Universal Design for Learning

This is another concept which I need to spend more time thinking about – particularly: how does it relate to future learning principles?  However, I definitely agree with the idea of universal design for learning – that students should be able to show their understanding in a way that best suits them.  The principles of UDL seem to be around making knowledge accessible, and making the assessment fit the learning.  I think English as a subject is particularly well placed to do this – we might have more freedom in an English classroom to allow students to present in writing, orally, or visually.  This way we can assess both content knowledge and production skills.  Success criteria therefore need to be flexible, or perhaps even co-constructed with students.

I do think that there is a challenge (albeit not an insurmountable one) to balance the concept of universal design for learning against the demands of meeting NCEA assessment criteria.  Something we’re looking to try at Whitby next year is to focus on teaching key skills in the first half of the year, putting aside various pieces of student work as they go.  Then, in the second half of the year, these pieces can be crafted into items for assessment, playing to the strengths students have exhibited.  It will be interesting to monitor how this approach works towards meeting the needs of students.

As I came to appreciate at ULearn, and as this YouTube clip makes clear, it is about opening doorways for students – and technology has the power to do the same.  Technology can be used to make knowledge accessible to students, and it can be used to help students show their understanding in a way that best suits them.  The New Zealand Curriculum talks about ‘diversity’, and some of the reading I’ve started to do unpacks this idea to not just be about catering to students from diverse backgrounds, and not just a diversity of learning styles, as UDL can do, but it’s also about coping with and managing a diversity of ideas.  In this way technology can be both a boon and a burden.  Perhaps this is also where TPACK and careful, clever learning design comes into play – providing a specific context but flexible success criteria so that students don’t flounder and lose their way.

Today I gave my Year 8 students an independent reading assignment.  Within reason, they can choose their own fiction book to complete the assignment on, and while I have given them a range of activities and questions to complete in relation to their chosen text, I have set them the challenge of finding a creative and original way to present their final product.  They can complete it in their exercise book, as a poster, as a blog, as a podcast, as a YouTube video…it’s up to them.  The girls have embraced the idea and are hugely enthusiastic.  And while, yes, it will be interesting to see the final products, at least it has them excited about learning, and they feel they can attack the task.  And perhaps that’s a real benefit of trialling something like universal design for learning.

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I’m still thinking and exploring this model – but from what I’m currently able to glean, it is a “framework that identifies the knowledge teachers need to teach effectively with technology.”  It acknowledges that to integrate and utilise technology effectively into teaching practice, there needs to be an intersection of content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, as well as knowledge of technology.

However, for me, something that I gained from the ULearn conference was that there is really an order to attacking these concepts, and technology is last.  Best practice in e-Learning is not being driven by the latest and greatest shiny tool or funky app.  It is about knowing the purpose behind what the teacher is aiming to achieve, the students’ needs, the curriculum goals, and then thinking about how technology could be used to meet all of these requirements.