from Educators' eZine
Today's students present a growing diversity of learning needs in such areas as language, learning styles, background, disabilities, technology skills, motivation, engagement, and access. With schools being held increasingly accountable to show that all students are learning, every student must have access to the curriculum in ways that suit his/her learning. Enhancements created to help one group of students may end up benefiting others in the classroom. A good example of this is the use of sound amplification systems that have been put in classrooms to assist students with hearing loss. The result has been that all students, especially those with attention deficit disorder and those for whom audio is a learning-style strength, also benefit from the modification. Many of the tools available today can enhance the learning abilities for all students in all ranges of the learning spectrum.
Universal Design for Learning
Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, actually came from architectural alterations to ensure accessibility of the physical environment, such as ramps built for wheelchairs and walkers. Disability advocates encouraged Web page designers to consider accessibility and several organizations offer accessibility guidelines and Web page validation tools to assist Web designers in accomplishing this goal. CAST, or the Center for Accessing Special Technologies (www.cast.org) was involved in the Web accessibility process and has now encouraged similar accessibility opportunities in learning environments. CAST defines UDL as providing multiple means of representation, expression and engagement by using flexibility in the methods teachers use for delivery of instruction and providing alternative opportunities for students to show what they know and can do.
It means using an open approach when we design educational environments to meet the entire range of learners, going along with the concept in differentiated instruction that "one size does not fit all". Universal design for Learning is an emerging discipline based on the application of advances in learning theory, instructional design, educational technology, and assistive technology. (Edyburn, 2005) The increasing prevalence of computers and assistive technology tools in schools provides the opportunity for UDL to reach beyond a specific targeted student group.
Increasing availability of accessible content
Technology increasingly offers a growing range of digital resources that can provide content to a classroom of diverse learners in many ways. Digitized text allows accessibility to a much wider audience than previously possible, particularly if assistive tools are provided. Students can manipulate text for easier reading by changing fonts, sizes, contrast, colors, etc. Text speech readers can convert the text to speech, and software can highlight words and sentences as the reader progresses at the appropriate rate and offer vocabulary assistance when needed. Multimedia content such as audio files, E-books, images, video and interactive programs offer teachers a broad range of options to enhance their content for learners of all styles.
Basic desktop tools
The proper computer tools make a big difference in student ability to learn. All educational technology departments should carefully evaluate their computers to ensure there are options for:
- Computer system accessibility tools: speech, font, keyboard and mouse options, visuals for sounds
- Literacy tools: dictionary, thesaurus, and word prediction tools
- Speech Recognition: programs designed to ease input
- Talking text: text readers, text-to-speech file creators and screen readers
- Word Processing: text highlighting and font alterations for readability, spell- and grammar-checking that is configurable, ability to add comments/notes
- Organizers: graphic organizers for research, writing and reading comprehension, personal organizers
It is important for teachers, aides and staff to have professional development training in learning to use these tools and enable students' exposure to their capabilities and use. It is also important to evaluate the accessibility options in all software purchased or used by schools to ensure features are available that will benefit all students and teachers.
Curriculum & Lesson Plans
A UDL curriculum is designed to be flexible, with additional strategies to minimize barriers and enhance content. Teachers can easily offer multimedia alternatives that maximize access to both information and learning. Teachers must evaluate student abilities to discover the strengths and challenges that each student brings to learning. Then, by using effective teaching practices they can engage more students and help all students demonstrate progress. In designing a lesson with UDL in mind, teachers analyze their lesson in relation to potential access barriers and provide ways to offer a variety of methods for students to express their understanding of the material. When modifications are put into curriculum up front less time is spent than in making modifications later for each individual need. Multimedia content provides a combination of words and images to increase retention, and learning and organization tools such as graphic organizers, word processor tables and spreadsheets enhance categorization, note-taking and summarization strategies.
The proliferation of assistive technology devices and programs along with decreases in their cost have made them helpful to more students. Judy Dunnan is a speech and language therapist in New Hampshire and has worked with assistive technology modifications for many years. She believes the kids will bring the movement of universal design along. "It's the kids who have moved instant messaging, cell phone communications, and text messaging into primary forms of personal communications and will continue to lead us in the direction of universal design and it will probably look different than what we can even conceive. The place where UDL is most important isn't in the tools, which will be there, but is in the flexibility we accept for cognitive problem-solving in ways that aren't obvious to us. Schools need to let students be cognitively flexible."
We can enhance learning and literacy skills by offering alternative sources and modes of real-world reading/listening, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension improvements using organization and categorization tools. Students should have a wide range of tools that to assist each in his/her unique set of learning strengths and difficulties. This is a logical opportunity to leverage the technology in schools to enable all learners to use tools that they will also use as life-long learners.