April Market Showers Bring UDL Flowers

April showers

One of the panel presentations and discussions at the May 2015 Software & Information Industry Association’s (SIIA) Education Industry Summit, focused on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). During the panel, some recent, noteworthy mentions of UDL in the marketplace were shared. Like UDL “market showers” released in April 2015, they caused May to become the perfect time to share the beauty of their blooms, brightening the opportunities for all learners.

The First Shower

An article by Kim Greene titled “The Growing Case for UDL”, featured in the Spring 2015 edition of Scholastic Administrator. What I particularly liked about this article was how it mentioned the benefits of UDL on addressing the needs of all learners within the K-12 learning community, not just special education. It prominently featured an implementation at Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Revere, MA–Adam Deleidi, the Assistant Principal at the school said, “There’s a misconception that this is a technology or special education initiative. It’s not either.” In fact, the article shares that in the past two years since starting their UDL implementation in the 2012-13 school year, “special education and discipline referrals are down by 50 percent” and “out-of-school suspensions have plummeted by 70 percent….”

The implementation at Deleidi’s school is a perfect example of how relying on UDL as a foundation for your approach to learning results benefits throughout the school for all learners.

The Second Shower

An article reviewing the benefits of UDL in the higher education setting titled “7 Things You Should Know About Universal Design for Learning”, posted on Educause. Similar to the Scholastic Administrator article, it emphasized the ROI that schools realize through UDL implementation. In particular, the article mentioned how the “University of North Carolina System … incorporated UDL into its College STAR initiative.” More specifically, as part of its STAR initiative, at “East Carolina University, … a STAR program for students with identified learning disabilities resulted in a 90% retention rate, higher than the retention of the university as a whole.”

Thus, through high-quality design implementation, UDL helped East Carolina University realize a meaningful ROI by retaining more students.

The Third Shower

A whitepaper titled, “Ed Tech Developer’s Guide: A primer for software developers, startups, and entrepreneurs” published by the United States Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. Within the section titled, “Opportunity 8: Making Learning Accessible to All Students,” UDL is prominently featured because the UDL “guidelines encourage instructional practices and educational content that embrace the widest possible diversity of learners.” Borrowing from the broader context of Universal Design (“designing products and spaces so that they can be used by the widest range of people possible”), what the Ed Tech Developer’s Guide argues is that when you leverage UDL, “not only do you facilitate school district compliance with civil rights laws, but your apps will become much more beneficial to your users as well, even those who may not have specific learning disabilities.”

So, an intentional focus on UDL during product design and implementation benefits all learners.

The Fourth Shower

A section of the draft legislation on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) titled “PART G—INNOVATIVE TECHNOLOGY EXPANDS CHILDREN’S HORIZONS (I-TECH)” mentioned UDL. The proposed legislation recognizes the significant benefits of the UDL guidelines, calling for funding and coordination of implementation support for programs consistent with the UDL principles. It specifically calls for State Education Agencies to be able to use funds to provide “technical assistance to local educational agencies to … use technology, consistent with the principles of universal design for learning, to support the learning needs of all students….”

Again, the key aspect to this proposed legislation is that it recognizes the power in the UDL framework to “expand the horizons” of all learners.


Understanding UDL from the Dark Side: Perceptions of the Marketplace


The Universal Design for Learning Implementation and Research Network (UDL-IRN) held its 2015 Summit recently at the Gulf Park campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. The Summit had an exceptionally engaging lineup of “UDL-Talks” and breakout sessions that shared insights and collaboration ideas regarding the current and future state of UDL in K20.

At times, academic researchers get nervous about EdTech Vendors misrepresenting UDL in the marketplace. As the only EdTech Vendor on the UDL-IRN leadership team, I often joke that I’m the lone representative from the “Dark Side.” Instead of shying away from this potential confrontation, I took it head-on at the Summit, presenting a UDL-Talk titled, “Understanding UDL from the Dark Side: Perceptions of the Marketplace.”

UDL Has an Awareness Problem


The goal of the presentation was not to contest the viewpoint of the academic researchers. Actually, the presentation fully embraced it. Those of us who are huge proponents of UDL don’t always see that UDL has an awareness and marketing problem in the marketplace.

UDL is a solid, research-based framework for ensuring exceptional learning opportunities for all students. Yet the power in the UDL framework is not well known, and unfortunately, often misunderstood and misrepresented. Practitioners (classroom teachers, professors, etc.) have little to no awareness of UDL. Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey of Personalize Learning shared that only one out of approximately 100 teachers polled during recent professional learning sessions in Los Angeles had actually heard of UDL. Similarly, in Knovation’s recent National Survey on Digital Content and Curriculum, 116 educators (many District-level Curriculum Directors) ranked UDL as the least important attribute for organizing learning resources and aligning to District curriculum (12th out of 12). They can’t rank it higher because they don’t know what it is.

Places (states, colleges, districts, schools, classrooms) that embrace UDL see substantial and fundamental changes occur. UDL creates an increased focus on serving all learners, ensuring they have quality opportunities to access and engage the curriculum and express their learning outcomes. While the principles of UDL are strong, the awareness and marketing are not sufficient yet.

Addressing Misconceptions within the EdTech Community

Unfortunately, at present, the awareness and clarity within the EdTech Community is no better. In fact, many of those who are aware of UDL believe it’s isolated to Special Education. There is a misperception that UDL is an “IDEA thing,” not an ESEA concept. In other words, they miss the strength of leveraging UDL to create educational opportunities for ALL learners. UDL’s support for accessibility limits the greater appreciation of how it means so much more.

Even if the market awareness and demand for UDL becomes stronger, we still have the really important issue of skilled understanding and capable implementation of the concept within the EdTech Vendor community at large.

Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D., and James Basham, Ph.D., do a nice job of explaining some of the Common Misconceptions and Realities of UDL in their whitepaper “A Blueprint for UDL: Considering the Design of Implementation”. On page 9 of this whitepaper, they mention that the “tool is just a tool; how that tool is utilized to engage learners, offer a different representation of information, or allow learners to express their knowledge is the path to UDL implementation.”

This is so true. Technology is NOT the answer, but a major enabler and equalizer. Therefore, the more intelligent the design of EdTech Vendor solutions, the easier it is for teachers to be the type of “learning engineers” and “iterative designers” that Dr. Nelson and Dr. Basham are calling for in their UDL Blueprint.

Converting EdTech Vendors into UDL Jedi Masters

To reach scale, the UDL community needs to bring EdTech Vendors into the fold. Although supporters of UDL implementation may be tempted to avoid the “Dark Side” of the EdTech Vendor community, I’m advocating that they embrace it head-on and use the power of their wisdom and experience (their “Force”) to turn us away from the darkness of our ignorance. It’s important that the UDL Community provide practical, easy-to-follow guidelines for education software designs with the goal of not only providing reference implementations for example pieces of software, but also including best practice UDL Guidelines for EdTech Vendors.

We need to challenge ourselves to work beyond our comfort zone and reach out to others who can be “force multipliers” for UDL. And whether you like it or not, the “Dark Side” (the EdTech Vendors) can be a powerful force multiplier – one that would better serve ALL learners if they were converted into UDL Jedi Masters!