01 April 2008

Considering Universal Design

A complex discussion on the SENIT listserve (Special Educational Needs - Information Technology) about computer operating systems and accessibility led me to say something about "Universal Design for Learning" - which has, in turn, led to a new discussion about UDL that I want to bring here.

UDL means many things, depending on which group of researchers and advocates you are speaking to, but the general idea is to create learning environment which can be individually adapted to learner needs. In other words, the environment adapts rather than forcing the learner to.

The goal may or may not be the ideal of 'full-inclusion' but the intent is clear - educational institutions, content delivery systems, assessment systems, and ICT should be flexible enough to meet the diverse needs of the learner population.

UDL is thus the opposite of the industrial education concept which has reigned for so long.

I've said this before: "School begins in nursery/kindergarten with them telling you that you are making your fives wrong - not that they can't tell they are fives, you're just doing it in the wrong order or direction. And school ends in graduate school with them telling you that you are making your citations wrong - not that they can't tell where you got your information from, you're just not conforming absolutely to whichever nonsensical citation system your particular department has chosen to embrace."

"School" being far more about conformity - about "doing things our way," than about learning how to make the most of yourself, or learning the best ways to acquire skills and knowledge, or even actually acquiring those skills and knowledge. It is, of course, much more important in school to pass your maths test than it is to actually be able to understand the maths.

This reality has been brutal for most students - and most students fail or give up. In the US national assessments have never shown more than 40% of students getting 'proficient" in anything, and now we see the admission that in most of the large cities in the US, 50% of those who enter high school drop out. But it has been particularly brutal for any students who are definably different. Who come to school speaking a different language, or come to school with mobility or dexterity issues, or who pay attention differently, or who just can't quite decode those silly things called "letters" and "numbers" fast enough.

"Sure," they say, "with enough humiliation we can allow you to do things differently, as long as you understand that we'll never consider you an equal part of the school."

UDL wants to change that.

A decade ago the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) proposed 3 principles that could be applied to the curriculum and set an agenda for inclusion, as follows:
1. Provide multiple representations of content.
2. Provide multiple options for expression and control.
3. Provide multiple options for engagement and motivation.
and these remain essential, but I want to add a fourth which must apply to them all:
4. That these representations and options be available to all students on the basis of understood needs and/or informed preference, without the need for diagnosis.

And here is my example - which, again, I have used before:

I often hand out reading assignments to students. When I do I always deliver those digitally. They arrive as accessible text documents, delivered to their computer. Many students, as many as half of the students, print these documents out onto paper. They do this because they prefer it that way. Whether because of their eyesight, or their cultural training, or where they want to read, or how they want to take notes or highlight things, they prefer ink-on-paper.

That's fine. I have never once said, "You can not do that. You must read that on the computer, or listen to it using text-to-speech software."

But if I, as a dyslexic student, want to take my ink-on-paper textbook and convert it into digital accessible text, this gets difficult. I have to "prove" my disability to some campus bureaucrat. I have to beg for the accommodation. I need lots of time, special software and perhaps hardware, and sometimes special permission to bring that book into class (see all those profs who ban laptops or mobiles). I may need a copyright exemption. And look out if I want to carry that digital text into an exam!

This is not just privileging one media form over another, this is elevating the "how" over the "what" to an extreme extent. It not only humiliates those labelled with "disabilities," it refuses to accommodate the very legitimate choices of all students. Choices which might significantly improve the comfort, attention capabilities, and learning opportunities for that 60%-65% who currently fall far behind, and might even help those already doing well to achieve their full potential.

UDL says scrap that system. Under UDL content would be fully flexible in delivery. Want that book on paper - here it is. Want it as an audio file - there you go. Want it as digital text - that's easy - seen a book lately that did not begin as a digital file? Need it in some other form - pictures or braille or whatever? No problem - as long as the content can be delivered.

UDL should really go further - especially in recognizing that not all students benefit from following the same path to skills and knowledge. Any system which applies the same pedagogy to all students is clearly not a universal design (in my mind it is not even moral). Insisting on everyone using the same textbook, or doing the exact same assignments, or following the same schedule - those are all industrial practices which are based in the belief that students are a raw material which can be shaped by repeated stampings. Any claims to some kind of rational meritocracy within that "same requirements" argument are simply a mask for the essential anti-humaness of the system.

When student input and assessment are involved, obviously, UDL is based in the same openness. One of my finest university profs - "Europe in the 20th Century" - gave this perfect final assignment. "Create something," he told us, "which demonstrates your in-depth knowledge of at least one critical moment in that century." There were academic papers. There were also videos. One play script at least. One mural sized painting. I wrote a long short story tracking a German stormtrooper coming home in December 1918 and falling in with the wacky Communist revolutionaries of Bavaria. That's a universally designed assessment. There's no "lowering of standards," just an acceptance of human diversity.

Why is Universal Design for Learning such a difficult concept to sell to most educators? My guess remains this - Most educators did well following the school rules and living within its norms, that's why they've chosen to stay in school for the rest of their lives. In fact, their very status in society is crafted from their ability to conform to those norms, to jump through the right hoops, to behave in the expected ways. For the group who make up the teaching staff at most primary and secondary schools, and for almost everyone teaching at a university, school as it currently stands, has worked beautifully. And in fact - think about this - if it worked for more students there might be far more competition for the jobs they hold, and far more competition for their own children as well. I am not imparting malice to their position, simply suggesting that there is little incentive - emotionally, psychologically, or economically - for them to change.

So I suspect that real change will need to happen via affirmative action/reverse discrimination from the top down. I think that teacher training institutions should be required to have at least a third of their teaching and research faculty consist of individuals who have special needs, or who needed alternative educations, or who simply did badly in school. Only that change would really alter the perceptions deeply held by these faculties. Only that would alter research paradigms. Only that would fundamentally change how pre-service teachers were trained.

Right. That ain't gonna happen - as they say. But UDL is, for me, a litmus test. If you do not embrace the concepts and work toward it, you really do believe in education as an industrial process. If you do not embrace the concepts and work toward it, you really do not see students as individuals or those with disabilities as equals. And if you do not embrace the concepts and work toward it, you really are not interested in educational success for all, rather you believe in school as a sorting system which separates those pre-destined for success by family and/or luck from those pre-destined for failure.

Some things to read... as I said, different meanings for different people
Assistive Technology, Universal Design, Universal Design for Learning: Improved Learning Opportunities
Enabling Technology for Inclusion
UDL Lesson Builder
Indiana's PATINS Project
Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation
Strategy Instruction Goes Digital
UDL in Math
A Level Playing Field - Teacher Magazine
Inclusive Education: An EFA Strategy for All Children
Inclusion (Syracuse University)
Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education
Inclusive Education Scotland

- Ira Socol

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Steve Lee said...

Thanks Ira that gave me a lot more background. I'm getting more and more interested in this area of need.
I added my 2 cents.

Paul Hamilton said...

Thanks for this excellent post, Ira. You've done a great job of putting many of my own thoughts into words. As I see it, UDL is just a helpful conceptual framework for describing effective teaching, where the goal is to support ALL learners, regardless of aptitude, interest,learning style, or unique need.

I've long held that one of the greatest barriers to educational reform is that schools are generally operated by people who were good at school. This is perpetuating a system that is effective only for a very small elite that is gifted with traditional academic skills.

I believe that for the majority of learners our schools are actually often doing more harm than good. Sadly, this is likely to be the case as long as schools are operated as assembly-line credentialing factories.

An aptitude for the "academic", of course, in no way automatically equates with a high IQ. This reality is obscured because our testing is so terribly skewed in favour of those who are academically inclined.

It amazes me, and I'm grateful, that so many wonderful people are involved in a system that is so badly broken.

Billgx said...

I cannot tell you how enlightening this has been for me. I am currently an Assistant Professor at a Big 12 university, and also pursuing a Ph.D. in education.

I nearly did not attend college. I barely passed high school. Not because I am stupid, but for whatever reason I didn't (and still don't) fit the school mold.

Thanks for giving me new things to think about.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with your article. Going back to school to get a Masters in Teaching Math (my weakest subject area) allows me to relate to all types of students from the gifted to the students who know how to follow all of the rules but not really learn anything! I have been both types of students.
I had one professor in graduate school who spent 90 percent of the time writing notes on the board. No interaction, very little hands on activities but yet in my classroom, I was expected to do all of those things and more!

Izad Majid said...

This is by far the best post I have read about UDL. It has given me a real insight,without focusing so much on technology.

It has also given me a different approach to UDL and this gives me a new idea for my research proposal.

Thanks Ira