Who Needs to Learn

Who Needs to Learn

Universal Design for Textbooks: NIMAS – National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard
Online Skills Laboratory

The United States cannot prosper economically, culturally, or politically if major parts of our citizenry lack a strong educational foundation, yet far too many students are not served by our current one-size-fits all education system. The learning sciences and technology can help us design and provide more effective learning experiences for all learners.

Universal Design for Learning

Making learning experiences accessible to all learners requires universal design, a concept well established in the field of architecture, where all modern public buildings, including schools, are designed to be accessible by everyone. Principles and guidelines have been established for universal design in education based on decades of research and are known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The UDL principles reflect the way students take in and process information (Rose & Meyer, 2002).
Using them to develop goals, instructional methods, classroom materials, and assessments, educators can improve outcomes for diverse learners by providing fair opportunities for learning by improving access to content. The UDL principles are as follows:

  • Provide multiple and flexible methods of presentation of information and knowledge. Examples include digital books, specialized software and websites, text-to-speech applications, and screen readers.
  • Provide multiple and flexible means of expression with alternatives for students to demonstrate what they have learned. Examples include online concept mapping and speech-to-text programs.
  • Provide multiple and flexible means of engagement to tap in to diverse learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn. Examples include choices among different scenarios or content for learning the same competency and opportunities for increased collaboration or scaffolding.

The definition of UDL that appears in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (103 U.S.C. § 42) has come to dominate the field because of its broad applicability and its research foundation in the learning sciences, both cognitive and neurosciences.

Serving the underserved

The goal of UDL is to reach all learners, but some groups are especially underserved. In the past two decades, the disparities in access to and the use of technology have been closely associated with socioeconomic status, ethnicity, geographical location, and gender; primary language; disability; educational level; and generational characteristics (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2007). The FCC now refers to “digital exclusion” as what must be overcome, because job applications, health information, and many other crucial information resources appear only in the digital realm (http://www.fcc.gov/recovery/broadband/). As we use technology to reach all learners, the following groups need special attention:

  • Low-income and minority learners. Despite significant gains, learners from low-income communities and underserved minority groups still are less likely to have computers and Internet access and have fewer people in their social circles with the skills to support technology-based learning at home (Warschauer & Matuchniak, in press). Some of the solutions to the access problem are capitalizing on existing programs in the public sphere – extended hours for use of networked computers in schools, libraries, community centers, and so on.
  • English language learners. English is the predominant language of instruction in most U.S. classrooms and in the vast majority of web resources. The challenges of learning the content and skills necessary to function as a 21st century citizen are heightened if English is not a person’s first language. Recent advances in language translation technology provide powerful tools for reducing language barriers. With proper design, technology can easily represent information so that there are multiple alternatives for English, multiple options for unfamiliar vocabulary or syntax, and even alternatives to language itself (use of image, video, and audio).
  • Learners with disabilities. In public schools, many learners are identified as having special needs. These students need accommodations to have the opportunity to achieve at the same levels as their peers. In addition to UDL for learners with significant physical and sensory disabilities, powerful new assistive technologies are increasingly becoming available to improve access to learning opportunities. These include electronic mobility switches and alternative keyboards for students with physical disabilities; computer-screen enlargers and text-to-speech and screen readers for individuals with visual disabilities; electronic sign-language dictionaries and signing avatars for learners with hearing disabilities; and calculators and spellcheckers for individuals with learning disabilities. Many of these devices are difficult or impossible to use with traditional learning materials such as printed textbooks. The advantage of digital resources, especially those that are universally designed, is that they can easily be made accessible through assistive technologies. (See the sidebar on NIMAS).
  • Pre-K. For underserved children, learning gaps in literacy begin in early childhood and become increasingly difficult to overcome as their education progresses. Early intervention is crucial if these children are to keep pace with their peers, especially to augment the linguistic, visual, and symbolic worlds that learners experience and seek to emulate. Ready to Learn is an example of technology-based resources that target school readiness skills (Penuel et al., 2009).
  • Adult workforce. Many adults in the workforce are underproductive, have no postsecondary credential, and face limited opportunities because they lack fluency in basic skills. Unfortunately, they have little time or opportunity for the sustained learning and development that becoming fluent would require. For these learners, technology expands the opportunities for where and when they can learn. Working adults can take online courses at anytime and anywhere. While individual adults benefit with more opportunities for advancement, companies and agencies benefit from the increased productivity of a fully literate workforce, one continuously preparing for the future. (See the sidebar on Online Skills Laboratory.)
  • Seniors. The aging population is rapidly expanding, and elders have specific disabilities – visual, hearing, motor, cognitive – that accompany the neurology of aging. At the same time, seniors have special strengths that come from their accumulated wisdom and experience. Capitalizing on those strengths in supporting life-long learning for seniors requires careful design of learning environments and the use of technology so that sensory weaknesses (in vision or hearing) and mnemonic capacity (in working and associative memory) do not erect insurmountable barriers to continued learning, independence, and socialization.
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Access to technology to support learning is a fundamental human right. To provide this type of support for all learners requires a paradigm shift.
Is it cheating?
Can a student use the technology in a (high stakes) test?
When do we provide this technology? How long do we remediate before we compensate?
Does a student who uses technology get the same mark as the student who “did it on their own”?

In 2003 I was a teacher-librarian in a diverse urban school. Every student had access to word prediction software, screen reading technology and a digital thinking tool (Inspiration/Kidspiration). The results?
Our focus was on writing. Not only did students improve in several areas: organization, ideation and sentence structure, they also became more confident writers. They took chances. They wrote more and read more. It was exciting to see children feel positive about themselves and confident in their ability to learn.
Everyone is focusing on 21st century learning skills – and rightly so. But if you struggle with reading and writing, you are, for the most part, prevented from developing the thinking and communication skills you need to be successful in the 21st century. If we block a portion of our students from this type of learning because we want to “remediate” them, they will rarely move beyond rote learning and basic thinking.

To provide this type of support requires a shift in the way we view reading and writing. It requires a shift in what we view as important skills for students. Most importantly it will require support for teachers. UDL isn’t just about providing teachers with the time to learn how to use technology to access learning (if this isn’t a big enough challenge on its own) - it is also about changing the way teachers teach and students learn.