Universal design for learning A lens for better learning and instruction in higher education

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1 Universal design for learning A lens for better learning and instruction in higher education Dr. Frances (Fran) G. Smith, CVE is an adjunct professor with the Department of Special Education and Disability Studies at George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA and an Independent Education Consultant based in Richmond, VA. Dr. Smith was a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Fellow with CAST and Boston College Lynch School of Education. She has offered numerous presentations on UDL throughout the US and internationally since She has taught graduate coursework in UDL at GW University since In her previous employment she has worked as a vocational evaluation practitioner, assistive technology trainer and practitioner, and college instructor. Previously, Dr. Smith worked at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA, and shared her UDL expertise through VCU s Centers for Teaching Excellence and with faculty, staff, and technology experts to raise awareness and understanding. Her current research and consulting interests focus on UDL in higher education, college classrooms, online learning and secondary transition. What does universal design for learning in higher education mean for you? I was first introduced to universal design for learning (UDL) in 2001 while attending a summer training institute sponsored by CAST in Boston, MA. At that point in my career, I was directing a faculty instructional technology lab for the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. When I returned from the CAST institute, I began to infuse information about UDL into faculty trainings and conference presentations. I continued delving deeper into the importance of UDL in higher education in my doctoral studies that began in Gaining an understanding of the UDL principles and practices made perfect sense to me as this approach focused on the key ingredients to any successful learning situation; what is being taught, how the information is shared, and why the information is [or is not] engaging to the learner. According to the Center for Applied Special Technology (http://www.cast.org), UDL offers a framework where instructional strategies and technologies are infused to support varied learning and assessment approaches. Principle 1: Representati on Principle 2: Action and expression Principle 3: Engagement 1

2 Three principles guide the UDL approach: (a) providing multiple, flexible methods of presentation that give students various ways to acquire information, (b) providing multiple, flexible methods of expression that offer students alternatives for demonstrating what they know, and (c) providing multiple, flexible options for engagement to help students get interested, and be challenged. UDL is an appealing framework as it encourages a wide variety of technology and instructional approaches that can reach all students, regardless of their cultural or language backgrounds, learning styles, or preferences. Evolving research from the learning sciences confirms that learner variability is now more the norm than the exception (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2013a). Learners often vary across a number of dimensions including their prior experiences, the context of the learning situation, and their individual capabilities. Through a UDL lens, we can design learning situations that anticipate this variability, maximize opportunities for learner variability, and offer more instances for learner success. Why focus on universal design for learning (UDL)? The UDL framework encourages three key principles (1) provide multiple representations of content, (2) provide multiple means for the learner s action and expression, and (3) provide multiple means for learner engagement (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2012b). Since 2008, these principles have been broadened and enriched with nine specific guidelines and 32 checkpoints that offer more specifics on how to strengthen the instructional process. As an instructional framework, UDL encourages growth in learning expertise towards learners who are more resourceful, strategic and motivated. I think we all strive towards learning expertise in most tasks and UDL offers a lens that better assures that success. Provide Multiple Means of Represenation Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression Provide Multiple Means of Engagement Perception Physical action Recruiting interest Language, expressions and symbols Expression and communication Sustaining effort and persistence Comprehension Executive function Self-regulation 2

3 Which student / situation has surprised you? In the earlier days of my vocational evaluation (VE) practice, technology innovations did not exist and our current understandings from research in the neurosciences had not yet evolved. However, repeatedly, I recognized that many of the individuals I assessed required a different way to demonstrate what and how they understood the information. Many of these individuals had experienced numerous failures in traditional academic settings. I began to rely on the multiple assessment approaches that were germane to our VE practice and that allowed me to observe the variety of ways these individuals could communicate, understand, and learn. Throughout my career as a practitioner and educator, I ve had the distinct privilege of working with many diverse individuals who have dealt with adversity in their lives. I ve often relied on a variety of non-traditional measures and situations to craft workable environments for student success. In the early 1990 s, I worked with a young man who was losing his vision. Bob (a pseudonym) had mastered the use of Morse Code communication and Apple desktop computers for his ability to communicate with others and expand his knowledge and understanding. He was in the process of considering career and education opportunities for his postsecondary future; an environment predominately dependent on personal computer (PC) technology. In those days, few assistive technologies were available for the PC computer. We were able to tap his amazing gift for auditory memory and recall and allow him to learn a new suite of assistive tools that he could use in the PC world of technology. We focused on the strength of his auditory learning and provided opportunities where he could demonstrate his knowledge through these means. The results were amazing and revealed his capacity to easily transfer his knowledge from using an Apple computer to the requirements of a PC; his ability to retain large amounts of information in his memory to allow an ability to interact and communicate with others; and his ability to quickly learn the instructional sequences of new assistive technologies (such as Job Accommodation with Speech JAWS) that would be required in future employment environments. The use of technology, flexible assessment approaches, and a focus on this student s strengths provided an opportunity to showcase his capabilities. While the definition of UDL had yet to be introduced, we were 3

4 crafting a UDL experience through offering multiple opportunities for his action and expression and uncovering options that showcased his success through offering multiple ways to engage his learning. Suzie (pseudonym name) was another student where again, the use of non-traditional assessment and training approaches allowed her to flourish and experience success. This student was also at a pivotal point in her secondary transition training and one year from graduation. Unfortunately, she had experienced a lifetime of failures that were exacerbated by repeated childhood traumas and chronic mental illness. Yet, her capabilities were amazing. She demonstrated a superior clerical aptitude and attention to detail, which served her well in the numerous office-based tasks she completed. She had an exceptional capacity to catch on to new knowledge and routines and could learn any software program or office task. Her initial interactions with other staff and personnel were very guarded and required measured steps of induction. We focused on positive approaches and multiple opportunities where she could demonstrate her abilities and engage her learning. In this situation, a priority on the third UDL principle, Providing Multiple Means for Engagement, was critical to promoting her success as we offered strategies to minimize threats in the environment, optimize challenges that engaged her superior capabilities, and foster an environment that offered ongoing feedback to support her learning growth and success. Suzie received her high school diploma and acquired a full-time position with our department in office support. Do you know of situations in higher education where UDL has been considered with success? Universal design for learning (UDL) offers a framework for a college instructor that can maximize the design and delivery of course instruction. Utilizing multiple and varied instructional formats, and maximizing the flexible features of digital technologies enhances learning opportunities for all students. The inclusion of specific UDL language in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA, 2008) in the U. S. makes this an especially important conversation for faculty in teacher education. Efforts to strengthen the understanding of UDL in teacher education programs throughout the US have been growing and point towards a model for the future. Some of these are highlighted on the National UDL Center and demonstrate some of the ways UDL is being considered in higher education in the U. S. from classroom to campus-wide initiatives (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2012c). Some of us have been teaching and 4

5 promoting UDL for some time but it is great to have more promoting this work nationally and internationally. Can you share a concrete example where universal design for learning in higher education is successful? For the past ten years, I have taught a graduate course in UDL through the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at GW University in Washington, DC. This course often enrolls students from a variety of disciplines including special education, career transition, rehabilitation, secondary instruction, adult learning, and studies in acquired brain injury. Students are at the masters and doctoral levels. The course is designed as a blended model with a full week of face-to-face instruction and the remainder taught online. All instructional materials are posted online in the Blackboard learning management system (LMS) to offer multiple representations of content and include course goals and instructional plans, PowerPoint presentations, links to audio and video clips, class notes, and links to resources. By design, the course offers a flexible format that includes numerous digital resources, materials, and representations of content. The course also includes several projects that are designed to offer students options in how they are completed. So, in some instances, students can elect to write a formal paper, develop a website around the content, or build a movie. Sample papers and rubrics are provided to give students a lens to evaluate where they wish to land with a course grade. Rigor is still important but the means to get there are multiple and flexible. Between , I had the opportunity to work closely with a faculty as she redesigned her research methods course through a UDL lens (Smith, 2012) at another university in the southeastern U. S.. This course is required of all education majors and often avoided due to the content. This course is typically taught using print-based materials and a lecture-based format. Over four semesters, this faculty explored the why, what and how of her course materials through the UDL principles and guidelines. She built a companion course in the Blackboard LMS with contemporary podcasts and videos to expand content understanding; infused multiple activities to reinforce concepts and anchor understanding; and offered multiple options for students to sustain interest, engagement, and relevance of the course materials. She redesigned the format to highlight clear goals and guiding questions for each weekly session. Over these semesters, student enrollment increased and evaluations were very positive. Students expressed an interest in having more courses developed in a similar UDL way and the faculty honed a course that provided content that was better aligned with goals, objectives and pertinent content. 5

6 Do you have tips or advice for higher education about considering UDL to promote best practices for student? Institutions of higher education are challenged with finding effective ways to consider the learning needs of all students. The UDL framework provides a contemporary lens for the design of instruction in today s college classroom. The increasing reliance on digital access and mobile learning tools expands the flexibility in learning opportunities that UDL promotes. Many of the assistive technologies that we have used in the past are now embedded within many software programs and web browsers. The growth of open education shifts the design of instruction to a more digital means. These trends are wonderful opportunities to embed UDL strategies and technologies. I m excited about the promise of UDL in higher education. As an instructor, I leverage the digital tools and platforms that allow me to be a more creative designer of instruction. I find that students appreciate these options and often demonstrate additional skills when presenting their work through these mediums. UDL also helps me to focus on my curriculum goals, methods, materials and assessments. It encourages me to be a better instructor and to engage my students in a richer learning experience. I think the first step in considering UDL in college instruction is to begin with your curriculum. Evaluate how it is written. Are the goals and objectives clear and attainable? Do they provide multiple means to reach those goals for full participation by my students? When I began teaching with UDL, I started first with the three principles. As the years have evolved I ve found that the design of the curriculum is foundational as an important first step. Once that is clarified, the rest can be sewn together to offer a full palate of options for a richer learning experience for all students. References Higher Education Opportunity Act. (2008). PL , National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2012a). What is UDL? Retrieved from National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2012b). The three principles of UDL. Retrieved from National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2012c). Postsecondary education and UDL. Retrieved from Smith, F. G. (2012). Analyzing a college course that adheres to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(3),

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