Meeting diverse student learning needs with Universal Design for Learning

Students in our classrooms today are increasingly diverse – in all senses of the word. In terms of age, professional experience, cultural and linguistic background, socioeconomic level, and even rationale for obtaining a university degree – students vary in many important ways. Add to this demographic diversity the fact that every student has a unique profile of learning styles, preferences, abilities, and challenges. I’m not sure it has ever been more challenging to be an educator at any level. That said, this challenge can be invigorating as well. When we acknowledge and work to capitalize on this diversity in our classroom, we are challenged to reconsider how we teach in ways that will require us to be creative and innovative in our teaching practice. But where do we begin?

It can be daunting to consider the magnitude of this challenge. Fortunately, like with 21st Century Skills and the 21CLD framework, CAST and the National Center on Universal Design for Learning provide numerous resources on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to help educators at all levels to address student diversity in the classroom. This approach to planning learning experiences encourages educators to plan in advance for different learning styles and preferences to meet the broadest range of learner needs possible in the classroom. The framework is centered on three core principles:

  1. Provide multiple means of representation
  2. Provide multiple means of action and expression
  3. Provide multipole means of engagement

UDL Guidelines from (2009)

CAST provides a handy interactive chart to explore these three principles. They essentially challenge educators to consider how they might present content in multiple modes and formats to students (e.g., lecture, video, animations, simulations, etc.), provide students with multiple ways to express their understanding of course content (e.g., papers, performances, presentations, community outreach), and multiple ways to engage them in the learning process (e.g., to connect course concepts to current events in the community). It is not necessary (or perhaps even possible) to include all this variation in each class session, but the more diversity in learning and assessment during the course of the semester, the more likely you will tap into each students’ individual strengths, while simultaneously challenging them to stretch themselves in other ways.

While initially developed for K-12 education, UDL has been implemented effectively in higher education as well. In recognition of the unique opportunities and challenges of UDL in higher education, CAST has created the UDL on Campus portal for higher ed faculty. There you will find resources on assessment options, policies and legal information, selecting media and technology, course planning, and teaching strategies.

In the next three posts on ProfHacks, I’ll explore each of the three UDL principles. In each post, I will go more in depth on the principle, strategies for implementation, and how digital tools and resources can help you to implement them more efficiently and effectively in your classroom. This is work in progress for me, but something I’m committed to exploring – both to improve my teaching and my students’ learning.

If you have any experience with or questions about UDL in the classroom, please leave a comment to start a conversation.


Designing a multi-institution hybrid course, part 3

This semester, I’m collaborating with colleagues at another institution to design and implement a hybrid course with four sections of students across two universities. If you’ve missed the first two installments in the series, in the first post, I overview the course purpose and structure. In the second, I discussed the opportunities and challenges with implementing an online community of practice. We’re now a few weeks into the semester, and things seem to be going well so far. While it has been time consuming to design the structure for the course, it seems to be coming together. One recurring realization I’ve had over the last few weeks – tools matter.

We’re using BlackBoard as the primary learning management system (LMS) for the collaboration. Specifically, we’re making use of the discussion fora, pages to host rich media cases, the essay testing features for reader response items, and the online grading tool. I’m a relatively experienced BlackBoard user – although in the past my use was limited primarily to the discussion board and gradebook, including the wonderful rubric tool. What’s been new to me this semester is the content hosting (in the form of creating pages with embedded text, images, and video clips) and the test creation tool. I recognize that these are new to me, but I’ve rarely been as frustrated as when using these two functions in BlackBoard. This frustration is despite the wonderful support (technical and pedagogical) from our helpful IT staff. Rather than structuring this post as a “BlackBoard bash,” I want to reflect for a moment on the importance of selecting the right tool to support any kind of technology-enhanced teaching.

Any digital tool has it’s own affordances and constraints. Every tool does some things really well (affordances) and just gets in the way at other times (constraints). My prior use of BlackBoard (primarily discussions and the grade center) has focused primarily on the affordances of the LMS. This has worked well for me and my students in the past. In going deeper with the tool this semester I’ve run (repeatedly) into the constraints. I can’t tell you how frustrating something simple like embedding a YouTube video on a page has been. I keep lamenting how easy it would be to do the same task in another tool – like wikispaces. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if there were an easy work-around, but even with significant support, some of the limitations have been a major source of frustration.

In the end, I think we’ve bent BlackBoard to our will and it will (for the most part) serve our needs. This experience, however, has underscored the point for me how important choosing the right tool is for the best possible experience. Were I to undertake a similar course in the future, I would look long and hard at the different LMS options (I’m looking at you, Canvas). I will make sure that what I want to do (at least the major functions of the course) are not only possible, but hopefully pleasant to use. Because, in a course like this, you find yourself spending a good deal of time in the LMS. For a hybrid or online teaching experience to be productive and rewarding, you have to enjoy using the tools.

Any advice on alternatives for this kind of experience? I’m eager to explore other options.,

Designing a multi-institution hybrid course, part 1

This semester, I’ll be teaching a course for undergraduate students on how to integrate technology in their teaching. This course is similar to the one I discussed here and here. In this and other iterations of the course, I’ve included some online activities to complement the primarily face-to-face course. This semester, however, more of the content will be moved online and perhaps even more significantly, I’ll be sharing the teaching and facilitation of the course with instructors from the University of Virginia. The vision is to create a classroom community comprised of four sections of the course – three at UVA and one at WIlliam & Mary. Each of the instructors, myself included, has different teaching experience and expertise. So, in this way, it will be a distributed expertise model. One other element that is interesting in this course is that we will also be partnering with practicing teachers to bring their expertise in both designing the course content and in facilitating the discussions and providing feedback on student work. I’m excited about the development of this community of practice. As you might imagine, however, this complex structure will significantly increase the complexity of the course design and implementation. This is the first of a series of posts where I’ll share insights and lessons learned in this process. I’d love to hear from others who’ve tried something similar or are interested to do so. Please begin the conversation by posting a comment below.

We’ve had several organizational meetings wherein we had to determine the shared course goals, key assignments, and overall structure for the course. We will also be conducting a research study on the process and outcomes, so this obviously adds more decisions and coordination to the mix. Despite the challenges, it’s been a rewarding experience so far – one that’s challenged my thinking and expanded opportunities in terms of course content and design. 

In this course, we’re focused on guiding students through an exploration of technology integration in each of the four core content areas (English language arts, math, science, social studies). Each content area module will span three weeks and open with the exploration of a TPACK rich media case. This portion of each module will take place completely online, with opportunities to discuss the content with classmates and instructors at both sites as well as the classroom teacher partners.Students will then move onto two additional days of learning related to technology in each particular content area. Some of these activities will take place in the classroom, some online. The capstone assignment is the design and presentation of a technology-enhanced teaching unit that can be implemented in their practica or student teaching setting.

Initial conversations, conducted via videoconference, focused on fleshing out course objectives, assignments, the calendar, and structure. Once these were nailed down, we shifted to finding a course management tool that would support the kind of learning experience we envisioned. After considerable discussion and consideration of alternatives, we settled on BlackBoard as the tool that would support our community of practice. BlackBoard is flexible enough to support both the fully online, and hybrid elements of the course. Perhaps most importantly, in contrast to the collection of tools I utilized for a similar experience last semester, BlackBoard will be the “one stop shop” to support the course learning activities. As I’ve begun building content for the course, I’m increasingly comfortable that this decision will work well for what we’re trying to do. It’s certainly not without it’s challenges, however. In the next post, I’ll share my experience of moving what has been primarily a face-to-face course to a hybrid format, focusing on lessons learned in the process.

If you have questions or comments about this experience, please add a comment below. I’d love to hear from readers with similar experience or interest. Stay tuned for the next installment in the series…

Diving into Hybrid Teaching

At the College of William & Mary, the primary part of my teaching load is working with undergraduate and Masters students in our teacher preparation program to help them to effectively integrate technology in their teaching. One of the capstone projects in the course is to challenge them to design a technology-integrated learning experience that they can use in their student teaching next semester. I introduce them to a flexible planning approach that I developed with my colleague, Judi Harris, called the learning activity types (LAT) approach. For novice teachers like my students, this is an involved process that typically spans three class meetings. In the past, I’d facilitated this process in class, using a variety of whole group and small group activities. For the first time this year, we designed an online module to replace this in-class experience. In a series of posts, I want to explore this shift to a hybrid model that focuses on three primary areas: my experience as an instructor in this new mode of teaching, benefits for and limitations to the learning process for the students, and learning outcomes for the students. In this first post, I’ll briefly over the process and module and share my insights as the instructor.

I used Blendspace to host the online learning module which spanned three weeks. During this time, we did not meet face-to-face for any portion of the work. Students worked through the module asynchronously with periodic checkpoints and assignments that they were to complete either individually or in small groups that I had created for them. They shared their work along the way through a BlackBoard discussion forum, Google Hangouts, and a commenting feature in Blendspace. In the end, students completed their instructional plans and turned them in to me through group blogs, which are publicly available.

This was a new experience for me as an instructor. I’ve done a number of online experiences for students to complete in lieu of meeting for class. I’d never done a multi-week experience that spanned such a long time, however. Moreover, this module guided them in the process of creating the key assignment for the course. So, in both these ways, this was a bit of a risk for me.

It certainly took some adjusting my time and work during these three weeks. Of course, I completed the vast majority of the planning for the experience in advance. My primary role during the three weeks was to facilitate discussion, provide feedback, and occasionally crack the whip when students fell behind in the process. This meant that I spent a considerable amount of time online – and particularly in BlackBoard. I really value and enjoy the face-to-face interactions with students, so this was a shift. I always felt a little bit tethered to my computer as well – particularly during a few of the more challenging phases. So, while I wasn’t meeting with the students during the scheduled class time, I’ll bet that I spent more time responding to their posts than I would have in class.

While the time spent in BlackBoard was not my favorite, I quickly saw real benefits for doing this experience online. First, students from different sections of the course were able to work together. Perhaps more importantly, I think the increased accountability of students posting their work on the discussion board encouraged them to participate more fully in the work than if they’d done so in the form of small group discussion in class. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that students’ thinking was visible in this way allowed me to answer questions and correct misconceptions or misunderstandings early in the process. Consequently, from my vantage point, students understood and engaged in the planning process to a greater degree than students in prior years. In my mind these benefits far outweigh the bit of discomfort I experienced in facilitating the work online.

All in all, things went well. With the help of my students, I’ve identified a few areas that could be ironed out. There was some confusion about when certain steps were to be completed. In some cases, members of the groups worked at different rates, making the discussions together difficult. I incorporated a few too many tools (Blendspace, BlackBoard, Google Hangout, group blogs) – both for me to stay on top of and for the students to navigate. Fortunately, these are all manageable fixes that should be fairly easy to implement the next time around.

What’s not clear to me, yet, is exactly how the students worked through the process. In the next post, I’ll explore this aspect of the work. I’m cautiously optimistic about the results, but I’ll have to go to the data.

21st Century Learning Design in the College Classroom

Over the past few years, I’ve been working on helping to develop a project called the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) program. This is a professional development effort developed by faculty and sponsored by Microsoft to help college professors find ways to integrate technology in their teaching. It is structured around two frameworks. The first, technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK), helps participants find ways to connect their disciplinary knowledge with their instructional approach in ways that utilize technology effectively. This part of the workshop helps faculty to identify ways the technology can support teaching and learning in their discipline.


In working with faculty from around the world, we found that many faculty also require some assistance in thinking about when technology will really make a difference in their teaching and their students’ learning. To address this need we’ve began to draw on the 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD) framework. This framework was developed by Microsoft partners in learning in conjunction with SRI International and Innovative Teaching and Learning research program. In contrast to many other 21st-century skills frameworks, the 21 CLD framework is both research-based and very concrete in terms of classroom application.

The framework identifies six primary skills that students should develop as they progress through their education: collaboration, knowledge construction, self-regulation, real-world problem-solving and innovation, use of ICT for learning, and skilled communication. Along with the definitions for each of these skills, the framework offers detailed examples and rubrics of how educators can design learning experiences that substantively address that particular skill. This framework appeals to me as a teacher in its specificity and the ability to think in terms of different levels of implementation. 

This 21 CLD framework has been very helpful in the TEI workshop in both providing a strong rationale for faculty to consider integrating technology into their teaching and in offering a vision for what this looks like in the classroom. If you’re interested in exploring ways to meet the needs of your students in the 21st century, increase the rigor and interactivity of your coursework, or challenge yourself to level-up in terms of what you ask your students to do, please check out the Partners in Learning website for an overview of the 21 CLD framework and associated rubrics for 21st-century learning design. If you’re interested in the Technology Enriched Instruction workshop, I encourage you to check out that site as well.

How do you integrate one or more of these skills and your teaching?