Leveraging Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, will help ensure effectiveness and a level of normalcy in an unexpected new learning reality

UDL is essential in post-secondary pandemic learning

Leveraging Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, will help ensure effectiveness and a level of normalcy in an unexpected new learning reality

The shock has passed, the sadness comes and goes, and the stretchy waistband pants are becoming a mainstay. Your college or university is staying online for the rest of this academic year, as well as summer, and you wonder about fall 2020.

While the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic persists, it may be time to settle into an educational environment that will be more online than previously imagined.

Warning: You will not get through the same amount of content during this pandemic. Please do not try.

Related content: 10 ways to stay connected when going remote

The most important learning that your students/learners will remember right now is how the authority figures and teachers in their lives dealt with this adversity. Lots of communication, as much empathy as you can handle, and establishing the expectation that every person is doing their best is what students will remember. So, instead of hoping for teaching and learning as “normal,” and when you are ready, try something new.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can offer a unique lens or path toward a semblance of normalcy in this abnormal time.

UDL comes from an educational framework first conceptualized in architecture with Universal Design – creating spaces that are accessible to all – and the challenges of special education, where learning and teaching based on the “average” student was not effective.

In this pandemic, nothing about schools or students is average. A framework that considers wide differences in human behavior and teaches to every student is critical now more than ever. UDL provides a framework to reach every student through online teaching by utilizing neuroscience for learning and following the 3 main principles of engagement, representation, and action and expression.

The first step for educators seeking to transition to an online and effectively teach all students is to start with the concept of engagement. There are a variety of ways people can begin teaching and learning online. But it is critical to start by addressing the sadness, anxiety, and destabilization that results from school closures and the loss of the in-person connections and community they create.

During this time both instructors and learners can reflect on the sadness this change has brought about. Author @erinleyba posted a graphic describing the ways kids’ sadness around COVID might look.

My own feelings as an educator are not dissimilar from what students may be feeling, only from a different perspective: anger, “Students are not reacting to my lectures interactively”; resisting the normal, “I’m not going to another Zoom meeting that could have been an email”; tiredness, “Why do I need a 1 hour nap, and 9 hours to get through the day”; numbing out, “More Netflix please”; displaced frustration, “Amazon Prime is going to take how long to deliver my new headphones!?!”; and boredom, “Am I bored, or am I sad?”

If we all do not allow space for the sadness and acknowledge the anxiety and frustration of this new normal, then it will be a struggle for students and teachers to embrace and explore the potential of a new world of online and digital learning.

The following strategies for student engagement are based on the principles of UDL. This engagement is critical before teaching any content:
• Check in often with students. Send an email or message once a day during instruction days. Make this a bullet pointed summary of what is expected of them. While this may seem redundant to you, it is important to ensure every student is engaged.
• Create a short survey every week for students to let you know where they are in the material and to see how they are feeling.
• Share your own feelings with your students/learners. You can describe how you are doing, or even use one of the many memes out there that can express however you may be feeling.

Remember that living through this pandemic is a form of trauma. Jennifer Yaeger, LPC, posted on Sea Glass Therapy open Facebook page, that as a trauma specialist it is important that educators know about and understand the effects of trauma. Trauma shuts down parts of the brain as a survival skill. As a result, you and your students are not fully processing what is going on. This is why the daily check-ins are so important. You are supporting their executive functioning. By sharing some of your feelings you are creating a space for others to share theirs and to not to feel like they are alone.

The second step is to attend to the different way students understand, perceive, and comprehend information that is presented to them. This means providing multiple means of representation.

• Make sure you are delivering all information and content in more than one way. If you are delivering information by text, also have a video or voice recording with it too. If you are delivering by Zoom or another web casting service, have a text version ready as well. There are great tools like Screencastomatic, YouTube, Screencastify, and Zoom recording.
• Use existing resources that have the same learning objectives or information as your usual lecture or textbook. Without the face-to-face connection and personal attention that in person classes provide, representing the course material in different ways becomes even more important. Explore Google, reach out to your Librarians, and venture into TEDx talks and YouTube territory.

Keep in mind that learners who have lived through trauma may be feeling especially out of touch with their own emotions at this time and can find comprehension even more challenging. Giving yourself and your learners the opportunity to explore different ways of looking at content and providing different content sources is helpful.

• When presenting new information to learners, support comprehension by highlighting patterns, critical features, and big ideas more than you would in the past.
• Find ways to clarify new vocabulary.
• One very powerful way to support learning is to use metacognition. Record yourself (Zoom, Screencastify, video) experiencing some new content. Show others how you are thinking about connections between the new ideas and something you already know. Talk through how you handle being confused. Modeling your own thinking out loud will help your learners overcome their own challenges.

How do you know students are engaged and interacting with new content? Instructors need to understand what students know, and what they do not know. This can be addressed through different forms of formative and summative assessments, giving a grade on an assignment, or a final grade. Faculty also use student knowledge to decide what to teach next week. If we cannot understand what are students are “getting”, then instruction gets stuck.

• Make sure you are asking students/learners to show what they know in more than one way. If you are asking for an essay, also let students choose to share the same information in a video, or digital poster. See www.smore.com for examples.

Action and Expression. Utilize assistive technologies increases accessibility to the material and benefits all students. This is an opportune time for educators to learn about, understand, and use assistive technologies. An interesting thought experiment is to view of all of your students as anything but average. Think of a bell curve of skills and abilities. Take a moment to think of all of your students at one end of the curve or the other, with no one in the middle.

If everyone is on the edges, then using assistive technology connects you back together again. Although new technology can be daunting, it is not that difficult or time consuming and the benefits can be profound. When assistive technology is applied there is greater comprehension and retention than when the lever of assistive technology is not used. Google does an impressive amount of work around accessibility.

• Record your presentations, with captions, (YouTube) for students to watch or listen to as homework. This frees up time for Google Meet or Zoom time to be more interactive.
• Ask students to record their understandings, with captions (YouTube). One easy way is to ask students to find two ideas within new content that they do not want to forget (I call these ideas Keepers), and two questions that they have (I call these Queries). Have them post their Keepers and Queries video on a Padlet so everyone in the class can see how each person interacts with information differently.
• Encourage students to listen to podcasts and analyze how the information is organized. Then have them imitate the organization with information they need to demonstrate knowledge on.
• Allow students to show their understanding by having them choose how they deliver the information. Just as students can benefit from better accessibility when learning the course material, providing the opportunity to choose different mediums allows each student to show their understanding in the method that they feel most comfortable. It is all about allowing students to write, record a video or podcasting, and other creative ways for learners to demonstrate knowledge. Using a simple rubric will help you keep the goals of the content knowledge in mind.

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