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.