Part of me thinks that there is definitely something valuable to UDL and part of me says that UDL is a superlative that is impractical in the real world.
UDL, of course.
Yes, I think that it is important to provide learning opportunities for everyone. In addition, it is important to attempt to design/originate and incorporate new and/or different methods of information transfer in order to allow the largest audience to become active learners and to benefit from learners’ contributions in return. Yes, I do think that incremental changes, design improvements, and varied stimuli can mean huge improvements for both individuals and learning communities as a whole.
How to overcome barriers to learning should be considered prior to the design of any class or instruction. These barriers should be considered based on any potential learners who will be in the class and, if possible, considering any potential learners who will view public online or “legacy” material from the class: this is difficult and maybe come only in incremental steps.
Even incremental improvements are important because they can lead to a larger improvement when repeated or built on in subsequent modules of a class or subsequent classes. In addition, it is no secret even to those limited to simple observation that people are stimulated to learn, observe and understand in varied ways. It is equally no secret that, in both social and education situations, even simple observation shows that people express their understanding of things in different ways and through different outlets – and at different levels depending on what outlet is available to them. Therefore, the three “networks” of UDL can actually assist in course design as opposed to making course design more burdensome. Meaning, when an instructor is considering designing a course, they can utilize the three networks to engineer which technologies to use for presentation of particular material, organize different methods to assess/allow evidence from the learner as to understanding/appreciation of the material, and communicate the actual value of the material (i.e. who, what, why).
An example of this is evidenced by the amount of participation on various assignments in this class. The material in the modules was presented in different ways and using different technologies. The assignments and types of stimuli brought about varied amounts of participation and quantity and quality of responses (true, life situations also influenced this). Questions, responses to peers, video replies, etc, gave a brief glimmer of insight as to which stimuli worked with this target audience. In addition, several of my fellow learners through both group activities and individual responses mentioned their preference and general level of stimulation from different sources.
No, I don’t think that principles that apply in one industry can be directly applied to another in every case, or even in most cases. The idea set forth by CAST and in our readings that a universal design for learning will eventually be devised to stimulate all learners is a lofty goal at best and a practical impossibility at least. The example given in several places including the CAST website video is to state that a building designed for those who have the most difficulty obtaining access and getting around is in the end the best design – because it allows access and functionality to the largest number of people. I realize that this is an example or metaphor for how a principle that may work in architectural design can relate to a principle that may work in education design. However, this principle in architecture is actually only applicable to some extent even in public buildings under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or to those designers with the best intentions: meaning, a universal design that will be the best breakdown barriers for all and to be able time wise and practically address every physical and mental limitation is not realistic. Am I saying that improvements should not be made or that we shouldn’t try to overcome as many barriers as possible because we cannot obtain perfection? No. But what I am saying is that the danger in completely adopting UDL, or at least thinking that it is necessary to come to a Universal Design to the diminishment of alternative/specialty classes or not meeting the learning potential of a number of individuals, is that we may make things so time laborious and frustrating that learning that could be accomplished is so severely diminished that UDL is impractical. In addition, though it may seem politically incorrect or not progressive or the “separate but equal” trap, but there are practical and compelling reasons for specialty classes or courses and not universally inclusive instruction – and they are not prejudicial reasons. Rather, many times classes set up to address specific learning disabilities or physical limitations can be extremely beneficial to specific learners when compared to “accommodations” made to “mainstream” classes because of extra attention and/or specialized instructional methodology. For example, when I have taught sight-impaired learners, the assessment/feedback I received was that familiarity and instruction specifically targeted to the sight-impaired allowed a “deeper learning experience” than a mainstream class that accommodated the sight impaired. My comment: the amount of design and actual instruction that I was allowed to provide for the “specialty” sight-impaired class would have diminished the learning experience for “normal sighted” learners because it was so heavily geared toward the sight-impaired learner. Further, specialty technology such as high level screens and visual imagination actualization that have grown out of specialty learner needs might either arrive much slower or not at all if we are strident about UDL (and therefore greater mainstreaming).
So where does this leave me with UDL?
I do think that learning and instruction should be available and be a rich experience for as many potential learners as possible. Instructors should design and attempt to provide multiple stimuli through as many different technologies as practical to enhance their online learning experience. It is also my contention that classes should utilize the principles of universal design only to a practical level and should be based on an appreciation of the target market for the class – and used in combination to get the same level of learning and rich experience when augmented with “specialty” classes.