UDL: It's All about Options
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for designing learning environments that provide equal opportunities to access the curriculum for all diverse learners. To help educators in implementing UDL, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) developed a set of UDL Guidelines. The key idea behind these guidelines (which are available on the CAST website at www.cast.org) is that we need to provide options in order to account for the variability all learners bring to the classroom.
Figure 1. A key idea of UDL is to provide options. (Image Created with Spell with Flickr).
Under the principle of multiple means of representation, UDL encourages educators to provide options that promote understanding across cultures. For example, educators can embed visual, non-linguistic supports (e.g., pictures, videos, and animations) to make vocabulary easier to understand for those who are just learning English. Similarly, they can provide links to online glossaries and translation tools for learners who are becoming proficient with English but still need supports.
Figure 2. Screenshot of Google Translate performing a simple English to Spanish translation.
As important as these linguistic supports are, they are only part of the story when it comes to supporting diverse learners and their cultures. As Jean Anyon stated in Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work, learners receive a number of subtle messages as part of the “hidden curriculum” in our schools. As an English Language Learner, I witnessed firsthand one of these subtle messages when I arrived in the U.S. at the age of 11. At the time, I spoke no English and this made for a difficult transition to a new culture. My parents also spoke limited English since they had not been in the country for long themselves. This made communication between home and the classroom difficult, and at times I felt like I was caught in the middle. Whether intentional or not, I got the subtle message that my culture was not valued, since it seemed that very little effort was being made to acknowledge and recognize it as a valuable part of who I am.
Today, technology tools provide many more opportunities to promote communication between home and school. While many low-income households don’t yet own a computer, many parents and caregivers do have access to a mobile phone.
Figure 3. Cell phones put a lot of information just a tap away.
- As an educator, you can take advantage of this trend in a number of ways: Make use of social media. With little effort, you can easily set up a page or group on Facebook (www.facebook.com) to share information about the work taking place in your classroom. The nice thing about social networks is that communication with non-linguistic options is encouraged. Services such as Facebook make the sharing of pictures and videos easier, and these media make up most of the content that is shared on these networks. While you would not rely on these networks for critical information (which should still be provided through traditional means), they provide another avenue through which you can engage parents and caregivers in the life of your classroom and help bridge the cultural divide that often leaves the learner in the middle.
- Use messaging apps. Remind (www.remind.com) is an easy-to-use service for sending free text messages to learners and their parents. This is a great way to keep parents informed of important events (upcoming field trip, science fair, etc.) and deadlines (when that big project is due). You could offer this as an option parents can sign up for at the beginning of the school year open house. At that time, you can find out about their language preferences as well. Using a tool such as Google Translate (translate.google.com), you can translate your messages (it will not do a perfect job, but it should work reasonably well for short text messages).
- Make sure your class website works well on mobile. Take a second to access your class website on a mobile device. Is everything quickly accessible? What may have worked well when you were on a computer creating your website with a big screen in front of you may not work as well on a mobile device with a small screen. How about the media? Is it supported on the mobile device? (Flash can be a problem.) Does it take a long time to download, or is there another way you can share the same information in a more lightweight format? A photo gallery to replace a video, for example? Not everyone can afford to pay for an unlimited data plan, and we need to keep that in mind.
Effective communication between home and school is important for ensuring that learners feel truly included and valued. If we ignore this aspect of the educational experience, we may be sending subtle messages that undo much of the work we do to include learners in our classrooms. With the many inexpensive technology tools available today, improved communication with parents and caregivers is easier than ever. Even just making an effort sends a powerful message to our learners.