Students aren’t defective, materials and resources are.
GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura
This past semester I taught a required course for Instructional Technology majors. Trust me, there’s nothing like swapping ideas with 30 early-career technology teachers to give you a good snapshot of the state of thinking in this field. This was a great learning experience for me as well as the students and chief among its many strong points, this was my first opportunity to use the Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST’s, ‘Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning’ as the keystone text in a graduate level Education course. I, of course, had been familiar with this important work previously, but this was a great opportunity to look at it with fresh eyes — those of my students. And wow! It proved to be not just the good, informational text I had hoped for, but a truly transformational one.
I’ll paraphrase this book’s very wonderful, central idea:
Students who don’t succeed in learning through traditional instruction don’t do so because of some defect or deficit or learning disability on their part, but rather, because the materials and resources they are presented with are inflexible and unsuitable to meet their particular, personal needs as learners.
The book offers many ideas and practices to help teachers determine those specific needs and how to address them. What resonates about this so strongly for us Instructional Technologists is that the flexibility that’s needed to make instructional resources accessible and usable for so many students is brought about by increasingly common and available digital technologies.
The flexibility needed to make instructional resources accessible and usable for so many students is brought about by increasingly common and available digital technologies.
These truly are revolutionary ideas and it was inspiring to observe my students, none of whom were previously familiar with UDL (Universal Design for Learning), wrestle with this conceptual framework that runs throughout the book for the first time. What my students took away from their reading is nothing less than the realization, that truly, EVERY STUDENT CAN LEARN – and seeing examples of how this can be brought about through the focused, targeted use of technology, they walked away with the crucial “ah ha” that a vast improvement in teaching and learning looms on the horizon and is within our reach.
Quite reasonably, my students first saw the body of UDL ideas and practices as a way to serve Special Education students. And no doubt, such students have reaped a great deal of benefit from it through instruction provided by educators who also have seen this natural connection. But the truly transformational understanding my students came to next is that by applying the ideas underpinning UDL to mainstream students as well, all students can experience the curriculum in a much more satisfying way and consequently, can learn and achieve far better. Moved by the inspiring experience my students had, I’m making this way of looking at the potential of technology to re-make education for the benefit of learners worldwide a personal area of special interest. Of the broad range of instructional platforms and philosophies extant, I think this is one of the most promising by far.
No area of learning needs this more than Reading. Using traditional resources and instructional practices, a very substantial percentage of students fail to master their literacy skills (particularly Reading) sufficiently and early enough to succeed with a good deal of the curriculum that’s presented to them during their school career. Further, they fail to catch on to the satisfaction and inspiration that self-directed reading can provide and consequently miss out as well on the benefits it offers by making them lifelong, independent learners. Applying our very best understandings of learning and how to overcome barriers to it to this very important issue is crucial.
Fortunately, CAST is piloting a new resource named Udio that will do just that. Udio’s goals are “to foster a passionate interest and investment in reading for students who have traditionally been uninterested in, or disenfranchised by, traditional classroom literacy practices, and “to substantially improve the reading comprehension skills of middle school students who have experienced recurrent failure in the domain of reading.”
I’m excited to report that a representative from CAST will make a presentation about Udio at the upcoming annual meeting of ISTE’s LITERACY Professional Learning Network which will take place at the upcoming ISTE conference in Atlanta (June 28 – July 1). If you plan on attending the conference please join us at this session, no need to register or pay anything extra to attend this important session (time and date below).
Mark Gura, EdTech Digest Advisory Board member, is president of the ISTE LITERACY Professional Learning Network (formerly, Literacy Special Interest Group). Mark taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. An edtech pioneer, he spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. ISTE Literacy Network annual learning, planning and visioning session is on Monday, June 30, 5:15 pm–6:30 pm GWCC B206 Digital Age Teaching & Learning. For more information, see the ISTE LITERACY Professional Network: http://literacyspecialinterest.blogspot.com/ and Udio: http://www.cast.org/research/projects/udio.html