By Nick Williams
Applicable to every student in every classroom, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles of offering multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement help teachers leverage every child’s strengths while supporting a very personalized learning path based on student choice.
Unlike pedagogies that attempt to teach to a broader group of students with a broad brush, UDL encompasses a wide swath of learning content—lectures, lessons, videos, audio recordings, group projects, individual projects, etc — to help the modern-day student reach his or her fullest potential.
As we’ve all come to learn, managing digital content along with making it available to the people who need it isn’t easy. Enabling access for students and parents is equally as challenging, as is providing ongoing professional development for teachers who are using UDL every day in their K-12 classrooms.
When we kicked off a new initiative focused on student-centered learning, our district started looking for an all-in-one learning management system (LMS) that would serve as a staging area for our UDL and project-based teaching models. Not only would it give teachers and students the freedom to select their preferred tools, but it would also integrate with Google, keep everything in a centralized place, and enable high-quality professional development for teachers.
After a comprehensive review, we narrowed the field down and opted for itslearning because it offered strong support for UDL. Today, we have 98% usage across our K-12 district, which is 1:1 for grades one through 12 (kindergarten is 3:1). Here are five ways our LMS supports UDL and project-based teaching while transforming the learning process:
Gives teachers and students freedom, voice, and choice
Choice is at the heart of UDL, a framework that recommends flexibility and an option-rich curriculum that offers learners multiple means of engagement, multiple representations of content, and multiple means of action and expression. We don’t evaluate based on how much technology a teacher is using, and we don’t push out all the curriculum to our teachers saying, “You have to teach this on this day.” Teachers have a lot of freedom about how they address curriculum and how they reach their goals. Our LMS also goes hand-in-hand with our 1:1 initiative, which we use in grades one through 12.
Integrates with Google
This is a tremendous win for us. Our robust LMS just links the tools together, so there’s a lot less work on the teachers’ end now in terms of organizing or collecting learning content. They don’t have to teach the students how to share Google assets because they already know how to do it. This helps to break down some of the barriers in terms of access to assignments and documents. It’s always good to be able to give students the freedom to use tools like Google, which they’re comfortable with, instead of saying: “You have to use this tool in order to make this specific design and turn in the assignment.”
Helps teachers break the “strict curriculum” mold
As a former AP biology teacher, one of the biggest challenges I dealt with was having to follow a strict curriculum. We just didn’t have a lot of time to teach in the first place, and then we had to give rigid tests at the end of the course. There just wasn’t much flexibility. A lot of teachers deal with this issue, and getting them to utilize technology tools and to understand that students can learn from videos, by doing projects, and from reading, has definitely presented a learning curve at our district. As a former teacher, for example, I found that homework was a good starting point for this transformation. I would always give them a study guide that went along with the text and the unit, and let students make a video, create doodle diagrams of a chapter, or write an essay—all of which can be uploaded to, managed by, and stored in a centralized LMS that integrates with Google.
Provides a wide array of quality academic resources
We currently have over 3 million pieces in our library of curriculum, plus various curriculum assets that teachers can use by signing into our LMS (which is accessible 24/7). Using these quality academic resources, students are free to express themselves in what they know, versus what we “think” they know. It also opens up an entirely new world for teachers, who can use video, audio, Google, and myriad other free tools to create content. Instructors can then store the content in a single location that’s accessible to students, parents, or anyone else who needs it.
Serves as our professional development hub
Because UDL isn’t taught in every preservice undergraduate methods course, we do quite a bit of professional development for teachers, all of which is managed in our LMS—which is basically our professional development hub. We have coaches or “UDL facilitators” in our buildings, conducting weeklong UDL institutes over the summer. We also offer new teacher academies throughout the year which are quarterly check-ins with teachers to make sure the UDL model isn’t too overwhelming for them. Today, roughly one-third of our new teacher orientation is focused on what UDL is and what it means. All staff have individualized professional development through the LMS platform to meet the needs of their busy schedules. Because all of this content is in our hub, it’s consistent across the district no matter where you’re at. Everybody knows how to use it, and everybody’s expected to be in it.
Nick Williams is the Director of Technology for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Indiana, USA.
This article first appeared on eSchool News, July 3, 2019.