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April 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 7

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Digital Tools to Broaden Learning

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Instructional Strategies
Show & Tell: A Video Column / Digital Tools to Broaden Learning thumbnail
We both began our careers as special educators, supporting students who had a variety of communication, cognitive, and social differences. In our early careers, we relied on a number of tools that were innovative for that time. For instance, Picture Communication Symbols (PCS) were small black-and-white images that allowed individuals without spoken language to communicate. We spent lots of time photocopying, laminating, and affixing these symbols to surfaces, always trying to anticipate when and where a student might need them.
Fast forward a few decades. Nancy has a family friend with a kindergarten-aged son who has limited mobility and speech because of a metabolic disorder. Yet Kevin (a pseudonym) has little problem communicating. He relies on his customized tablet, which is outfitted with an app that uses PCS images and allows anyone to add symbols as needed. Using the accessibility feature on his tablet, Kevin can navigate his device by accessing the switch controls using voice command, reducing the need for tactile skills. His family is eagerly watching the progress of Talkitt, a software program being developed to translate unintelligible speech to understandable speech.
But here's the best part: Kevin's friends don't regard interacting with his device as a barrier. Past communication methods like the manual Picture Communication Symbols were unfamiliar and therefore somewhat off-putting to other children. Now tablets, smartphones, and computers are natural and accepted parts of play and school.
Digital tools are shifting the education landscape at an awe-inspiring pace. The video that accompanies this column shows teachers and their students explaining how they mobilize some of these tools through the principles of universal design.

Improved Access

Universal design, as applied in manufacturing and architecture, makes it possible for more people to use products and access spaces. If you've ever bypassed the stairs to pull your heavy suitcase up a ramp, you've benefited from universal design. In education, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) addresses "the disability of schools rather than students." The three governing principles of UDL call for giving students multiple means of engagement, action and expression, and representation.
Students who have mobility, sensory, and cognitive differences will often need assistive technology, even in the most UDL-friendly classroom. But UDL is not only for students with identified disabilities; it's meant to improve the learning lives of all students by widening the path.

Multiple Means of Engagement

Learner engagement is enhanced when choice, autonomy, and multiple paths to completion are available for students. As students engage in independent research on a topic, for example, teachers can use technology to create hand-picked collections of sources that include a variety of media (videos, podcasts, print documents, graphics, and so on) geared to various learning styles or preferences; the students can then explore these resources along paths they choose. As students learn, they can organize their new knowledge through web-based curation tools such as Pinterest. For instance, social studies students can organize information they find for a group research project by adding images, text, and other content onto assigned Pinterest boards about historical figures and events.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Perhaps nowhere have advances in technology had a greater impact on students with learning differences than in the areas of communication and composition. For several years now, teachers at our school have used smartpen technology to enhance notetaking for students who have trouble listening to lectures while simultaneously taking notes. As students write notes on specialized paper, these smartpens allow them to record portions of the teacher's lecture or make audio recordings themselves. They can later retrieve the audio notes, which are time-synced to the moment when the written notes were first created.
Another technology tool, voice recognition, has made it much easier for students to express their ideas in writing. Apps like Voice Recognition and Cloud Speech API translate students' speech into written text, even in noisy classroom environments. Going in the opposite direction, most current computers have text-to-speech capabilities built into the operating system. Apps like Natural Reader and Google Text-to-Speech enable students to listen to an audio playback of a written text. Text-to-speech apps are particularly valuable for writers who need to edit and revise their work. In fact, we edited this column by using this technology to hear grammatical and syntactical errors that we often miss when rereading silently.

Multiple Means of Representation

The growing use of adaptive learning software has been a boon for many students who benefit from having content and texts tailored to fit their current learning needs. Adaptive learning programs in reading and mathematics are widely used in elementary and secondary schools, although their purposes are not always well understood.
Adaptive learning programs are not intended for new instruction, but rather to provide distributed practice to strengthen fluency and stamina. These intelligent tutoring systems track accurate responses and decide when the student is ready for increased challenge. The programs can be further customized to address gaps in background knowledge and skills by allowing the teacher to put specific content in the queue, such as adding readings about Elizabethan England and the theater in advance of a unit on William Shakespeare.

Easier Than Ever

UDL principles and concomitant technology enhancements are making it easier than ever to provide students with supports that bridge learners to content. Although keeping up with these innovations can be challenging for adults, the fact that these tools are so widely embraced by our students makes them worth pursuing.
Watch three teachers explain some of the ways technology tools help them apply UDL principles in their classrooms.

Show & Tell April 2017

5 years ago
End Notes

1 Gordon, D., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. (2016). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing, p. 5.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

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