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Technology and Design Offered Equal Opportunities for Success

The video "Transforming the Lives of Students with Learning Disabilities,"documents how a Missouri school district integrated AIM and TTS across the high school curriculum and the effective ways in which teachers and students used this technology to improve reading and writing skills. Download transcript of video


The NIMAS legislation signaled the beginning of important policy changes regarding literacy and disabilities. But those policy changes would not have been possible were it not for advances in the underlying technologies of learning and literacy that were becoming apparent in 2010. The explosion of new technologies in the latter part of the twentieth century drastically changed the media landscape and our orientation to information. The most obvious change was the loss of print’s preeminence as the medium for communication, scholarship, and entertainment, an evolution that ushered in our modern era. But viewed retrospectively it is easy to miss a more fundamental change: The very “soul” or “language” of new media was radically different from print. That difference ultimately exposed print’s limitations and challenged its central role first in our culture and then in our schools.

Whereas the “soul” of old media was its “fixedness” or permanence, the “soul” of new digital media is its flexibility—the flexibility that allows it to be customized, modified, and manipulated. Print constrained our thinking and learning linearly; new digital media expands our imagination and creativity. While these characteristics brought consternation and confusion in some areas—notably copyright practices—the effects on education, especially for those students who struggled under the conditions where media was limited to print, were transformative. Among the most transformative effects of the new media was the shift from a pedagogy based on standardization to one based on individualization.

Curricula used to be designed and developed as if students were homogeneous, and the best approach to variance was to address the needs of an “average” or standardized student. This approach was dictated primarily by the limits of print; standardization, uniformity, and “one size fits all” were among the primary benefits of Gutenberg’s revolution (Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing a mechanical printing press which led to the standardization of print and mass production of books).

Because few, if any, students actually are average, schools, parents, and teachers had to adapt, accommodate, or “retro-fit” the curriculum to be effective for the many students who were not average. (Note: Howard Gardner and others already had shown that it was problematic to view students as normalized on any single curve or "intelligence.”) This retro-fitting process was arduous and expensive, but deemed necessary in a world dominated by print.

From our perspective in 2020, it is difficult to remember the enormous costs and effort required to “de-standardize” the curriculum to make it responsive to individual differences. Now that the basic platform for education is no longer print media, we are accustomed to materials and methods that can be highly differentiated and adapted easily and adroitly to individual differences. The flexibility of modern media makes it routine to present information in multiple formats and media, to adjust presentation, pace, supports, and challenges to meet needs of individual students, to allow them to articulate what they know in various ways, and so forth. Now we seek high standards for all students, but no longer have to standardize methods for reaching those standards.

Universal Design for Learning

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Technology itself is not what provides the educational advantages. The flexibility and diversity of modern multimedia provide an ideal foundation for education, but the advantages of that foundation only can be realized with proper design. In today’s classrooms, educational materials adhere to important principles of design-universal design for learning (UDL)-that offer equal opportunities for success for all students.

The first release of the UDL guidelines and evidence-based practices was published in 2008. While most teachers in 2010 had not yet heard of UDL, considerable national momentum was building in both policy and practice. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, for example, was a crucial milestone because it was the first federal legislation to define UDL and encourage its practices in colleges and universities nationwide, especially for teacher preparation programs. Established in 2006 and comprised of dozens of national educational and advocacy organizations, the National UDL Task Force spearheaded inclusion of UDL in the higher education bill and succeeded in embedding UDL into all the K-12 legislation that followed.

Media collage image with a computer screen, cameras, a book, a cell phone, etc.

But the practice of UDL in American schools in 2010 was hardly pervasive or systematic. Unlike today, there was no comprehensive and validated UDL curriculum that spanned a full school year, nor was there a fully realized UDL district or school. The principles were there and the technologies that would instantiate those principles were available, but they were fragmented in their application to the curricula. By 2010, the harbingers of future curricula that would combine both good principles and good technology were emerging. Several early examples follow.

By 2010, education already was moving rapidly to the Web, a medium that even then proved to be much more flexible than print in supporting learning for all kinds of learners. Many curriculum producers began to take advantage of this flexibility by applying UDL principles to the creation of web-based learning materials.

One early example, Universal Learning Editions (udleditions.cast.org) still is available online. Designed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) for the Web and published in conjunction with Google to celebrate World Literacy Day in 2008, these UDL editions of classic works from literature offered a lot of the learning supports and scaffolds that we take for granted today. They rendered classic texts in ways that could be highly individualized to support many different kinds of learners. For the reader with dyslexia, these editions provided options that reduced or eliminated many barriers and impediments found in print editions. For example, any text, in whole or part, could be read aloud to reduce decoding barriers; key words were linked to a multimedia glossary to reduce vocabulary barriers; most passages had links to more information to reduce background knowledge barriers; and so forth. These versions also embedded highly customizable supports to help the student become a better reader: graduated scaffolds for building reading comprehension strategies, for identifying author’s craft, and so forth, along with models and feedback essential to a successful apprenticeship. These UDL editions provided a model for curriculum developers and others for leveraging the enormous flexibility of digital environments to support all learner

In 2010, easy-to-use, web-based, content-authoring environments and a culture of open-licensing content (text and multimedia) under Creative Commons (a nonprofit organization that provides web-based, legal tools for individuals or companies to grant copyright permissions to their creative work) permitted anyone with a computer and Internet access the freedom to create, remix, manage, and publish content on the Web.

...students with dyslexia were canaries
in the mine. Their potential difficulties
were early warning signs that there wasn't
enough air to breathe in our schools.

Teachers and students began exploring different ways to access information, express skills, and make learning interactive and engaging. Educators already had created hubs like Connexions (www.cnx.org) where they could share, build, and enhance each other’s modules—extending their use for students everywhere.

Just as students with dyslexia faced barriers when they tried to access information in a world of print, they also faced barriers expressing what they knew. By 2010, however, new options in the media for expression had appeared, options that paved the way for the rich expressive media mix that dominates today’s schools. For example, many classrooms already had begun to use VoiceThread, an early (and free) form of web-based tool for creating composition that encouraged students not only to write, but to speak, draw, illustrate with video, and comment on each other’s work in many different ways. Internationally, teachers and students in the “Flat Classroom” project created a classroom wiki—an early web-based, collaborative space for students to create, edit, and share their work. The Flat Classroom project linked students from two different classrooms—one in the United States and the other in Bangladesh. To facilitate communication and collaboration across distance, students used a variety of communication tools such as email, discussion forums, podcasts, MySpace, Skype, and instant messaging. As students researched their own topic, they shared and synthesized their findings in the form of text, images, podcast, or video. These early multimedia projects, and many others, eventually grew into the worldwide learning environments that are now typical in our schools. The important point, however, is that the technologies and designs that allowed students from the U.S. to effectively communicate and collaborate with students from Bangladesh were the same technologies and designs that proved effective in providing the literacy options that students with dyslexia needed.

These examples are merely the tip of the iceberg, even for 2010. For a better feel for the literacy environments that were pioneering in 2010, visit this historic web site—www.cast.org—where others can be found and explored.

New Landscape, New IDA

I have highlighted history today to emphasize the transformative period from which we have emerged. At the beginning of this period, when IDA was founded, students with dyslexia typically were educated in an environment that frustrated their progress and limited their success. Schools were unsupportive at best and damaging at worst. Because there were few alternatives at the time, the only option was to teach these students, vigorously, how to survive in an alien world.

Somewhere around 2010, the environment began to change. New policies, principles, and technologies all conspired to change our view of a proper landscape for learning. In that new landscape, it became nearly impossible to think of students with dyslexia as “learning disabled.” In fact, these students taught us that our schools were “print disabled.”

In that regard, students with dyslexia were canaries in the mine. Their painful difficulties were early warning signs that there wasn’t enough air to breathe in our schools. All students now benefit and are more literate because of these warnings. And, IDA has become a very different organization—remediating not only our students, but also our schools—so that there is enough air for everyone.

And so, welcome to the new IDA—2020!

For a more comprehensive explanation of how the UDL principles of design were applied to the creation of learning supports, go to Page 4: Overview of Universal Design for Learning Features.

David Rose, Ed.D., helped to found CAST with a vision of expanding opportunities for all students, especially those with disabilities, through the innovative development and application of technology. Dr. Rose specializes in developmental neuropsychology and in the universal design of learning technologies. He lectures at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and is the principal investigator for two national centers to develop and implement the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS). Dr. Rose is also a frequent keynote speaker at national and international conferences. His doctorate is from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Ge Vue, Ed.M., is an Instructional Designer/Research Associate at CAST. Ge is interested in developing social learning technologies and is instrumental in the development of UDL digital literacy environments to support reading, writing, and assessment. He is also interested in the creative use of emerging technology to create flexible learning environments. Ge received his undergraduate degree from Carleton College and a Master of Education in Technology, Innovation, and Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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