It is not that one can not be used without the other; rather, one should be used with the other. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the concept and teaching method that helps explain the complexities of our educational brains. Simply put, UDL helps make education accessible to all students. By looking at how our brains process and retain information, we as educators become well equipped in constructing successful and meaningful lessons. Assistive Technology (AT) are tools, whether high-tech or low tech or both, that help make UDL possible for students. AT is not meant to segregate students with disabilities from those who do not. AT can be a device, from a pencil holder to a eye reader, that assists the student in their learning objective.
Throughout the educational history of the United States, teachers were trained in the method of recital. By having students recite facts, theories, philosophies, inquiries and so on, the teacher would then be able to assess whether the student understood the information. Slowly, the educational field has been waking up to the fact that this is not an effective method of instruction. Lecture and then the recital of said information back in the form of speech, or written word does not allow the students the opportunity to fully comprehend the material. For this discussion, the phrase “fully comprehend the material” is best understood by a person’s ability to apply gathered information to a multitude of differing scenarios: using the general application of a mathematical formula for an everyday occurrence, applying a philosophical theory to a discussion in class and so on. Therefore, by merely regurgitating information back to a given population does not demonstrate deep understanding.
For a student to learn a given topic or objective, how they gather, organize, and present information is parallel with learning. In using UDL with the help of AT, the student is given the most powerful of items: choice. UDL explains that by giving a student a guided selection of choices for each area of learning (ie the organizing, gathering, and engaging aspects) the student is shown to comprehend the material far more successfully. But how?
Application of UDL with AT
In every classroom in America, students are learning through a variety of means. Either by cultural, social, economical, and/or psychological affects, students are processing information differently person to person. So how does a teacher recognize this then apply this to a given lesson? Lets begin with the objective: explaining the influence of geography on ancient civilizations.
In order for students to come to this understanding they must first be presented with the information. How that is done is the first Principle of UDL: Provide Multiple Means of Presentation. Printed text is fixed and rather boring. By changing the format of the text, that provides the student with an option on how to organize the given information. If a webpage presents videos along with closed caption readings of each civilization, the student has a choice on how they want the information to be presented. This is also applying AT to this instruction. This will be explained later.
Once the information has been gathered, how can the students present their findings? This is the second principle of UDL: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression. By providing alternatives to the pen and pencil (either via computer, speech to text programs, or physical movement) the students are given the choice to navigate the lesson in their own terms. If a student is more capable of physically writing the response out, pen and paper works well for them. But for those with more physical limitations (or an interest in the alternative) the computer and varied programs such as speech to text, are best for them. But giving them the tools is not enough. Scaffolding instruction, setting clear guidelines (in varied ways), and continuing the monitoring process throughout all need to be implemented in this stage. Providing those students who learn best through auditory instruction an audio recording to play that gives step by step instruction helps. Students who are visual and need extra time, may receive one print out of an instruction/guideline at a time and receive new ones when one is completed.
By implementing the UDL principles the application of AT becomes much more accessible for the teacher. If instruction is varied to suit the needs of the children, then at each interval in the lesson, the teacher is better able to assess the success of that given tool. For instance, during the first principle of UDL how the information is presented allows the teacher to apply the use of certain AT. For students that are easily distracted, a computer screen with headphones helps draw their attention to the varied text on screen while also reducing the noise level in the classroom. Other students may be given highlighters to accentuate the important information on paper. All of these items are tools to assist the students learning; therefore, making them AT.
For the second principle students may use speech to text software, highlighting mechanisms on the computer, goal setting worksheets, the use of 3-D manipulatives, sentence starters and sentence strips are all varying forms of AT. For those who may have dyslexia speech to text helps diminish the anxiety of writing. Manipulatives are used best for those who have a difficulty describing their thought process on writing.
When presenting the information (the 3rd principle of UDL) to the students, the instructor may use personalized selection charts (for example: a tic-tac-toe grid), digital voting apparatus (Google Docs, etc.) and so on. In doing so, these forms of selection become tools for the student thereby becoming AT.
In summary, if the student is given choices in the “what” and “why” of learning, then they should be given the tools for the “how” portion as well. UDL encompasses the “what” and the “why,” while AT helps with the “how” of learning.