The goal of inclusive education is to ensure that every student, regardless of their background or abilities, has an equal opportunity to learn and succeed. For teachers, this means providing equal access to educational experiences and ensuring that all students have the support and resources they need to succeed academically, socially and emotionally. By designing instruction that meets the diverse needs of all learners, educators can help to create an environment that is welcoming and supportive for everyone. Recently, EdSurge met with field experts, all part of the Educating All Learners Alliance (EALA), to discuss how they leverage edtech to provide an inclusive learning environment for all students.
One way for educators to meet the needs of students is to integrate Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into their instructional practices. UDL provides a framework for designing and delivering lessons that address the diverse needs of all learners, including those with disabilities and other learning challenges. UDL is based on the principle that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning and that instructional materials and methods should be flexible and adaptable to the needs of all students. In short, UDL is a launching point for providing personalized learning experiences. By providing multiple means of representation, expression and engagement, UDL supports the development of self-directed, lifelong learners who are able to succeed in a rapidly changing world.
Chris Bugaj, an assistive technology specialist for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, is quick to advise teachers new to UDL to provide options to their students. Starting from the initial planning stage, they should anticipate different pathways for students in the learning journey. Bugaj likens this to a fast-food menu: “Not everyone wants a burger, so offer a substitution of chicken nuggets or a fish sandwich. But the menu is not infinite. You aren’t offering lobster.”
What does the menu analogy look like in the classroom? Teachers should provide options for how students experience the content. After all, not everyone learns by listening to a lecture; some may learn better through a video or a podcast, while others prefer interactive technology or simulations. To reduce learning barriers in the classroom, teachers need to plan for different methods of student engagement and make materials accessible to all students.
Riley Mulcahy, founder of the RILEY Project, provides a unique perspective as a former student and current administrative assistant at Compass High School. The Bay Area school is a member of EALA and offers a college preparatory program designed for students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ADHD, anxiety and twice exceptionalities (2e). For Mulcahy, UDL means “making sure that all of the students have an accessible way to learn.” Compass High teachers aim to provide a personalized learning environment for every student as much as possible.
Sometimes a simple edtech tool can make a significant difference. For example, one common barrier for students at Compass High School is the inability to read grade-level text. Many students with disabilities read below grade level and benefit from the text-to-speech tool that is universally available across computer and mobile devices. Similarly, some students benefit from dictation applications through which they say their thoughts aloud, triggering the device to convert those thoughts to text. Both of these tools help to make reading and writing more accessible for all learners. As a Compass High student explains, “At school, I use text-to-speech and voice-to-text daily. These are tools that help me to understand lessons and to collaborate with my classmates.” At Compass High, educators discuss with students any accommodations they are receiving and the rationale for each. In return, as students transition from high school to college or career, they learn how to advocate for themselves, negotiating for the tools and resources they need to be successful.
For Mulcahy, the use of a visual tool—a graphic organizer—was pivotal to achieving his writing aspirations. Despite having dyslexia, he knew that he had ideas he wanted to communicate. A high school teacher introduced him to a graphic organizer, and Mulcahy says he “just started jotting an outline of a story, and then came more and more! The simple structure helped me become a better writer and prepared me for college writing.” The result: He eventually graduated college as an English major.
Bugaj adds that all students can benefit from these tools. “If I decide to read a book as my method for learning the content, I can use the text-to-speech tool simultaneously. Maybe I can decode the words with my eyes, but I want to listen to the words with my ears, too, just to make sure that I’m accurately decoding the text. And sometimes, it’s a lot of words, so I just want to listen and not read.” The key is to provide students with options and encourage them to try different strategies so they can better advocate for their needs.
In addition, Bugaj encourages teachers to provide options for students after learning the content. Teachers can offer different ways for students to demonstrate knowledge and skills. “Instead of requiring every student to complete a worksheet or a test, allow them to write an essay, create a slide deck or make a podcast. Provide an array of options with technology to support students in expressing what they learned,” suggests Bugaj.
The power of integrating UDL in classrooms is that students eventually incorporate it into their own work. According to Bugaj, teachers can lean into this by including accessibility as a rubric criterion. “If students start thinking about their slide deck being accessible to the widest range of people, then accessibility becomes an important and necessary feature of whatever is being designed. Hopefully, the next generation won’t be chasing accessibility; it will just be normalized.”
By promoting the exchange of inclusive and accessible teaching strategies, such as those exemplified by educators such as Bugaj and Compass High, EALA aims to encourage further adoption of UDL principles, ultimately transforming the educational landscape to one that prioritizes equity, personalized learning and the success of all learners.
For more resources on how to incorporate UDL and accessibility practices in your classroom, school or district, take advantage of the course Accessibility for All sponsored by EALA and ISTE.