This article initially appeared on ascd.org in the feature, “How Can UDL Help My Students?” by Nick Williams.
Nick Williams is the coordinator of instructional technology for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Indiana. BCSC is an itslearning customer.
“Many districts are choosing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as an instructional lens to personalize learning for all students. Because UDL assumes that all students learn differently, it can be embedded in instructional design for each and every student, including students with individual education programs (IEPs). What this means in practice is that all students have the same instructional goals, but their individual learning paths and the amount of support they receive may vary. UDL minimizes barriers and maximizes flexibility for everyone in a learner-centered environment by intentionally and systematically including all students in instructional aims. UDL offers such a clear benefit to learning that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) encourages states to incorporate the instructional strategy in school assessments and educational technology integration.
As we developed our most recent strategic plan at Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation (BCSC), we knew that we wanted to transform our district to an anytime-anywhere learning environment. So, we made a commitment to UDL.
Once we adopted UDL, we had a framework through which we could evaluate learning management systems.
Learning management systems provide extensive support to streamline and integrate the resources and tools required to efficiently manage UDL across a district. Good end-to-end system solutions provide a home base for curriculum, instruction, resources, instruction management, assessment, and professional learning to work with robust communication tools that allow transparency and access for educators, students, and parents.
Understanding the UDL Framework
It was clear from the beginning that aligning our strategic goals and objectives to the UDL framework would help us transition to a new type of learning environment. We knew our work transitioning to a new learning management system (LMS) would go beyond how we organize curriculum resources and lessons to affect how we support both students and teachers as learners.
Choice is at the heart of UDL. The UDL principles, which recommend flexibility and an option-rich curriculum, are now foundational to our district’s commitment to creating a more personalized learning environment for all students:
- Principle 1: Provide multiple means of representation. This allows teachers to accommodate differences and maximize flexibility. Teachers have identical expectations for students, but they receive individualized support.
- Principle 2: Provide multiple means of action and expression. By creating options for expression and communication that support student-directed planning, we allow students to manage their own individual learning plans. This, in turn, helps transition them to student-centered learning.
- Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement. When we support students as they take ownership of their own learning paths, so that they are able to optimize their choices and learn self-reflection and self-assessment.
UDL made sense for our district because the neuroscience that underpins the framework aligns with our belief that each student learns differently. We decided to use UDL to transition to a more personalized learning environment that recognizes and supports different learning styles.
Furthermore, the framework for UDL identifies the three brain networks associated with learning:
- Affective networks—the “why” of learning.
- Recognition networks—the “what” of learning.
- Strategic networks—the “how” of learning.
These networks work together to personalize learning. We like to give students options to make learning decisions that are right for them. Learning becomes student-centered, not teacher-centered. When students have choices, they feel a greater sense of ownership in their learning.
Presenting content resources in multiple formats, providing students and teachers with a variety of communication tools for engagement, and allowing students to choose how they demonstrate their knowledge helps students understand themselves and their learning objectives more clearly.
Technology That Supports UDL
When we began our search for a new LMS, we knew that any system we chose would need to support our UDL approach by providing multiple formats for students to acquire and demonstrate knowledge. We also wanted a platform that would help students become more resourceful and knowledgeable—expert learners, in fact. In the end, we opted for the itslearning LMS because it supported our UDL needs best.
The very first thing we did was to orchestrate a professional development session in which company representatives from our LMS worked with 50 lead teachers from all grade levels and schools across the district. By spring break, there was so much excitement among our teachers that they were beating on the door and demanding access to the LMS. We’re a 1:1 district with students in grades 1–8 using Chromebooks and students in grades 9–12 using laptops. We were able to roll out the personalized learning platform to 11,500 students at the beginning of the 2015–2016 school year.
Why It’s Working
First and foremost, we see our successful implementation as the result of our commitment to the principles of UDL. Creating personalized learning paths for all students that give them choices and hold them accountable is a fundamental shift in our pedagogy. We have a vision and a strategic plan to execute it, consistent direction from our district leaders, and buy-in and support from our building-level leadership.
We also have the infrastructure to support both 1:1 and UDL. The enthusiasm of the original 50 educators got other teachers excited about participating. Our quick adoption resulted from the strength of district leadership and the eagerness of our teachers. Everyone was on board with a learning platform that facilitated our transition to student-centered learning.
Most importantly, our LMS supports our UDL outcomes so that learners can develop improved readiness for college and career. We’ve seen how the LMS helps teachers work with students to:
- Sharpen their executive function skills, such as goal-setting and strategy development;
- Improve their comprehension and information processing;
- Stay engaged in their lessons;
- Improve and practice effective communication using multiple tools, including high-, low-, and no-technology options;
- Develop autonomy and improve their self-regulation and self-assessment skills; and
- Show what they know through flexible, individualized assessment options.
Not only do we use the LMS for our instructional platform, but we also use it for educator professional learning. Using the same platform for both makes it easier to model our expectations. From the very beginning, we’ve had high expectations of UDL for both students and teachers.
Adopting UDL as our framework allows us to have identical expectations for our students while supporting their individual learning paths in the ways that are most appropriate for each student. We believe that UDL is the best way for us to personalize learning and facilitate our students’ college and career readiness.
By standardizing on this end-to-end LMS platform, we have been able to create the kind of learning community we envisioned where both students and educators collaborate, investigate, and communicate their learning together.”