The “Universal Design for Learning” approach continues to gain recognition and momentum among higher education professionals. Verbit recently hosted a webinar focused on UDL application to provide a refresh on UDL and how it’s evolving.
Dr. Eric Moore, a UDL specialist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a higher-ed consultant, recently joined Verbit’s Accessibility Evangelist, Scott Ready to explore research that validates UDL application, strategies for effective implementation and technologies that are enabling UDL to come to life in today’s physical and virtual classrooms.
Ultimately, UDL is designed to provide an inclusive environment that develops “expert learners.” The goal is to get students to be informed decision-makers and learn how they best learn in order to choose preferred learning paths. University leaders that are implementing UDL approaches see this value in providing flexibility and choice in the learning process to enable more students to achieve more remarkable outcomes.
“UDL itself is not a method. It’s not something that we do,” said Moore. “Rather, it’s a way of thinking about teaching and learning, and it’s designed to help give all students an equal opportunity to succeed. In practice, UDL really calls for flexibility and learner decision-making in the way that they access materials, the way they engage and how they show what they know.”
Moore explored how there’s a growing awareness in higher education of learner variability as the norm, rather than the exception. He also noted that there have been changes in higher education that really open up avenues for UDL to take more effect.
A Shift Toward Soft Skills & Technology
There’s a new prioritization in terms of skill development, which involves moving away from focusing only on hard skills into the prioritization of what is referred to as “soft skills,” also known as “professional skills” or “essential skills,” Moore said.
These skills include leadership, collaboration, critical thinking and reflection. These are skills students need for life and for 21st century work and are the exact skills that UDL seeks to develop in learners.
Further, there’s also a rapid emergence and demand for new technologies, like augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D printing in learning and creation and the expansion of online learning environments to consider, Moore said.
“As these new technologies and new media of learning begin coming forth, it opens up opportunities to talk about how we can use these new technologies, these new environments to maximal effectiveness. UDL, as a design framework, is one way that we can begin framing those conversations. In this way, we’ve begun to see institutes of higher education respond.”
Don’t Take Tech Skills of Today’s Learners for Granted
With the implementation of more technology to help a variety of learners, Moore said a common misconception is that today’s students, 18 to 24-year-olds specifically, are experts at technology and online learning tools.
“That’s just not necessarily true. Just because they grew up with social media, they know how to use Twitter, and Snapchat, and Instagram, and so on and so forth, for their social lives, does not necessarily mean they know how to learn online. So UDL reminds us of that – reminds us of the value of coaching.”
For example, the vast majority of students who would benefit from captions on their course videos often don’t know to turn them on unless that functionality is displayed obviously, Moore said. Providing students with tips and tricks, rather than assume students are aware of tech that can assist them, can empower them to learn better.
When used effectively, “technology allows individuals to make choices in a way that previously would have to be an executive decision,” Moore said.
Accessibility Measures Help All Students
Ready and Moore also spoke about the broader benefit of technology and accessibility accommodations to help all student learners, regardless of disability.
For example, in the case of closed captions, this tool can undoubtedly help individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, there’s now copious evidence that demonstrates that captions can improve attention, retention and comprehension of videos when any student uses closed captions, Ready noted.
Taking this further, in an accessibility model, these captions would be available on all videos in a class. Yet in the UDL model, an instructor would not only provide said captions, but would talk to the students about the value of captions, why they should try turning them on, and how that might benefit them.
“That coaching element, you can see, is not just about, ‘I want you to retain this content better,’ but ‘I want you to learn something about learning itself. I want you to get better at learning and to develop skills and strategies that you can take with you outside my class and outside the formal learning experience,'” Moore said.
Power in Numbers
So how can one bring about UDL adoption? Moore said he likes to think about UDL as culture change, but with the recognition that one individual cannot change a culture by himself or herself.
“We have seen lots of cases where individual practitioners or isolated practitioners at a campus are doing UDL, but it fizzles out or never comes to its full potential because we’re not getting that strength of networking… If you’re going to practice UDL, you need to build a community,” he said.
Rather, when faculty come together within a department and across departments from construction design to student disability services, the change in culture begins to be seen.
Johns Hopkins recently started a program called HUDL – short for Hopkins UDL. They’re developing a cohort of faculty to become experts in UDL and begin practicing it themselves, and also take this learned information back to their departments at their colleges. Essentially this group is then charged with working together to spread the value and support for UDL campus-wide with a powerful hub-based network.
Collecting data and sharing it with department chairs, deans, provosts, presidents and additional leadership can also greatly helps to get the necessary administrative buy-in, Moore said.
Model, Model, Model
Another key way to bring about UDL adoption is to model, Moore said.
“I think if we’re going to be teaching people about UDL, we need to give them experiences with UDL. Then we need to explicitly reflect on those elements and why they worked,” he said.
He also noted that whether a school is facing lawsuits or push back regarding accessibility, given a grant to invest in new technologies or bringing our courses online, that these periods of challenge present opportunities.
If your institution is moving courses online, for example, tie UDL and accessibility into the conversation and the design plan, he suggested.
“Any time you have this sort of ‘something’s in flux’, there’s opportunity, and there might be challenges. That’s a great opportunity to look at how can we take this opportunity and maximize the outcomes for our learners, for our community.”
UDL and accessibility need to be part of the conversation upfront. They need to be part of how we put courses online and how we think about who our learners are that we’re reaching, Moore stressed.
Moving From Fear to Inspiration
Ready also addressed that with regard to accessibility or addressing a variety of learning styles, higher education professionals often begin taking action only when they’re afraid of lawsuits, need to comply with certain requirements or aim to ‘just check boxes.’
Moore and Ready agreed that they want higher-ed professionals to instead see the difference accessibility can make for all learners and enlist proactive approaches. Finding students who are benefitting from new technologies, UDL adoption and other methods to serve as advocates can be one way to accomplish this change in mentality.
“Have the students speak for themselves. Have them talk about what accessibility has meant to them, and how classes that were designed with the principles of UDL enabled them to learn in ways that they were never able to before,” Moore said. “This can become a very powerful way to continue to motivate faculty and administrators to continue the work of implementing UDL and accessibility together for everyone.”
Final Webinar Takeaways
Moore stressed the importance of ‘finding your people’ and making a team to advocate for UDL together. He noted that often professionals can’t coordinate a team of leaders internally and suggested not shying away from looking for advice externally instead
Moore also said he firmly believes that no faculty member should doubt their own significance and potential impact.
“We’ve seen over and over in places of higher education, UDL gets started because of somebody and it’s not usually somebody with power,” Moore said. “Sometimes [it’s] the most seemingly insignificant of us. I am an instructional designer in a huge campus with 25,000 undergraduate students… but I’ve been able over the course of three years to have huge conversations, and we now have the [University of Tennessee, Knoxville] Vice Provost talking about UDL and I’m excited about that.”
Ready and Moore also noted that the biggest barrier to UDL implementation and enlisting further accessibility measures tends to be time, but that shouldn’t prevent educators from enlisting action altogether.
“Faculty often feel that…they just don’t have time to do what they perceive to be the overwhelming work of redesigning courses with UDL,” he said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. We can [approach UDL implementation instead] as an iterative process.”