL?

The curriculum used in many schools today is a rigid one size fits all approach that fails to account for the diversity of learners in most classrooms. Students who are outside of the dominant power structures, racial minorities, gifted or learning disabled, and not from the targeted socio economic class often suffer from the rigidity of the curriculum. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) (2011) describes how in many learning environments today,” individual variability is the norm, not the exception” and that “when curricula are designed to meet the needs of an imaginary ‘average’, they do not address the reality learner variability [leading to their failing]…to provide all individuals with fair and equal opportunities to learn” (CAST, p. 4).

The idea behind Universal Design for Learning (UDL) started as a way to “help learners with disabilities gain access to the general education curriculum” and initially focused on using Assistive Technology to achieve this goal (CAST, 2011, p. 2) The developers of the UDL method quickly realized the “critical role of the environment in determining who is or who is not considered ‘disabled’” and came to the “profound realization: the burden of adaptation should be first placed on curricula, not the learner [and]… that curricula, rather than learners, are disabled, and thus we need to “fix” curricula not learners” (CAST, 2011, pg. 4). Instead of learners being viewed as needing to overcome whatever barriers were in the way of their accessing the curriculum, the curriculum was changed to meet multiple learners’ needs by reducing barriers and provide multiple learning options. The 2011 CAST report on UDL guidelines list the three principles of UDL as:

“Principle I: Provide Multiple Means of Representation (the “what” of learning).
Principle II: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression (the “how” of learning
Principle III: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement (the “why” of learning)” (pg.5).

The two videos below further explain what UDL is.

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Below is political cartoon commenting on the state of education and to the right is a graphic representation of the UDL principles.
external image udl_pic.jpg ...............................................external image UDL%20principles.jpg
Cartoon taken from: https://assistivetechnologytidbits.wikispaces.com/About+UDL..............................................................................................................................................................................................................Image taken from: http://universal-design-4-learning.wikispaces.com

UDL without Technology

Since technology played an important role in the initial creation of the ideas surrounding UDL, it is often viewed as playing a vital role in the successful implementation of UDL. While it is clear that technology easily facilitates the multiple options called for and “powerful digital technologies applied using UDL principles, it also enables easier and more effective customization of curricula for learners” (“UDL and Technology”, 2011) technology is not required. In a study done by David Rose et al the authors contend that the idea that many teachers who are “attracted to UDL as an idea are unsure whether they can actually implement it in view of their limited access to technology or their limited fluency in its use” is untrue (Rose et al, 2009, p. 5). In their paper they outline a lesson plan about the lifecycle of plants which uses no modern technology but still meets the three UDL principals. Below is a sample of the the text from their lesson:

“Principle I: Multiple Means of Representation
Guideline 1: Provide options for perception
• The Seed Lesson has a “natural” advantage in “providing options for perception”: its information is accessible through multiple sensory modalities. Children can learn about the growth of seeds and plants by looking at them, touching them, tasting them, smelling them, and even perhaps by hearing them.
• The various senses of touch (e.g. shape, size, texture, hardness, temperature, etc.), as well as smell, taste, or hearing (shaking and manipulating the plants or seeds), provide students with options to perceive and acquire information in different ways.
Guideline 2: Provide options for language and symbols
• In order to “provide options that define vocabulary and symbols,” vocabulary associated in the Seed Lesson is introduced and embedded in a meaningful activity, rich in a relevant, authentic context. Embedding language development into authentic tasks is much more effective than isolated “vocabulary building” or dictionary look-up exercises.
• Supports such as the classroom “word wall” and student-created dictionaries on vocabulary posters are also effective examples of “providing options that define vocabulary and symbols.”
• The Seed Lesson also inherently provides “options that illustrate key concepts non-linguistically.” The physical seeds, the plants, and the tools themselves are all “non-linguistic” representations of content from the lesson.
Guideline 3: Provide options for comprehension
• In order to “guide information processing,” the teacher develops a checklist to scaffold the information processing of her students. These checklists support students in knowing what features of the plant they should pay attention to.
• The Seed Lesson also “guides information processing” by providing teachers with the opportunity to model strategies and make their thinking visible for their students through the use of modeling and “think alouds.”
• The “seed museum” is an example of “providing options to highlight critical features.” By engaging in the activities of identifying, comparing, labeling, and sorting seeds, students begin to learn a great deal about categories, relationships and even taxonomies” (Rose et al, 2009, p. 5 – 6).
In their conclusion the researchers found that the UDL benchmarks can be adhered to and implemented without any particular modern technology as long as the lesson is well designed from the start.

According to The National Center on Universal Design for Learning, it is important to remember that while technologies do allow for “easier and more effective customization of curricula for learners… it is important to note that these technologies should not be considered to be the only way to implement UDL” (UDL and Technology, 2011). Teachers are able to implement UDL theories in both high tech and low tech classrooms as long as they are “creative and resourceful in designing flexible learning environments that address the variability of learners using a range of high-tech and low-tech solutions” (UDL and Technology, 2011). In addition, simply using technology in the classroom does not mean UDL theories are also being used. It is important for teachers who use technology to work to ensure that the technology used is actually reducing student barriers, not raising them; furthermore, they are still meeting the three principles of UDL curriculum design. The goal of UDL is not solely to facilitate the use of learning technologies but is more to ensure that students become expert learners and learn better from the curriculum.

Why Technology Plays a Central Role in UDL

One of the strongest arguments for using educational technology when implementing UDL lesson planning is “that media such as digital text, digital images, digital audio, digital video, digital multimedia, hypertext, and hypermedia have malleability that can provide opportunities for learning that may not be possible with print text and traditional teaching methods.” Digital media can easily be used to help overcome the “fact the curriculum is often based in the premise that reading, understanding, and producing printed text are difficult for a significant portion of students in public schools, including those with a variety of disabilities” (Castleberry & Evers, 2010, p. 201 – 202). Use digital technology along with UDL lesson planning can help remove the barrier of curriculum being almost solely text based by providing multiple means of interaction with curriculum.

A perfect example of using technology to reduce the barriers and provide access to all students no matter what their socioeconomic background and assigned modern language curriculum is demonstrated by Castleberry and Evers. They published an article explaining how to incorporate technology into language classrooms using the UDL model so that students are provided “with varying needs with equal access to modern language classes”. One of the methods they describe using is WebQuests to provide students with access to news and cultural trends and “access to up-to-date info, which is useful if the textbook being used is out of date or the curriculum has moved away from textbooks all together.” In addition, WebQuests better structure learning by giving “students more focus than when they simply go online and try to find information themselves…[which] means more time is spent on task and in the target language”. Another technology that can be used to help facilitate UDL instruction are graphic organizers, such as Inspiration, which allow students to “ make their own graphic organizers to chart the plotline of a story, chart the story’s characters and their relationships, or study vocabulary by grouping words by meaning or similar structures”. Castleberry and Evers also talked about minimizing the digital divide by using open source programs such as Google Docs to allow students to create a “document in which you and your students can share information, post assignments, and participate in peer editing is easier than ever and is free of charge” and can also be done at home as well as at school (Castleberry & Evers, 2010, p. 201 – 205).

Another example of an educational technology using UDL principles was a web-based collaborative science project for Pre-K – 4th grades called A Dance with the Butterflies. For this project teachers worked hard and successfully made sure that the what, how, and why of learning followed UDL principles. McPherson (2009) explains that recognition networks, the what of learning, “give meaning and understanding to information, ideas, and concepts…[and] the brain synthesizes information hierarchically using clues from background knowledge, context, patterns, unique characteristics, and sensory input.” To ensure that every student was able to access the information via multiple means of instruction, including Hotlink which linked to video, photos, diagrams, pictures, QuickTime Movies, and books for shared reading, were used to demonstrate the life cycle. During the how of learning McPherson explains how “strategic networks in the brain control the mental and motor action required for thinking and acting strategically” and how the project used multiple activities for students to practice the concepts for learning” were used to support the strategic network. Multiple kinds of technology were used to help students demonstrate the how of learning. Some example include MS PowerPoint, Audacity, Click Caster and student learning was also demonstrated using “performances, projects, art exhibits, journals, as well as [students] enthusiasm and excitement.” Designers of A Dance with the Butterflies also worked to ensure that students affective networks, the why of learning, were considered in instruction design because “the affective network may be the most critical to learning but is given the least priority in pre-service or in-service preparation programs.” The positive stimulation of the affective filter was accomplished by adhering to the UDL principles of “multiple and flexible representation, expression, and engagement” which stress the importance of appropriately challenging instruction, reading materials and meaningful tasks” (McPherson, p. 230 – 232, 234). In this activity multiple intelligences and skills were utilized, and students were given a choice regarding the activities they wanted to accomplish. In addition, a summative activity included students witnessing the life cycle with real caterpillars worked well to connect students to the learning. This project offers a good example of UDL lesson design using both high tech and low tech options while simultaneously being a model which could be easily copied and applied to units covering a broad range of subjects and topics.

The Future of UDL

In stark contrast to some educators feelings that technology is not necessary to implement view is Dave Edyburn's (2010) that "rejects the notions" of others who claim that "UDL is just like assistive technology, such that it can be implemented as no-tech, low-tech, or high-tech" (p. 38). He argues that since technology has become so important and ubiquitous in the world we live in “to suggest that the potential of UDL can be achieved without technology is simply another way to maintain the status quo.” Edyburn worries that as UDL becomes used by more educators it will began to be misunderstood and asserts that, “I have been in many situations where educators, administrators , researchers or product developers were making claims that their instructional practices are based on UDL principles , but I simply was not able to see the connection.” To help ensure effective future implementation of the UDL design principle Edyburn describes the new directions he hopes UDL moves towards. We will focus on the three that we believe will be most relevant in the future.

The first is to recognize that UDL is more than using the latest technology in the classroom, and is not simply using web 2.0 and calling it UDL design because of its multimedia capability. Edyburn believes that there must be “prior evidence that the instructional designer understands academic diversity and is proactively building support that will ensure that individual differences do not mitigate access and achievement [because] designers’ assumptions about diversity directly impact the accessibility and usability of their product design”. In addition, Edyburn finds people's claims that UDL is just good teaching to ring hollow because they “reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the functions of the design, proactively valuing diversity, and intentionality.” UDL should use “insights gained from research in diverse fields such as brain imaging, learning sciences, instructional design, and technology” to better service students with individual differences, whether cultural, linguistic, social, or socioeconomic because they are often left behind by traditional curriculum. The last major problem that Edyburn describes is assuming the UDL is not an assistive technology. He describes how “UDL is given to everyone with the understanding that those who need specialized support will use the tools when they need them” while also asserting that “academic performance problems are not limited to students with disabilities.” Edyburn does recognize that more research still needs to be done “in the area of cognitive prostheses” to determine what the benefits of “tools and strategies that serve as scaffolds (temporarily needed and discarded) vs. tools that augment performance (always needed for acceptable performance)” but corrects states that 21st century instruction should allow students “to try multiple options to determine which option is ‘just right’ for ensuring their performance acceptable to meet high standards” (Edyburn, 32, 34, 36-38).

What Edyburn envisions is a curriculum that does not simply pay lip service to removing barriers and providing multiple means of engagement but rather one the actually does. Instead of simply using Web 2.0 and claiming that our lessons are now multi modal, differentiated, and interactive, we should use it to build lessons which truly integrate the diversity of our learners. By taking into account the individual differences of learners, and by recognizing how to design lessons to overcome their barriers, UDL discussions will not “render the UDL construct meaningless” thus allowing it to preserve the status quo, which marginalizes low-performing students.” When used correctly UDL solves many of the problems we have in our classes centered around access to content and by focusing on UDL concepts allow learners in our class have the needs better met, not matter what they are” (Edyburn, 2011, p. 38).

Here are examples of UDL from primary, middle, and high school.


International Teaching and UDL

Besides the benefits above, UDL also lends itself well to international teaching because it can easily be used to teach global citizenship and benefit language learners. The central idea behind UDL instruction is that "principles of fairness indicate that equity is achieved when every student receives what he or she needs" (Edyburn, 2010, p. 39). When teaching at international schools, classes are often full of students whose native language is not English yet almost all of the content instruction they receive is in English. Students often struggle, earning bad grades, not because they are not working hard or do not understand the content, but because they are struggling with English. The University of Maryland has created a website called Empowering ESL Students with Universal Design which explains that "it is very important to train mainstream teachers in the principles and procedures of Universal Design in Learning and provide them with strategies in development and implementation of the UDL principles into their instruction" (Yilmazel-Sahin, 2003). The website gives many examples of how UDL ideas can be used in international classrooms, such as providing multiple representations of content so that schools can best serve the needs of the students they teach. In addition, UDL "uses digital based technology that enables teachers to create teaching materials that are easily accessible online by anyone anywhere in the world." The University of the Azores launched a project to teach Portuguese throughout the world using UDL ideas because "UDL is an innovative educational framework that helps educators expand learning opportunities for all learners." The university hopes to "reconnect many people of Portuguese descent to their heritage" and are "pleased to be part of an international project which will be beneficial for all those involved” (Matos, 2011). The university also hopes that by using UDL to teach Portuguese to students from many different cultures and countries throughout the world, they will be able to bring different cultures together in a way that promotes understanding and acceptance.