By Ace Parsi and David Gordon

Nurturing a kind society inclusive of those with disabilities isn’t just a benefit for the individuals with disabilities–it’s a benefit for all of us, with or without. You don’t have to look far for examples. Civil rights laws targeted at protecting rights of individuals with disabilities have led to inclines on sidewalks, ramps on buses and wider entry ways into buildings. Whether you’re pushing a baby stroller or recovering from an injury, you have been a beneficiary of these policies. This leads to a truism—efforts that open doors in society to those who are more marginalized make society more accessible for all of us.

While some of the changes highlighted above were unthinkable when they were first proposed, today we could not imagine a society without them. This is the same reality for our education system. By designing an education system that meets the needs of exceptional learners, we open more doors for all learners. This, in essence, is the underlying philosophy behind universal design for learning.

Personalized learning, an approach to customizing where, when, how and through whom learning takes place to the needs, strengths and interests of each learner is expanding throughout the country. More than 40 states have passed some policy supportive of personalized learning and are working to deepen investments.  The question is, ‘how do we ensure this approach’s benefits are truly accessible to all learners?’

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) enables educators to design learning opportunities for students in ways that provide multiple means of engagement, representations of content, and ways to express knowledge. Together, these options relate to what we have learned about the human brain and how individuals learn, specifically optimizing the affective (“why” of learning), recognition (the “what” of learning), and strategic (“how” of learning) networks of the brain to maximize student learning.

While the UDL framework is useful in any classroom, it is particularly necessary for thinking through innovative approaches to education like personalized learning.

NCLD’s recent research findings highlight that UDL can be a central organizing framework to amplify the inherent benefits of personalized learning (including enhancing engagement, providing multiple ways to demonstrate learning, and providing timely interventions and supports) while addressing the strategy’s inherent limitations for students with disabilities (including challenges around accessibility and educator capacity). There are four ways we believe that states and localities can leverage the UDL lens to expand the capacity of personalized learning and other innovative approaches to achieve equity and inclusion goals:

  1. State and Local Strategic Plans. UDL can be used as a guiding framework for strategic plan development in implementing personalized learning at the state and local level. Using the UDL lens can keep key actors focused on expanding accessibility of assessment, engagement and content representation that benefit all students, not just those with disabilities.
  2. Procurement Decisions. States and localities could use their purchasing power to drive up demand for educational products including technology platforms, learning management systems, and other materials that align to principles of UDL. In doing so, they can ensure the means through which personalized learning is implemented are accessible to all learners.
  3. Curriculum and Assessments. Curriculum and assessments that schools, districts and states adopt and implement should align with principles of UDL so as to enable students with different learning needs to understand, engage with and demonstrate their learning in ways that meet their skills, needs and interests.
  4. Teacher Training. UDL is neither a curriculum nor a technology platform that can simply be pulled from the shelf and seamlessly implemented. As such, it is a different way to think about teaching and learning, and states, districts and schools seeking to use it must ensure both pre-service and in-service teachers are effectively trained to implement the approach in conjunction with personalized learning.

UDL reflects one of our nation’s newest civil rights opportunities. If implemented effectively as part of a personalized learning strategy, it is not about a teacher creating 30 different lessons, but leveraging a framework that opens doors for every student in the classroom. If we seize this opportunity, generations from now will look back and marvel at the choice we made to ensure the doors of opportunity were open to all students.

For more, see:

Ace Parsi is the Personalized Learning Partnership Manager at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Follow them on Twitter: @ncldorg

David Gordon is Senior Director of Communications at CAST. Follow him on Twitter: @Gordon_CAST


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