The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mentions the phrase “Universal Design for Learning” (UDL) four times, citing it as a way of ensuring students’ civil rights, and stating that schools should “use technology, consistent with the principles of universal design for learning, to support the learning needs of all students, including children with disabilities and English learners.” So whether you are already an avid proponent of the UDL guidelines already or you are still wrapping your head around them, most schools are now required to abide by their principles.
What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?
The Universal Design for Learning principles – outlined in this handy chart by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) – are all about providing students with multiple avenues for learning: multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement. As described on the UDL Center’s website, these three priorities align with different neural networks, and they answer the “what,” “how,” and “why,” of teaching and learning.
How Can Technology Help with Multiple Means of Representation?
Multiple means of representation refers to how students take in information, i.e. providing students with multiple modalities for input. It’s easy to do this with reading in particular. For example, are students reading large print books, listening to audiobooks, reading Braille, or using some combination of these text types?
Audiobooks are becoming increasingly easy to access, but if you want additional resources on the best ways to obtain or incorporate them, Learning Ally and Bookshare both have resources about audiobooks, and provide access to audiobooks with paired texts (which is the best way for some students) for individuals with print-based disabilities, including students who are blind and have Specific Learning Disabilities, such as dyslexia). In addition, for students with print-based difficulties, podcasts can be a valuable instructional tool. There are several mainstream and instructional podcasts that can support your curriculum. A handful of my favorites include Why? The Science Show for Kids, Storycorps, More or Less, Radiolab, and A World of Ideas.
“Representation” does not simply refer to modality, however; it also has to do with the content of what is being presented. Many reading advocates and researchers argue for the use of complex texts with students in second grade or higher. Texts become “complex” for students if they require support with vocabulary, background knowledge, sentence structure, and text structure or organization. Therefore, teachers need to prepare to scaffold learning in all of these arenas. One simple way to do so is by providing videos of the content you are teaching: this not only increases engagement, it builds background knowledge, supports comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. Two of my favorite educational Youtube channels are Crash course and ASAP Science, and the TED Ed site has many videos and educational resources, too.
Despite the research on students deserving complex texts, there are uses for sites that provide differentiated text complexity, such as Newsela or Rewordify. Allow students to read easier texts, then “ramp up” the text’s complexity. This provides students with background knowledge, gives students the schema of the text in a way that they can understand, and teaches students about text complexity.
Finally, annotating a text – either in writing via Google Docs or DocentEDU or with audio comments via Kaizena – supports students understanding because it allows teachers to provide links to pictures, infographics, or simply pronounce and define a tricky vocabulary word that’s crucial to student understanding.
How Can Technology Help with Multiple Means of Action & Expression?
Multiple means of action & expression refers to how students demonstrate their knowledge (think “output”). While a paragraph or essay may demonstrate student understanding, it is certainly not the only way for students to show what they have learned. Consider using infographics: they can be used as persuasive texts (e.g. create a poster to convince a city to use one type of energy vs. another), to summarize narrative texts (e.g. create a movie poster for a book that you read that demonstrates its themes), or to inform (e.g. create a timeline that reflects the causes and effects of World War I). Some tools for creating infographics include Pixlr, Google Drawings, Piktochart, or SnagIt. Students can also create slideshows (with Google Slides)
If you do end up using written texts as a means of action and expression, you can support students with writing-based difficulties by using dictation software. Google’s Voice Typing is free and works well on all Google Docs, and Dragon Dictation is a worthy choice for schools using iPads. Allow students to use spell check and grammar check to help their writing reflect their meaning.
How Can Technology Help with Multiple Means of Engagement?
Multiple means of engagement references how students learn, and includes interest level, effort and persistence, and self-regulation. The simplest (and I would argue best) way to increase student interest is to provide them with choices. Choices validate that students’ ideas matter, but with initial teacher support, they also teach students about themselves as learners, which is a cornerstone of UDL. For example, with time, a specific student with dyslexia may learn that he/she learns best with podcasts or audiobooks. Therefore, providing students with a choice recognizes that need, and ideally, serves to reduce the stigma of their use.
One way to “sustain effort and engagement” according to the UDL guidelines is to “foster collaboration and community.” Technology is a perfect tool for doing so: use social media, such as Twitter to obtain different perspectives on an issue, or use Google Forms to ask people anywhere in the world about their opinions, preferences, or expertise. Collaboration can also be nourished within a classroom: Google Docs and Google Slides allow for student collaboration easily as they allow students to be responsible for different parts of assignments simultaneously.
Lastly, videos not only provide multiple means of representation, but they may increase engagement: Two-thirds of teachers who use video regularly report that their students learn more when it is used, and 70% find increased student motivation (Cruse, 2013). Videos can also be useful as they may be perceived to “minimize threats and distractions” (compared with a traditional text). Plus, I like to use videos because they can then also be provided as a resource –either to be viewed before class or something to be reviewed after class – which supports students with attentional difficulties, memory difficulties, or comprehension difficulties.
When it comes to reading, engagement is essential since “[e]ngaged readers seek to understand; they enjoy learning and they believe in their reading abilities. They are mastery oriented, intrinsically motivated, and have self-efficacy” (Guthrie, 2001). Don’t we all want readers like that in our classrooms?
This blog has been adapted from Differentiated Reading Instruction: Strategies and Technology Tools to Help All Students Improve (Routledge, 2016).