Currently reading: “Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education” (Behling & Tobin, 2018)

“Reach everyone, teach everyone” — that title caught me right away, and I’m glad I ordered and read the book by Tobin & Behling (2018)! They manage to make Universal Design for Learning feel like a manageable task, and one that can be done one small step at a time, rather than something so huge and overwhelming that it’s better to not even start thinking about it. Here are my notes on what I want to remember from a teacher perspective!

The book starts out with acknowledging that for many, being faced with the challenge of modifying their instruction to accommodate learners with all kinds of different needs “brings up feelings of uncertainty, confusion, annoyance, and even anger”. We are all busy already, so how are we supposed to deal with more work and a task so huge and daunting where we don’t even know where to start? Even if we wanted to change our instruction, it is easy to end up in “analysis paralysis”. So it is helpful to approach changes with a one-step-at-a-time approach (the “Plus-One” approach that iteratively makes courses more and more accessible over time) rather than with an all-or-nothing attitude. There is a lot we can do in 20 minutes or less (and they give a lot of examples!) and “”good enough” is good enough at the outset”!

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework used in the book distinguishes three principles based on three separate brain functions:

  • recognition — i.e. the “what”
  • strategic — i.e. the “how”
  • affective — i.e. the “why”

Creating access to all of these boils down to providing the learner with choices in all of the three domains. Lots of very small adjustments that can be made that ultimately benefit all learners. Examples given in the book include

  • when the learning outcome is to construct knowledge and analyze something related to some classical literature, instead of asking them to do something conventional and boring that they might have absolutely no motivation to do, students might as well pick a historical event that happened at the time that book was set (or written) and that is of interest to them personally (giving them a “why”). They could research it (“what” — for example reading articles, listening to podcasts, visiting a museum, interviewing an expert) and report on their learning the way they like (“how” — present orally, write an essay, design a poster, upload a 5 minute audio file, …)
  • note-taking by students might have been implemented to support individuals, but it ultimately benefits everybody: All students that have access to the notes, and all students that take on the role as note-taker and thus practice the related skills. Same for a descriptive language in labs that might help vision-impaired students, but also benefits others who might not be as close to the action as the narrator, or the narrators themselves because they have to put words to their observations and thus engage with them in a different way.
  • creating videos can be a way to both demonstrate understanding of a concept and at the same time building a base of teaching materials for peers or the next course iteration.
  • writing with a black pen on a whiteboard (instead of a green one with much lower contrast) makes reading better for everyone

Another very helpful consideration is how our students access content these days, switching between computers and phones, listening to podcasts, reading. The authors refer to google’s research on “micro-monents”, which shows that many people use their smart phones in lots of different situations (waiting for a bus, sitting on the toilet, in bed before going to sleep and right after waking up) and the advice from that is to 1) be there, 2) be useful, and 3) be quick. If we can cater information snacks that are consumable in such micro-moments, we can “invade” (my wording) students’ lives a lot more efficiently than if we just provide them with a 500 page pdf document. I myself really like tools that help me use those micro-moments on my phone in constructive ways, like for example learning languages on Duolingo, or training vocabulary using a flash card app.

When we accept that (some of) our students generally, or during certain times of the day (for example on their commute), prefer using their phones over computers, this means that we need to consider

  • neutrality (is our content easily accessible across devices and platforms? Reading this, I went and checked out our LMS both in a browser on my phone (baaaaaad) and in the app (better than I expected) when before I had never even considered looking at it from a device other than my computer)
  • granularity (are the units small enough that they can be consumed in a micro moment? Of course this might not be possible for all of our content, but if students feel that they need to dedicate a solid 90 minutes in one stretch in order to even attempt working on our content, we are missing out on so many shorter moments where they could have been engaging with what we want them to engage with!)
  • portability (can content be accessed across devices, i.e. can I start on a document on my phone on the bus, and then continue working on it on my computer when I get home? Or do I need to come up with complicated solutions like emailing things to myself?)
  • interactivity (are there ways to interact with peers and with us?)
  • ubiquity (are there ways in which learning is designed to reach beyond the time in the LMS and into students’ real lives? #WaveWatching? :-D)

So how do we decide where to start? The book suggests to look at looking back at the course to see if there are questions that come up over and over, or common mistakes. Clearly something is not working as well as it should — are there ways we can improve this one specific thing? Another approach is to find points in the course that are single-stream, for example feedback. Is that provided only through “subtle eyebrow-raising on the part of the professor”, or through text, or spoken, or automated? Does instruction for a task only exist in a video, or are there captions or transcripts available?

Speaking of video captions: I get so annoyed when I see videos on Facebook or stories on Instagram that don’t have captions, because I typically watch them when I am on the bus and neither want to put on headphones nor want to turn on the sound on my phone and annoy people around me. And most of these media use captions these days, so why is it still so few and far between in teaching materials, even though it would provide access to learners in more situations? This is one example where what we might think of as accomodation for specific individuals actually turns out to benefit everybody.

The same for time estimates. Aren’t you much more likely to start a task when you have an idea for how long it is likely to take, so if you are likely able to finish it before you have to get off the train or leave the house to go to another lecture? Of course, for podcasts, videos, texts, many students can make educated guesses, but a colleague recently told me about their students being frustrated by being given “too much time” for an assignment — rather than stopping when they were done based on their assessment of the learning outcomes rubric, and being grateful of not having time pressure for once, they thought they were supposed to fill the several weeks until the deadline and thus invested a lot more time than was intended and indeed needed. Providing time estimates explicitly thus helps students regulate their learning.

A very important point made in the book is that “UDL is not about making learners cycle through variety but, rather, about providing choices so learners can decide how they want to experience interactions”. If we want to approach UDL more systematically than just fixing the instances identified as described below, a next step might be to look at whether there are more than one pathways through the course, e.g. one written and one video-based.

How does UDL then work in assessment? What we need to consider here is “construct relevance”. Are we really testing what we want to test, or are we testing whether someone can write nice texts or interpret instructions or work under time pressure, when they could demonstrate the learning outcomes if they were asked to do it in a different format, instructions were given differently, or there was no time pressure?

I really like the way how Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) are broken down in the book, not just the usual “measurable action verb” stuff, but actually in a helpful way, combining

  • behavior (what does the learner need to demonstrate, i.e. the “measurable action verb”)
  • measurement (this is the helpful part, because here we say how success is going to be measured, i.e. “from memory”, “written in such and such form, including these elements”, “in under this amount of time”, …)
  • proficiency (“80% correct”, “missing 4 or fewer steps”, …)

But of course: “if the format is part of the learning, then do not offer students a choice about how they demonstrate the learning”. But consider whether your ILOs are really about writing something in a specific format, or demonstrating a different skill.

And one last super positive thing about this book: It presents the “Chinese menu” (i.e. pick one task each from three columns to build your individual project). When I first saw the picture in the book, it set off all alarm bells of cultural appropriation, but this is then explicitly addressed on the next page and the Chinese menu is highlighted as UDL in its day: People were given multiple ways of ordering (reading and saying the names of the dishes they wanted, or pointing to pictures) and thus it was made a lot easier for them to engage (and order more)!

I found reading this book somehow empowering, it made the whole task of providing access a lot more manageable than when I was thinking about it for example for this blogpost. And I find it interesting how many synergies thinking about co-creating learning has with UDL, and the other way round. Maybe good teaching is really mostly about providing choice and trusting students to take on responsibility for their own learning and each other?

Behling, Kirsten T., and Thomas J. Tobin. Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press, 2018.

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