Some writing programs include a speech-to-text function, allowing users to see and hear what they are typing. The multiple representation of information is one element of universal design.Credit: Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)
Imagine a classroom where a skilled and dedicated teacher presents a carefully designed and relevant curriculum to each learner in an individualized form that the child can readily grasp, a classroom where learners of all abilities are supported by tools that allow them to practice their skills and bridge their learning weaknesses. To imagine this classroom, where every student can make the most of his or her intellectual gifts, is to imagine that the concept of universal design has become a reality in American classrooms.
We are not at that point today, but at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), we believe that universal design will have profound implications for all teaching and learning within the next decade.
Universally designed products are developed from inception with flexible options that enable learners with a wide array of needs to use them. The concept originated in architecture and product design. The central spiral ramp at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is a beautiful alternative to a traditional staircase, usable by people who usually walk up and down steps, by people wheeling baby carriages or strollers, and by people in wheelchairs. This is an example of universal design. The needs of myriad users are considered at the beginning of the design process, thereby avoiding costly, unattractive, and less effective retrofits, such as added ramps.
CAST is convinced that universal design, when applied to curriculum, will have a profound impact on learning, teaching, and access to information. Universal design for learning means that the creators or publishers of content and curriculum use computer technology to structure their knowledge and activities in ways that will make it accessible to the greatest possible number of individuals.
The three key components of universal design for learning are: multiple representations of information, alternative means of expression, and varied options for engagement. Examples of multiple representations include: text that can be "read" aloud by the computer, captions on video or text for audio material, verbal descriptions of pictures, and the use of video and animation to convey concepts. Examples of alternative means of expression include options to record oral speech, to draw, or to present ideas through a dramatic presentation. Finally, different students can be motivated if content, level of challenge, and the nature of supports can be selected and changed.
Universal design for learning is developing rapidly. Examples of programs employing universal design principles are Wiggleworks: The Beginning Literacy System (Scholastic, only available to schools); Bailey's Book House (Edmark); The Ultimate Reader 2.0 (Universal Learning Technologies); and Write: Out Loud (Don Johnston Developmental Equipment).
Though designed for different ages and supporting different kinds of learning, these programs share the underpinning of built-in adjustability to suit varied learner needs. The more such adjustability is built into learning products, the less of an impediment will be the difficulties in written expression, evidenced by the broad spectrum of students our schools must educate.
For students with severe disabilities, universal design can mean the difference between participation and exclusion. For those with mild disabilities or with varied learning styles and preferences, universal design can enhance their performance and enable them to participate on a level playing field with peers who are more comfortable and successful with printed text. As pedagogy and technology continue to improve, universally designed classrooms can become real and even prevalent in the near future.
In the future, we see more and more powerful scaffolds being built into tools for learning from the very beginning -- as a part of the design -- to support the needs of all learners. In addition to scaffolds, we believe that the way that the information itself is presented and conveyed will change.
Multiple means of accessing meaning will become increasingly common, supplementing the written word. It will become commonplace for learners to choose their preferred format for information and to have the ability to transform that information to meet their individual needs. Multiple means of engagement, the ability to vary the degree of support and challenge and to tailor information for the needs of both individuals and groups, will be developed. Curricula will be created "half full," offering parents, teachers, and learners opportunities to interact with the information, add their own material, and leave their own personal stamp or interpretation on the materials, thus assuming a more active role in their own learning.
Scaffolds and carefully selected practice programs are the best that we can offer students today, but with the advent and burgeoning development of electronic media, these new and powerful techniques for teaching and learning will become available much more quickly than most of us would imagine.