Improving Education – Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Part of our mission here at the creative studios is to provide educational content. This content needs to be accessible and useful to the greatest number of people possible.

As an instructor, I have twice had the challenge of teaching geology – a notably visual science – to students with visual impairments. This is where Universal Design for Learning (UDL) plays an important role.

However, UDL is not just for people with obvious disabilities, like blindness, hearing loss, or mobility issues. The fact of it is that incorporating UDL into teaching benefits everyone.

For example, as I prepare various video lectures, I am putting in special effort to provide captioning and transcripts for the hearing impaired. Hey, my hearing is mostly ok (not as good as it used to be, but whatever) and I can hear videos just fine, but I almost always have captioning on because it improves my understanding of what is said if I can read along.

When teaching geology, I placed my visually impaired students in with ‘normal’ vision (whatever ‘normal’ really is). Students took turns describing the rocks and minerals for the students who could not see them, allowing everyone to participate in the group work. This obviously benefited those who could not see the rocks, but also benefited the other students because it forced everyone to really think about what they were looking at.

Plus, everyone learned different ways to perceive and understand the questions being asked. An example from geology: We’re told that slate makes a ringing sound and shale does not. It was not until I had a blind student in class that I could actually produce these sounds. She taught me. I would have spent years parroting the same story without any means of demonstrating this phenomenon, were it not for this one student who understood the world differently than I did.

UDL is challenging because it does require some extra work on the front end on the part of the instructor. It involves understanding how formatting works in documents so that screen readers work correctly. It requires the use of alt text in images. It requires us to be more careful as we describe things. Laboratory exercises may need to be modified or even replaced.

But everybody wins with UDL. Materials are presented in multiple ways and in formats and most people can access. Because of the planning involved, teaching is clearer. Goals are clearer. All students benefit.

As we move forward with educational content, you’ll see this being used. It’ll probably be kind of clunky at the beginning as we learn how best to apply UDL. But even an imperfect effort is better than no effort, and in the end, we hope everyone learns something!

Here’s one resource about UDL from understood.com: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/for-educators/universal-design-for-learning/understanding-universal-design-for-learning

Author: Penny

Litterbox Engineer and Chief Cat Cuddler at Mew-Mew House (mewmewhouse.org); CEO and Principal Scientist at EPOCH Isotopes (epochisotopes.com) Curator at PaleoPix (paleopix.com) Senior Photographer at Animal's Place Creative Studios (animalsplacestudios.com)

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