What is Universal Design for Learning?

Whenever anyone asks me about my blog, I always tell them that it's not a Web 2.0 blog. There are tons of blogs out there that can give you technology to use. I always tell them that my blog is about creating learning opportunities for ALL students through a concept called Universal Design for Learning. That's usually the point where their eyes glaze over!

There is ton's of research out there about the concept, from world-class experts in the field. CAST is one of the leading organizations in UDL research. Yet when people take my classes, read articles about UDL, or go to UDL workshops, they often don't have a clear vision of what it is. So over the next couple of days, I'd like to give my spin on the concept that is impacting the way ALL students learn.

Universal Design was originally intended to design better products, buildings, and environments for the widest range of users possible. From the start, modifications are taken into consideration, to reduce cost and eliminate potential problems. UDL takes the same concept a step further and applies it to education, answering two questions:
  • How can we get learners to "access" (or "get it") information? 
  • How can we eliminate the "barriers" (or roadblocks) towards learning? 
 Imagine walking into a shopping mall and trying to get through the doors. The automatic doors that you enter were universally designed for people with strollers, wheelchairs, or who simply didn't want to open a door by hand.

Television closed captioning was originally designed for people suffering with hearing impairments. It was quickly adapted and used by everyone. Spouses who want to watch TV without waking their husband or wife use it. People who work out in a gym use it. It's not meant for hearing impairments.

What does a UDL classroom look like? 

UDL and technology go hand in hand! Because of the flexibility and capabilities of technology, you can impact all learners! Take for instance, you have a reading assignment for your students to complete. You provide your students with a digital copy from the beginning, taking into consideration the diverse students you have in your room.

Johny, a student with vision impairments automatically benefits from this adaptation. He can zoom into text and easily understand what he's reading.

Carla likes to highlight text. She uses the highlighting features of Adobe to take notes and understand what she's reading.

Jamal has difficulty reading and tries to avoid it like the plague. However, if someone is reading along with him, he finds it easier to comprehend the text that he's reading. You can allow Jamal to use a text-to-speech program like Voki to comprehend the text.

Sam has trouble with understanding vocabulary. The hyperlinks built into the digital copy of the text, allow him to understand key vocabulary words. Sarah is one of your gifted students, who uses the same hyperlinks to read advanced information about the particular concept.

That's Great, But I Don't Have Computers

Not all of us are privileged to have computers for all students in our rooms. Take the same reading assignment and take some different spins.

Maybe you provide options for students on how they will read the assignment. You provide highlighters for the Carla's of the world. You allow the Jamal's of the world to read with another student. You may want to provide your students with post-it notes to write down questions they may have about vocab, the text, etc. Or come up with the "main idea" for each page.

Maybe you have your students take notes in the text. You give them the option of writing out sentences, words, or using pictures to describe key concepts.

The Sam's of the world may need a dictionary to look up words or actual pictures of key vocabulary words to understand. The Sarah's of the world may need a higher level reading article provided for them, which you used the advanced Google search feature (article from this blog) to do it.

Fitting it All Together

We all learn different ways. In order to create understanding, we need to be able to perceive, interact, and engage in learning in different ways. UDL is about understanding the learners in our classrooms, by eliminating barriers and creating access (or opportunities) for all students to learn.

3 different guidelines were designed to create succcessful learning experiences for all of our students. I'll get into more detail later. But here's a preview:

1. Multiple Means of Representation
2. Multiple Means of Action / Expression
3. Multiple Means of Engagement


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