Saturday, September 17, 2011

Guest Post by Lindsey Wright: Online Learning and UDL

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.


The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a current trend in education that in its most basic form entails designing lessons so that every student has an equal opportunity to learn. Plenty of teachers in traditional classrooms struggle to make a learning environment equally open to all students, but for educators in online college courses UDL creates an even more difficult scenario. How is it possible to differentiate for multiple students in an online environment? Thankfully, as online education moves out of its infancy, new research is demonstrating how differentiation can be achieved in the web-based classroom.

The Basics of Differentiation

Differentiation, as any teacher will acknowledge, is the art of addressing the unique learning needs of individual students. In short, the teacher becomes all things for all people.

On the face of it this is a monumental task, but helpful basic points can guide teachers as they begin to develop differentiated lessons:

• Differentiation doesn't happen quickly. It requires thoughtful planning and careful construction. Instead of differentiating everything at once, it should be done in baby steps.
• Differentiation can take the form of adapted content or varied activities and assessments.
• By differentiating, teachers address student learning needs and abilities and acknowledge how students learn and what their interests are.
• Knowing each individual student is essential to differentiation. Without individual knowledge of students it's impossible to differentiate to meet each student's needs.
• Conduct pre-assessments to identify what students already know in order to create flexible groups with varied skill sets.
• Student choice is one of the best ways to provide differentiated instruction. Create several activities that all lead to the same learning outcome and let students choose which ones they wish to do.
• Be clear in expectations for assignments and for learning outcomes so that differentiation doesn't become confusing.

For educators each one of these points represents an important step on the road to a differentiated classroom. By addressing the needs of individual students, the theory goes, they will be more eager to engage in the lesson and will demonstrate greater learning gains than if their individual needs were not factored into lesson and activity planning.

Applying Universal Design for Learning to the Online Classroom

The online classroom presents unique challenges for differentiated instructions. Depending on the course structure, teachers and students rarely speak, so the personalized interaction inherent in the traditional classroom environment isn't available in the same. Additionally, many online education programs take a 'one size fits all' approach to learning and fail to offer students the opportunity to take control of any aspect of their education. This can lead to student apathy and learning gains not nearly as pronounced as they could be.

Gail Taylor, a University of Illinois Human Resource Education doctoral student, created a presentation that discusses precisely why differentiation is essential to the online classroom and how it can be accomplished. As she notes, it's possible to create differentiated online classrooms if instructors take the initiative to plan for varied learning opportunities and activities. Even though online instructors don't typically get to know their students well, they can track students' progress, monitor activity choices, and tailor instructional media to meet the varied learning styles of students in the class.

Pre-assessments should be part of the online instructor's arsenal and used to craft lesson plans, Taylor says. A variety of instructional activities should also be included in lessons, thereby introducing the element of student choice. In particular, activities and lessons should address the three key types of learners: auditory, kinesthetic or tactile, and visual. Students' learning styles can be assessed with surveys at the beginning of a course.

Typical digital education media such as e-books, wikis, podcasts, and blogs all offer unique learning opportunities when tailored to address the various learning styles typically exhibited in a classroom. What's more, as a pedagogical practice, differentiation based on learning style allows educators to address the varied needs of what is in all likelihood a culturally diverse student body.

For the online educator, UDL and differentiation in instruction is far from impossible. By preparing multiple methods of teaching the same material and integrating them into differentiated lessons, it becomes possible to address a variety of student needs. Pre-assessments and varied activities offer educators and students the chance to assess their progress and develop new understandings of material. Ultimately, by implementing differentiation in online classrooms, educators will ensure that each student is reached in a meaningful way and that educational opportunities on the Web are equal for all.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Five: Five Areas I Will Learn More About This Year

We are now three weeks in the 2011-12 school year and there have already been a lot of successes.  It is going to be a busy year, probably with a lot of ups and downs.  But there will also be a lot of great learning opportunities as we go through these changes.  Just wanted to use my "Friday Five" this week as a place to document the areas that I see as my focus for learning this year.
  1. Low Tech Communication System (P.O.D.D.):  We did our training on P.O.D.D. three weeks ago and are up and running with using the system with my four oldest students.  My intention is to use it with at least 2 of my 4 younger students and we will be getting that going soon.  One of my younger students is currently using his P.O.D.D. book as a tool when doing assignments in class and it is working great as a tool for him to have a larger vocabulary to do all sorts of assignments.   I am currently working on Pragmatic Profiles for each of my students so that we have some baseline data to compare to after we have used this system for a year.  I believe it is going to open up some great social and academic opportunities for my students.
  2. Literacy for All:  I am part of a pilot project that Alberta Education is currently facilitating around "Literacy for All".  Although we have not gotten too far in to the project, it has inspired me to do a lot of research around developing literacy skills with students with significant disabilities.  Literacy and communication go hand in hand and focusing in this area will obviously have huge benefits for my students.  I'm looking at doing some small group and co-teaching work with some of the classes that my elementary students are in during this school year.  We are already seeing a change in literacy skills in some of our students as a result of our renewed focus in this area.
  3. Collaborative Team Process:  Our school is in the process of adopting a new model for how the professionals that support students work in our school.  We are looking at a much more collaborative approach with all team members coming together once a month and then making plans as well as addressing specific student and classroom needs.  We have just started and its going to be a learning process but I'm sure it's going to create a more inclusive culture in our school.
  4. Inclusion Facilitator/Coaching Role:  My role is changing and changing fast as my students move from being in a self-contained setting in to classrooms.  My four younger students are already in general education classrooms.  It is going to take some time to make this transition.  I'm referencing the Beyond Access Model as a way to start thinking about what my new role will be.  In a few weeks we will start the process of moving my high school students to the high school.  This is going to probably be a much slower process than what we are seeing with the elementary students.
  5. Assistive Technology to Support Inclusion: One of the areas that I've always been fascinated with is AT.  I do have some background in this as we have used AT in our self-contained setting.  Now the focus shifts to the AT that will support inclusion.  I'm starting the process by looking in to Smart Inclusion philosophy and approach and we will see where things grow from there.
All in all, I'm looking forward to a very exciting year of growing and learning! 

    Friday, September 9, 2011

    Friday Five: Five Things to Think About

    1. How do my strengths prevent you from exhibiting yours?
    2. Never question ability... always improve strategy! 
    3. My circumstances do not create me, I create my circumstances. 
    4. What you do today is important because you are exchanging a whole day of your life for it.  When tomorrow comes this day will be gone forever; and in its place will be something you have left behind... let it be something good.
    5. If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.