The three fundamental principles of UDL—engagement, representation and action/expression—strike me as not new. However, they are newly examined within the context of online learning. The same three things, I believe, are present in F2F teaching. In my own experience, I have had in my classes over the years blind students, deaf students, learning disabled students, students with limited or poor English language skills, students with culturally-derived maladaptations, etc. For all of these, I have needed to find ways to engage them, communicate information to them and assess their progress. The notion of universal design adds something more, however, and that is that providing for students with special needs also improves class experiences for everyone. I like this idea a lot.
To improve my online teaching in each of the three main areas of UDL, I will turn to the research literature, which to my ever-lessening surprise and increasing delight, is copious. I like using audio commentary associated with all visual material. I like captioning on videos and labeling all slides in words. I like having students do things like posting scholarblog comments, adding video, audio or text comments on Voice Thread and posting Diigo “discoveries.” I really LOVE Screencast-o-matic and how it engages students and teachers both synchronously and asynchronously. Once comfortable with these technologies, students and faculty alike can actually have a delightful adventure in scholarship.
My one major question—and concern—is that for some reason the three principles have been tied to three brain regions with a level of confidence that I doubt we would find among most neuroscientists. I mean we know a lot about the brain, but even now with fMRI and other sophisticated mapping techniques, things are simply not that “clean.” From my perspective, the brain stuff is not necessary for the principles to be believable and to stand on their own conceptually. Recent research in fact has shown that the notion of learning styles (upon which these principles seem to strongly depend) is actually pretty much unsupported. For example see this report from the world’s leading and most influential psychology journal, Psychological Science. In addition, Here is a link to a TED talk by Professor Tesia Marshik at the University of Wisconsin in which she summarizes the research on learning styles and sounds a strong note of caution about relying too heavily upon them.
Sad as I am to say it as a psychological scientist, learning styles have become an accepted way of conceptualizing individual differences in learners. But this is OK with me because the idea has also resulted in multiple methods of presenting information in educational settings. These multiple forms of presentation are salutary because they help everyone learn better, despite the findings that concepts like “auditory vs visual learning” and “teaching to different styles” have little or no evidentiary basis. Like it or not, “learning styles” (like “Type A vs Type B personality” which has also been debunked) have entered our cultural consciousness and they are not about to disappear because “science” says they are inaccurate. For me, this situation actually argues for UDL in that we should try to provide means of engagement, action/expression and representation for everybody and stop saying we’re doing this because of individual differences. Rather we should see all this multiplicity simply as ways of potentiating learning in all students.
I started out our course with a pre-existing awareness of the needs for multiple means of representation, engagement and expression. As I said above, these are not new to me, nor are they likely to be new to any of my fellow faculty colleagues. However, what I now know as well are several remarkable ways to do a better job of addressing these needs in the F2F setting and online. I also am aware that what we have learned in the forms of management systems, blogs, rubrics, assessment methods, OER’s, etc, are really (really!) just the tip of the iceberg. The more I surf the net looking for more of these tools, the more amazed I am at how many there are! Some are easy to use and some are more challenging. But I am also aware that eight weeks ago, the word “easy,” which I just used in the previous sentence, would not have conceivably been present in this post!!
I now feel I know enough to know what I don’t know. I also have a sense of where to go to find out how to do the things I want to do in the ways of engagement, representation and action/expression. On that chart from way back in M2 which showed how we would progress in our online exerience, I have gotten past the early panicked focus on technology and have moved into a calmer and more directed phase of learning. I hope that one year hence, I will be firmly footed enough to succeed in applying all this for real!
Thank you, Leah! I am very saddened that you will be leaving Emory. I hope and trust that our level of loss will be matched by your level of success in whatever you turn your hand to.