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!