Applying Universal Design to Large Classrooms

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In another session at the Humboldt State University’s Institute for Diversity in Learning & Teaching, Dr. Janye McGuire gave a very useful and informative presentation called “Applying Universal Design for Learning in Large Classrooms.” I was immediately attracted to this presentation because sometimes there seems to be nothing larger than an online class, yet at other times, nothing more intimate. Those who have taught online no what I mean. I seemed to have known more about my online students’ children, interests, and pets than in my face-to-face classes. In the online class, students tend to communicate with a consistency and persistence that in lacking in face-to-face classes – especially large classes. And yet, online classes seem to share some of the same problems as face-to-face classes.

“Universal Design” was defined as integrating accommodation, multiple learning modalities, engagement and interaction into course materials as the course is developed instead of as a tacked on after thought. She gave the analogy of architecture: there are architects who build in accessibility into their buildings and make really elegant, beautiful, and functional designs. And then there are buildings that are retrofitted with a ramp in the back.
One of the things that I appreciate about Universal Design is that it does not get bogged down with learning theory: it is a very practical approach that makes no claims to the secret inner workings of consciousness and how the mind supposedly works. I have found a lot of value and usefulness from learning styles and developing materials with an eye on learning styles. Universal Design addresses these issues and allows me to side-step the objections of Behavioralists or other “-ists” and “-isms” that have some ax to grind from pedagogy that does not match up with their pet epistemology. As an instructional designer, I already want and try to do all the things that Universal Design asks – I want to make my courses accessible, multi-modal (e.g. visual and audio), and to increase the interactivity and engagement of the course.
As a former English teacher, I was always asking myself why English teachers only had one way of assessing a students’ ability to organize thought and communicate (the paper) when we were moving into a world where they would be asked to do so much more (presentations, multimedia, Skype, etc.). The media is changing and the discipline is not.
She discussed the seven principles of Universal Design:
  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexible Curriculum
  3. Simple and Intuitive Instruction
  4. Multiple Means of Presentation
  5. Success-Oriented Curriculum
  6. Appropriate Level of Student Effort
  7. Appropriate Environment for Learning
All of the examples that she gave were very appropriate for the online class as well as the large classroom. She applied these principles to promote multiple means to interact with the material, fellow students, and the instructor. She uses these principles to build community. I also liked that she removes the reliance on tests and exams in her online courses – this ties in nicely to the ideas of Bain and Deep Learning – if your learning is tied to tests, students tend to learn for the tests rather than learn the material in a deep and meaningful way (see previous post).
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