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Universal Design for Learning: Needed by Some, but Beneficial to All (1 of 2)

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Dr. Jim Patton from the Department of Special Education tells us how a Universal Design for Learning approach leads him to leverage teaching strategies that can accommodate the special needs of some students, but these same strategies can be useful to other learners.  Using specific examples taken from his large-format Applied Learning and Development course, Dr. Patton  groups these techniques into three categories – access, expression, and engagement.
(Part 1 of 2)

Learn More

Dr. Patton’s faculty webpage

Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and Practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.

What is Universal Design?

Myths & Facts about UDL (from Brookes Publishing)


Karen French: Welcome back to “Learning from Texas Education Innovators”. I’m Dr.Karen French. This week’s guest was Dr. Jim Patton he is from the Department of Special Education. Our conversation about Universal Design for Learning was such a good conversation and it lasted such a long time we decided to divide it into two podcasts. The first podcast will be this week and the next one will be in another two weeks. I hope you will join us for both.

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Karen: Jim, you’re here today to talk about universal design for learning. So we’ve known each other for over a decade, our kids went to school together, I know that you teach courses in the Special Education Department, I know that you’ve put together some really interesting signature courses. And I just realized I don’t know that much background about you. Where’s a good place to begin to tell the story of your life? Or perhaps better said, the story of your teaching life?

Jim Patton: Yeah, I can– well first of all, it’s great to be able to be a part of this series. Thank you for asking me to do this. And this topic is one that I have some… It’s interesting, it’s a topic I have great interest in, but I don’t think about it a lot because it just seems to be part of ongoing operations. To answer your question, yeah, you know we’ve known each other for quite a while and we focus a lot on what we’re doing here without necessarily going– aside from the fact we have children that went to school together, the background sometimes you don’t really know. So I’ll just kind of give a quick hit. So I started off, my undergraduate major, I went to the University of Notre Dame was a– I was actually in kind of a pre-med program that, kind of, I changed my ideas on it. But I ultimately had enough course work, et cetera to become a high school biology teacher. Now, it’s interesting, I had to get some student teaching through another school and dah-dah-dah-dah-dah, but I started out as a general education biology teacher.

Unfortunately, that got interrupted because I got drafted into the military. So I mean it was during that time where you sometimes had to serve against your will. (laughs) But I did, I went into the military and when I came out I had gotten an interest in working with kids with special needs. It’s hard to pinpoint what it was. But I was interested in it, but knew that I had to go back and get training, so I applied– I went to a Master’s Program in Special Education at the University of Virginia that was pretty much a pre-service kind of Master’s, meaning it was preparing me to be a Special-Ed teacher. Now, I’m thinking secondary, but the way it works out, I got a position at an elementary school. So I worked as a, what we call a Resource– Special Education Resource teacher at an elementary, a public school in Charlottesville, Virginia for a number of years.
And then I eventually went back and got my Doctorate and then took– my first position was at the University of Hawaii, I was out there for ten years, but I also had the opportunity which I didn’t realize and it has a lot to do with, maybe, being here with you today, is I had an opportunity to teach at a private school that was designed for students who are gifted and gifted– well what we call twice exceptional, gifted and having learning disability or gifting and ADHD maybe. And so it was back then and I hate to say, it was a while back, that this idea of this turn that no so much the theme of this podcast, but differentiating instruction, really kind of emerged out of gifted education. And I was involved with gifted education back at that time, so the idea of differentiating within a classroom. What that really means to me is kind of attending to the needs of your students, whatever those might be, started a long time ago, but actually in an interesting setting, which was gifted education.

Karen: Out of gifted, not out of special education?

Jim: Yeah, exactly.

Karen: Okay, the differentiated learning came out of that idea?

Jim: Yeah that’s, we were doing that with gifted kids a long time ago and then it got very popularized when it got applied to general education. And the term still is a very popular term.

Karen: Right.

Jim: Yeah and it relates to what we’re going to talk about– or what I’m going to talk about today because it’s embedded, in my approach to differentiating for kids, UDL is part of that process for me. So… a class I’ve taught since I’ve been here, which is now about 28 years, is–

Karen: 28 years?

Jim: Yeah, it’s been a while.

Karen: I had no idea!

Jim: Yeah, it’s added up. So the class is called, the title of the class is “Individual Differences” it’s ALD, so Applied Learning and Development 322.

Jim: There’s multiple sections of it, I only teach one and I tend to teach the one that meets once a week. It’s a large class. It ranges from, the lowest I’ve ever had an enrollment is maybe 50 and I’ve taught it to 300 I think at one time. It’s now usually around 80 to 90 is the number of students, because of that, you do have variability in a class like that.

Karen: Right.

Jim: And because of that it’s been, it’s a perfect forum for applying these elements of UDL that we’ll talk about. You still can embed these kinds of elements into smaller classes.

Karen: Okay.

Jim: They really become, to me, very essential in larger classes because you just have so much diversity and, slash student need in a way.So the classes, the individual difference is, what it basically is, is it is targeted mostly for general education teachers on how to work with kids with special needs and who are in an at-risk populations in their classrooms.

Karen: Okay.

Jim: That’s the– I guess that’s the theme. I do have a number of students that are not going to be teachers in the class, which I love. Which means I have to kind of make sure I’m always thinking about different populations, audiences that are in the class, but it’s primarily to try to give these individuals who may not have a lot of experience, whether they’re going to be in classrooms or elsewhere in the workplace, background information that’s accurate and some ideas on how to work with folks to make some, you know, differentiate in those settings.

Karen: It sounds like a fun class to teach. So let’s think about what universal design for learning is.

Jim: I’m going to kind of share with you a definition that’s kind of what I call a more professional definition.

Karen: Okay.

Jim: And then I’ll give you mine. (laughs) This one comes out of the Higher Education Opportunity Act and this is from a number of years ago so this has been around, but this is what it says, “So UDL is a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that, A. provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the way students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the way students are engaged.” And then it goes on, part B says, “It reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations,” and then it goes on a little bit more in that, but you get the gist of it. My definition, the one that I kind of operate from, goes more like this, UDL is kind of a way of building practices that are related to being successful in a classroom that– and these practices are needed by some, but beneficial to all. So the idea of it is is that there are– and this kind of has come about for me because I’ve, over the years have had, so many students in my class that either have various types of learning challenges.

Karen: Okay.

Jim: And learning can be, you know, not only just on a cognitive level, it could also be social, emotional, behavioral– I mean there’s other elements that impede learning in a way. But over the years I’ve had so many students with various challenges that I’ve– and remember, well I say remember, I think most people might know that some students, many students that have various learning challenges/maybe disability are served under, by our Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, SSD Office, but to get those services you have to disclose your disability and you have to meet criteria from their office to be able to get those services. A number of students here at UT choose not to do that. I mean many do, which is great and I do believe SSD provides some great services for students. And as an instructor, if you have a student that is officially identified, you will get a letter from that office that highlights what the student’s– it doesn’t necessarily tell you what the student’s disability is, but it does make it very clear what their accommodations are that they need to have in the class. Now over the years, I’ve had a lot of students that have, as I’ve said before, that have those disabilities, various disabilities, and I’ve looked at those accommodations that they need and I would have to, I think truthfully say, I just decided to start building those accommodations into my class, i.e. universal design for learning.

So what happened is, is I just started building in features that literally no one even had to ask me, show me a letter. Now, to this day, if someone’s in my class, they are under somewhat of an obligation to show me that letter and to explain it to me. I definitely look at every letter because every once in a while there’s still, there’s a new twist, there’s something in there that maybe I’m not doing and I want to make sure I do that, but I like to think that when I see letters today, I’m attending to all of those issues already is my idea. So that’s kind of– so I have a, there’s professional definitions and they can vary a little bit, there’s some general overlap, but then I have my own personal one and that’s basically, UDL to me is these are just practices that I think will help students benefit from being in a class. As I said, some students need these things–

Karen: Right.

Jim: but everyone can benefit from them.

Karen: They can help the other students anyway.

Jim: Yeah, yeah and it doesn’t– now and some of them you don’t, some of them are very optional, some are just kind of built in, but a lot of them are optional kinds of services or practices that a student can choose to use or not. Yeah so…

Karen: So you’ve used a couple of terms already and you said there were some that will come up in the accommodations letter that come to the students.

Jim: Right.

Karen: Maybe you should sort of throw a couple of those out in case the listeners haven’t heard them before, if this is new territory for them. What are some of the things they may not have heard of that you…

Jim: Well there are terms that if you actually dig deeper into the UDL literature, you’ll hear terms like “expert learner,” you’ll hear terms like, “learner variability.” In my day to day activities I don’t use those terms so much, but I know what they mean in that I respect them and use them. So it kind of depends, in terms of letters that will come to you from SSD, you know, primarily you’re going to get the needs that students have are we have to be sensitive– well first of all they, note taking is a big issue, you know, extended time on various types of activities, particularly testing. It might be a student may need a reduced stimulus environment to take tests in.

Karen: Okay.

Jim: Now students, we, you know, really now we have more and more students on campus that have– I don’t really like the term that’s used, but they various types of psychological issues that get in the way of their learning, anxieties, phobias, just any number of things. That has increased in recent years. And so if they qualify, then one, as an instructor, I need to be sensitive and willing to address the fact that a student might not be able to attend class today because they need to go see a counselor or something has come up in their lives. And so those are the kinds of things that you’re going to get, so there is kind of a vocabulary, there’s kind of a vocabulary out of what I call the “official UDL literature” that’s also, what’s nice about some of that now, is that it’s associated with a lot of, you know, neuroscience and some of the other, you know, emerging disciplines that are contributing to this.

You’ll see UD, UD stands for universal design which is much of a, kind of a physical, architectural, you know kind of scenario. As opposed, UDL is taking the concept of design, if you will, and applying it into a learning environment. The best example from an architectural point of view would be, if you’re familiar with curb cuts, some people don’t know what a curb cut is, I mean everybody’s seen them, but they don’t know the term. But when you’re at an intersection the curbs kind of slant down and so basically so a wheelchair can get across the crosswalk. That’s really helpful for somebody that uses a wheelchair. I use it all the time with luggage, bicyclists, scooter people, everybody uses those things to their advantage– I mean it’s helpful in a lot of ways, but it’s designed, its principle design feature is for folks who use wheelchairs.

Karen: So all of this seems to be really obvious and straightforward, are there ever ways that it can be not straightforward or misconstrued?

Jim: Some folks I think react to the fact that, “Oh this is for students with disabilities.” But it’s not just for students with disabilities. In my class I use a lot of video, I don’t like to use long videos but I use shorter videos. And all the videos I have are closed captioned. Now, I’ve had students who are deaf or who have profound hearing loss for whom I have to have that. I mean that’s just, there’s just no question. If I’m going to show a video to a student that’s in my class who’s deaf, it has to be closed captioned.

But what I have found over the years, too, is that for international students for who they’re L1, their first language is not English, we know it’s good enough for them to be here, but it’s just helpful to have the wording on a video. Well it’s in English, it won’t be in their language, but, or whatever their L1 is, but basically for an international student that is listening to someone talk on a video, having the words in English is a very helpful thing. So that concept of closed captioning isn’t just something for folks who have disability, i.e. someone who’s deaf or have profound hearing loss, it can be really helpful for other students, too. And as a matter of fact, you could have perfect hearing but you happen to be back in deeper in a classroom and it might be harder to hear the audio on it, having closed captioning can be helpful, too. So that’s an example of how it crosses over.

So that’s one thing, another myth about this is– and this gets into this idea of, “Oh this is just good teaching.” You know, this is to me gray because I kind of like to think some of these things are. I mean I think good teachers do some of this stuff, but it is, there is, some of the things that I’m going to share as specific examples do go beyond just good teaching, meaning that there are some elements that you put a little more work into perhaps.

Karen: Okay.

Jim: And I think another one, another misconception is that most of the elements– I don’t want to say they all are, just you know, you can do these in just a matter of seconds, some things take a little more time, but– and I’ll tell you about that.

Karen: Okay.

Jim: But most of the things that, most of the elements of UDL that I incorporate in a class are not extremely time consuming kinds of activities or practices. The other thing that I think is a misnomer, too, is that UDL is just technology, if you just have a special, certain types of either assistive kind of technology or maybe other types of instructional technology, that’s what it is. Technology can be helpful.

Karen: That’s good to hear from my office. (laughs)

Jim: Yeah, yeah exactly. No, and it is part, I think, of UDL or certainly can be part of it as I’ll talk about, but it’s not the essence of it. It’s not the– that’s not what it’s all about.

Karen: It’s not about technology, it’s more than that.+

Jim: Yeah, a technology is a tool for accomplishing UDL practices or it can be.

Karen: Okay, so it sounds like a good time to hear about what you’re actually doing in your class. How does it, sort of, play out? Let’s look at it.

Jim: Yeah, well here’s how… If you look at the UDL literature, you’ll see how sometimes a number of sources have broken down some of these practices into different categories, if you will.

Karen: Okay.

Jim: I kind of tried to do that, I don’t think that way, but I’ve tried to do that for us here, so I’ve… Here are my three categories, the first one I call, I just call it “Access” and what I mean by that is that students, these are techniques that students– that assist students to access the content and the curriculum that I’m covering, okay?

Karen: Okay.

Jim: The second one is “Expression” so these are ways that students can show their competence, their knowledge acquisition, whatever that might be, okay?

Karen: Okay.

Jim: And then the third one is, “Engagement,” okay? And so what I mean by that is that, that’s just ways students can, kind of, further engage in what’s going on in the class, okay? So those are my three areas.

Karen: So rather than being a passive learner, you’re engaged with it more?

Jim: Yeah, kind of being more engaged, exactly. So…

Karen: I’ve got it.

Jim: Alright, so here we go. The first one is access, so let me just talk about that a little bit, one of the things I do, I’ll start off– I’ll just review it real quickly, the videos are closed captioned, I’ve already talked about that, but that’s one way that allows students to access the content better. So the other thing that I do that has become very helpful is that I do a screencast after each session of the class. Now what I do with this, you know, it’s not a very sophisticated screencast, but basically what I do is I go through and just highlight key points that were made in the session. I do review, I use some of the slides that I showed in class if I showed slides or I might create a new slide that refers to something that we did in class, but it– and I keep them usually about seven minutes. The reason I think this is so important is that students with disabilities, some of the students with disabilities sometimes have a hard time kind of focusing on what’s the most important thing that was done. So I kind of did it a lot for them, but then I’m thinking, “Why isn’t that not helpful for everybody, you know?”

Karen: Within cognitive science it is helpful for everybody.

Jim: And of course some of the folks may not engage the screencast, well sometimes I don’t– they’re delayed anyway in getting them out, but a lot of students use them as a review for tests, too.

Karen: Excellent, yeah.

Jim: And you know, and so it works out really well and I don’t, you know if you missed a class this will not cover everything, but it does give you the high points. So it’s not necessarily an incentive to miss class, but– which I don’t mind. So it’s, I’m intending it for folks that need to have these high points of the class.

Karen: But it will help you focus on what to, interesting, I like it. So what’s the feedback from students? Do they love it?

Jim: I think they, yeah, well you know, I think they find it valuable that there’s a lot of information covered, that I’ve narrowed things down for them.

Karen: Right. Okay.

Jim: I think that’s what’s important, so that’s the key. So I do that and I just use QuickTime, you know video capture on that, it’s nothing– they don’t see me, they just see the slide and they hear me talk. It’s a one take only. So if I stutter–

Karen: If you make a mistake it happens.

Jim: Yeah, it’s just that’s the way it goes. And I do that for a reason, just the fact that, you know, there’s a lot of things we have to do, you just have to sometimes not maybe have the most polished version at the end. So I do that.

Karen: It’s okay if it’s not perfect, yeah.

Jim: The other thing I do, which I have found, I don’t know, I just think this is part of good teaching, not necessarily UDL, but it has a UDL feature to it, and that is at the end of every class– and every class I teach I do something called a SMIT, which is the Single Most Important Thing. I did not create that, I don’t know where that came from, but I love the idea that you have to– I dedicate time right at the end of class for students to give me, what was the single most, I’d like to think there’s more than one, but what’s the single most important thing that lingers in your mind here at the end of class? The reason I do it is I think it’s good for them to reflect and of course they submit it through Canvas and they get a point for doing it, so there’s a little incentive for doing it, but the other thing is I use the SMITs as a way of review in the next class. So at the beginning of the next class I use these key things that people have brought up and almost always, over the course– when you have a lot of students, you’re going to have enough people highlighting key features that it gives you a good way to go back and help students refocus on what was important that last time.

Karen: Right.

Jim: So it, that really, to me has been really helpful. The other thing on access that I think is important is that any time I have a visual, if I have a student in my class who is blind, if you show any kind of visual, you have to explain it just as if you were developing a website. If you were developing a website and it has a visual, by ADA standards you’ve got to be able to click on that and have that described.

Karen: Right, exactly.

Jim: I kind of, that’s my mentality if I show– even if I don’t have student that’s blind in my class, is I feel like if I show visuals, I like to try to explain them well because there’s a lot going on sometimes in visuals, and I mean graphs or charts or whatever it might be. And I make it, I really try to make it, I think through the idea that as I’m talking about that visual, I’m talking about it as if someone couldn’t see it so that there’s, it’s very explicitly covered.

Karen: I was just thinking, you’re making it very explicit when you do that.

Jim: Yeah, so I use that kind of UDL idea as if I had somebody who needed it explained as a way of trying to do it. So I don’t, it keeps me from going too quickly through something where some students just don’t grasp.

Karen: Right.

Jim: So that’s key. And then there’s some other things we do, but I think those are the ones– the other thing that I get, I think it’s just good teaching, but if you look in the UDL literature, you’ll notice that it’s there and that is, you know, having multiple formats of presentation. Yes, there’s instructor led pieces that I do, but I have guests, but I never have guests that dominate. I like them to come in and do part of class, but I don’t necessarily want them having to do the whole class. I like them for certain reasons, I use lots of video, we do lots of in-class activities. I think the multiple format is also helpful, particularly for some students that, it’s a three hour class, I think you need to do that kind of thing anyway.

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