Assistive technology (AT) can help Sam—the student in this case (see IEP and AT Plan examples)—reach transition goals. The issue being explored now is redesigning the curriculum to meet Universal Design for Learning (UDL) components, thus enhancing the effectiveness of AT and meeting Sam’s goals.
UDL involves (re)designing curriculum to meet multiple means of engagement, multiple means of recognition and connection with the subject material, and multiple means of expressing knowledge and mastery of content. While AT can help a student gain access to the standard general education classroom, it often requires evaluations and selections of devices or services that get locked into formal documents. Devices and services rarely continue with the student outside of the classroom, and teachers in the classroom have to find ways to incorporate AT into the curricula. UDL—combined with AT—can eliminate some of the need for formal AT plans by choosing or creating curricula that has technology and multiple means of engagement, recognition, and expression built in with high regards for students’ abilities and preferences (Alnahdi, 2014).
Sam can see improvement from the use of AT; however, if the curricula is redesigned to incorporate UDL, Sam could much better results in and outside of the school setting. This paper will examine how building curricula with the principles of multiple means of engagement, recognition and expression—combined with AT—can help Sam reach his full potential.
Principle of Engagement
The principle of engagement involves designing curricula that appeals to multiple affective (emotion) networks, which determines levels of engagement for each student. The stronger the affective ties a student has with the curricula means sustaining effort and self-regulation in learning outcomes becomes easier to manage. Recruiting engagement and interest is only one guideline within this principle. Teachers and other professionals need to provide curricula that will maintain interest and effort by students throughout learning modules. Students and adult learners need to learn how to self-regulate emotional responses and attachment to subject material as well (the third guideline of this principle).
In Sam’s case, designing curricula that incorporates technology and auto mechanics at a reading level within his zone of proximal development can positively affect his engagement, persistence, work ethic and goal setting (Alnahdi, 2014). Sam’s choice in post-secondary learning opportunities and future career path can guide teachers in designing or modifying curricula that meet his interests, thereby making student choice, student outcome and student involvement central to curricula design, instruction and in formative assessment data collection. Sam needs to be taught to understand how his choices and sustained effort will affect his future career path and how to work through projects even if personal interest has decreased. Choosing or modifying curricula that allows Sam to make minor changes throughout the learning modules may help with sustained interest (i.e., having math curricula deal with real-world application in auto mechanics and allow Sam to change focus from engine building to body repair if needed.). Learning about self-determination and self-advocacy skills will help Sam with self-regulation, but it needs to be explicitly taught through multiple means of representation and not passively assumed he will pick up the needed skills. Furthermore, self-determination, self-advocacy and self-regulation skills can be built and tested through vocational courses in auto shop offered by the school district or in partnership with a local auto repair shop.
Principle of Representation
The principle of representation deals with presenting curricula in multiple ways to account for the variability in students’ brains in collecting and processing information. Our minds perceive, process and understand information differently from one another. Neural networks in the brain are highly variable and similar at the same time across individuals. UDL guidelines require multiple options for perception, language, mathematical expressions and symbols, and comprehension.
Each student may recognize different types of information in different ways. In order to perceive information, students may need text enlarged, sound amplified, high contrast color representations, or other modes that their senses can recognize. Language barriers may exist in curricula by way of unfamiliar words or complex reading levels, or symbols or expressions with which the brain cannot make connections. Learning information is useless if it cannot be used. Multiple options for comprehension mean that students can process information to be used in meaningful ways. All guidelines in the principle of UDL are in place to help students recognize information that can be acted upon, not just stored and locked away in a diminishing brain vault.
Some curricula and instruction practices may have a greater impact on one student versus another. AT is beneficial to many students with disabilities in helping them recognize and establish meaning with curricula content. While AT is specific and tailored to each individual, UDL focuses on eliminating barriers found in curricula so that AT is less formal and available to everyone (Messinger-Willman & Marino, 2010).
In Sam’s case, having Chromebooks in every classroom, with curricula that can be modified based on reading level, would follow the principles of UDL and make the personal Chromebook in his AT plan unnecessary. Having electronic textbooks available to all students creates a UDL environment where reading levels can be adjusted for all students and not just for Sam. The resources of Chromebooks and electronic textbooks support Sam’s learning needs, help him remain engaged in the lesson plans, and ensure the teacher’s explanation of content is clear through the use of adapted reading levels and other AT, such as graphic organizers. Sam and other students can get interactive online help through video modules. Since Sam is interested in technology and auto mechanics, video modules—which will allow him to go at his own pace and ask questions when the teacher is not available—provide both engagement and representation needs to help him make connections with curricular content (e.g., videos showing engines being built and the math involved, videos showing people buying cars and the questions they ask).
Principal of Action/Expression
The principle of action and expression allows students to express knowledge and mastery of curricula content in any number of ways that work with their brain’s strategic processing capabilities. Guidelines in this principle include options for physical action, expression and communication, and executive functioning.
A learning environment that employs UDL will allow individuals to physically express knowledge in ways that not only are preferred but possible. Not all individuals have the same physical abilities, either due to limitations in the brain’s ability to command certain function or body parts’ ability to carry out the brain’s commands.
Expression and communication are not the same for every individual either. Sam does fairly well when discussing subjects with teachers; however, he finds discussing those topics with strangers to be more difficult. He also struggles heavily with writing about topics—even those in which he is highly interested. This UDL guideline incorporates options of communication and expression in the curricula so that students and other learners can communicate and express knowledge in manageable ways.
Executive functioning is the frontal lobe of the brain taking information, processing it for use, creating a plan of action and dictating to the rest of the body (other parts of the brain included) what to do with that action plan. The brain’s skill level at executive functioning differs from person to person. UDL and AT allows students and other learners help with executive functioning through scaffolding so the brain does not get stuck struggling with one aspect of executive functioning, thereby holding back the rest of the brain and body. In this principle, AT and UDL need not be mutually exclusive to provide scaffolding in relation to executive functioning.
Students who do not perform well on written assignments can be evaluated for AT and have devices afforded to them, or a teacher can use curricula that allows students to express content knowledge in a variety of ways—instead of just writing papers or worksheets—for each learning objective (Messinger-Willman & Marino, 2010). AT may still be used; however, the difference here is that all students are able to express content knowledge and mastery in ways that work best, instead of acquiring one or two pieces of AT that are used solely by the individual with a disability.
Sam needs a Chromebook not only to access the curricula but also to demonstrate content knowledge. By redesigning the classrooms to include Chromebooks for all students, Sam would no longer need a Chromebook built into his AT plan. However, a personal Chromebook—or other personal computer—may still be needed to help Sam succeed outside of the formal school-learning environment. The Chromebook—or any computer with Internet connection—will allow Sam to use dictionaries, graphic organizers, and audio and video software and hardware to complete curricula objectives, IEP and transition plan goals. This piece of AT will help Sam with expression and communication, and executive functioning tasks by providing scaffolding to plan output and multiple means of output that work best for accomplishing learning objectives and transition goals. Sam can monitor his own understanding of content, make lesson adjustments when needed, and has learning tasks with multiple approaches to action that fit his needs through this UDL principle and AT.
UDL principles of engagement, representation, and action and expression provide a positive learning environment for students and adults with and without disabilities. Guidelines within each principle provide a framework for teachers and other professionals to design curricula and instructional methods for learners in formal or informal settings.
AT is not only beneficial to students with disabilities but also essential. However, AT is made better with UDL. Generalization from the classroom to the community is best gained through the combined use of AT and UDL. In Sam’s case, both AT and UDL are needed to achieve transition goals and improve quality of life.
Sam needs more than AT devices to achieve his transition goals. He needs curricula that sparks and maintains interest, tools and strategies that promote recognition of curricula, and multiple means to express curricula knowledge across subjects and goals. By combining AT and UDL, Sam will not only meet transition goals but also thrive in developing the necessary skills to succeed in the work force and post-secondary education.
Parents and teachers need to have more faith in students’ abilities (Carter, Brock, & Trainor, 2014). Teachers and administrators need to take into account family perspectives and values, as well as student preferences when creating transition plans and selecting curricula (Landmark & Zhang, 2013; Henninger & Taylor, 2014). With AT and UDL combined, Sam and every student with developmental disabilities can be successful in the classroom, work place, and community.
Alnahdi, G. (2014). Assistive technology in special education and the universal design for learning. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 13(2), 18-23.
Carter, E. W., Brock, M. E., & Trainor, A. A. (2014). Transition assessment and planning for youth with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities. Journal of Special Education, 47(4), 245-255.
Henninger, N. A., & Taylor, J. L. (2014). Family perspectives on a successful transition to adulthood for individuals with disabilities. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 52(2), 98-111. dio: 10.1352/1934-9556-52.2.98
Landmark, L. J., & Zhang, D. (2013). Compliance and practices in transition planning: A review of individualized education program documents. Remedial and Special Education, 34(2), 113-125. dio: 10.1177/0741932511431831
Messinger-Willman, J., & Marino, M. T. (2010). Universal design for learning and assistive technology: Leadership considerations for promoting inclusive education in today’s secondary schools. NASSP Bulletin, 94(1), 5-16. dio: 10.1177/0192636510371977