Universally designed learning expert Sam Johnston spoke at Worcester State University.

Talk on Universally Designed Learning Kicks Off WSU’s Summer Institute

May 27, 2016
By: Worcester State University News

With the semester’s grading complete and commencement exercises over, several dozen Worcester State faculty gathered at the Ghosh Science and Technology Center to reflect on several educational trends expected to influence their approach to teaching and student learning in the coming years.

A talk about universally designed learning by Sam Catherine Johnston of CAST kicked off the two-day Summer Institute in mid-May organized by the Center for Teaching and Learning and a planning committee.

“UDL is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn,” she said. “The main idea is that barriers to learning are always about the mismatch between the learner and learning environment.”

Its application spans preschool to college—and everyday life. “Learners who are most affected” by this mismatch “are the ones who drive innovation,” Johnston said, pointing to the invention of closed captioning.

The basis of UDL is representing information in different ways. “You can design systematically for the all the students you’re going to get if you plan for some basic differences,” she said. These address the what, why, and how of learning so that students feel connected to a school, counteracting the number one reason students withdraw from college—a sense of disconnectedness.

Johnston highlighted a UDL-based tutoring program for introductory courses with high enrollments and high withdrawal rates implemented by the University of North Carolina that resulted in “significantly fewer withdrawals.”

She encouraged the faculty to think of “accessibility as foundational” and integrate UDL in the curriculum or course design rather than as an afterthought.

“It’s eventually going to matter for grants and things,” Johnston said. “It’s also part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act. It’s also increasingly showing up in education technology documents.”

These are all reasons the Summer Institute planning committee thought it important to bring Johnston to campus to share her insights on UDL.

“The UDL concept has a lot to do with inclusion, making learning and knowledge accessible by anyone,” said Center for Teaching and Learning Director Sue Foo. “It becomes more and more evident that we have this traditional model, but this model has never worked. There has never been anyone brave enough to say that until the last 10 years with the development of UDL.”

The sea change likely began with technological innovations, she added. While literature on teaching “says technology is a tool not a cure,” it does say it can be used “to make education as conducive for as many learners as possible.”

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