Lose Control with UDL: Connecting Student Ownership to Effective Engagement

blog10Recently, I was sharing a choice summer assignment created by a set of fabulous former colleagues in the English department at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School with students in a graduate course I am teaching.  In this choice assignment, a plethora of literacy options were provided to students.  Options for students included such things as forming a book club, reading aloud to the blind through an online program, or participating in live theater. I juxtaposed this with the traditional method of summer reading assignments.  It led to a rich discussion about the difference between assigning a book to a student versus allowing students to explore their own authentic literacy learning. It reminded me of a time I lectured my own child about why he didn’t start his summer reading until the last two weeks of summer.  I called it “lazy”.  He turned to me and called it “strategic”. You see, he knew he would be tested on it in the first few weeks of school and thus wanted the material to be fresh in his mind. So, he read his assigned books in a way that maximized the potential for a good letter grade.  In doing so, sadly, he minimized the potential for his own authentic learning.  One of our challenges as educators is the difficulty in finding ways for students to take an active role in their own learning process when many of us never experienced this as students ourselves. In his book titled, Who Owns the Learning?,  Alan November (2012) wrote, “…the Digital Learning Farm model represents a shift of control in the educational process as students take more responsibility for designing and implementing educational experiences”(p.18). His model focuses on creating learning environments where students are tutorial designers, scribes, researchers, and global communicators/collaborators.

In a recent keynote address to a group of educators in a suburb outside of Boston, November spoke about the “curse of knowledge”.  In essence, sometimes instructors know material so well that it is hard to relate to what first time learners are experiencing.  Whether it is based upon misperceptions, lack of prior knowledge, emotional state, etc., our students often have trouble processing information that for us may seem easy.  Often another student can be a more effective tutor.  He explained that perhaps the empathy and sympathy that comes along with both of them being novel learners to the concept is what makes it work. In his book, Alan provided concrete examples of what he calls an emerging role of “global publisher of student work” as a means of “giving students ownership and purpose in the learning process” (pp. 27-28).  He suggests we encourage students to author tutorials for not only their own classmates but also in ways that reach a global community of learners. For example, he highlighted a group of students who post math tutorials online that are used by people all over the world.

In a demonstration of a collaborative learning technique, November also introduces us to the role of the scribe in the digital learning farm model.  He explains, “While all students can take their own notes, the student scribe collects, organizes, and edits a draft of the notes (p.39). The work of synthesizing the learning and developing an electronic “legacy” of the class’s educational journey offers a “shift in control and pedagogy” (p.45).

In the digital learning farm model, we also learn about the importance of our students as researchers.  In reading this section of his book, I harkened back to a steamy day in August when I sat in a cafeteria of Ringling College of Art and Design.  The president of the college, Dr. Larry R. Thompson, spoke to us about how titans of industry have been approaching him lately looking for his graduates. Ringling’s focus on design and creativity was what these business leaders said they needed.  The Information Age is over, he informed us, and has been replaced by the Creativity Age.  While we can get “information” with a simple online search, Thompson argued that what is needed now are creative problem solvers and thinkers.  In this part of the learning lab model, students develop critical skills through research. They understand the “nuances” of searching the web.  A teacher no longer needs to simply present facts to students.  Rather, they can become facilitators in “teaching students to determine exactly what the information is trying to accomplish” (p.56), how to understand the validity of their online sources, what sources are needed to match the research, and how web based sources are linked to one another within the framework of the “context of the discipline” (p. 64).

Lastly, November highlights the role of students as global communicators and collaborators. He shares how the global market requires our graduates to have the skills necessary to navigate the multiple cultural terrains they will encounter. He explains, “We need to start teaching our students global empathy by developing their ability to understand and appreciate other points of view” (pp. 65-66).  November encourages long distance collaboration and communication and highlights tools such as Skype as mechanisms to engage in that global collaboration.

In order to be open to November’s digital learning farm model, we must allow ourselves to lose control. Unlike traditional models (which is how the system was set up for most of us as students and in many of our teacher preparation programs), we can free ourselves from lecturing in front of the neatly rowed classroom and branch off to become facilitators of learning. Now I realize that this is not a novel idea. Many teachers have begun to spend less time lecturing and more time facilitating learning. The challenge is doing this effectively with thought and purpose.  The difficulty is in the execution.  Do we have the resources and know-how to engage our students meaningfully in their own learning? How can we lose the facade that to be a teacher we need to be “in control” or  “in charge” of learning? How do we hand control over to our students while offering them a framework for success?  UDL can help!

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?  UDL is an educational framework based on cognitive neuroscience.  The concept came out of researchers from Harvard University 30 years ago.  The term UDL was coined in 1995.  In simple terms, there are three networks in the brain that need to be activated to achieve authentic learning.  In a universally designed classroom, student engagement is central in planning, multiple means for representing information occurs, and multiple means of planning and performing tasks are used to demonstrate understanding.

Many of us (including myself) have planned “grand lessons” but spent little to no time considering student engagement during this planning process.  Yet, we know from practical experience (and all the research) that we need to engage our students in order to achieve authentic learning.

In UDL, we are forced to consider engagement in our planning process. We must organize our work around offering choice and autonomy to our students.  We must be vigilant about optimizing the relevance, value, and authenticity of the work and we must minimize threats and distractions.

In his presentation to those educators in Massachusetts, Alan spent time sharing and motivating staff to use technology as a means to engage students.  It was not simply a demonstration of fun tools and neat websites.  Rather, it was a call to show examples of how technology was used as a means to allow students to own their own learning.  He used tools to show ways to demonstrate what students struggled with (in anonymous and safe ways), how to ask and answer questions, how to debate their own learning, and how to demonstrate information.

For many of the areas defined in November’s digital learning farm model, strong alignments exist with the principles and practices of Universal Design for Learning.  Below is a simple table that demonstrates these connections. After the table, I selected a few areas to show what it looks like in practice. The text from the table and implementation examples provided are drawn directly from the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines: Full-Text Representation Version 2.0. For samples of practice, I simply screen-captured tweets that came from the Groton-Dunstable Regional School district. Thank you to those amazing educators for publicly sharing their work!

Table 1. 0 Crosswalk from Digital Learning Farm Model to UDL

Digital Learning Farm Model Connections to Universal Design for Learning Checkpoints
Students design more of their own assignments and rubrics Checkpoint 7.1 – Optimize individual choice and autonomy

Offering learners choices can develop self-determination, pride in accomplishment, and increase the degree to which they feel connected to their learning.  It is appropriate to offer choices in how [an] objective can be reached, in the context for achieving the objective, [and]  in the tools or supports available. E.g. Allow learners to participate in the design of classroom activities and academic tasks.
Checkpoint 6.4 – Enhance capacity for monitoring progress

When assessments and feedback do not inform instruction or when they are not given to the students in a timely manner, learning cannot change because students do not know what to do differently. Especially important is providing “formative” feedback that allows learners to monitor their own progress effectively and to use that information to guide their own effort and practice.  E.g. Prompt learners to identify the type of feedback or advice that they are seeking

It has the capacity for worldwide, authentic audience Checkpoint 7.2 – Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity

Individuals are engaged by information and activities that are relevant and valuable to their interests and goals. In an educational setting, one of the most important ways that teachers recruit interest is to highlight the utility and relevance, of learning and to demonstrate that relevance through authentic, meaningful activities.

There is an opportunity for intrinsic rewards Checkpoint 9.1 – Promote expectations and beliefs that optimize motivation

One important aspect of self-regulation is the personal knowledge each learner has about what he or she finds motivating, be it intrinsic or extrinsic. To accomplish this, learners need to be able to set personal goals that can be realistically reached, as well as fostering positive beliefs that their goals can be met. Multiple options need to be given to learners to help them stay motivated.

The critical skill is to learn how to learn. Checkpoint 9.3 – Develop self-assessment and reflection

In order to develop better capacity for self-regulation, learners need to learn to monitor their emotions and reactivity carefully and accurately. Individuals differ considerably in their capability and propensity for metacognition, and some learners will need a great deal of explicit instruction and modeling in order to learn how to do this successfully. It is important, moreover that learners have multiple models and scaffolds of different self-assessment techniques so that they can identify, and choose, ones that are optimal.

There are more opportunities for mastery Checkpoint 8.4 – Increase mastery-oriented feedback

Assessment is most productive for sustaining engagement when the feedback is relevant, constructive, accessible, consequential, and timely. But the type of feedback is also critical in helping learners to sustain the motivation and effort essential to learning. Mastery-oriented feedback is the type of feedback that guides learners toward mastery rather than a fixed notion of performance or compliance.

Technology is used as a transformational tool to change the culture of teaching and learning. Checkpoint 4.1 – Vary the methods for response and navigation

Learners differ widely in their capacity to navigate their physical environment.  Learners differ widely in their optimal means for navigating through information and activities. To provide equal opportunity for interaction with learning experiences, an instructor must ensure that there are multiple means for navigation and control is accessible.

The crosswalk above is great in theory, but I often feel it is necessary to demonstrate authentic connections through practice. Below are some examples of what this looks like in real classroom settings.

In this first section, I was able to correlate the concept of students designing more of their own assignments and rubrics with UDL Checkpoint 7.1’s focus on optimizing individual choice and autonomy and Checkpoint 6.4’s attention to enhancing our student’s capacity for monitoring their own progress.  In the implementation examples of Checkpoint 7.1, students have autonomy, participate in the design of the classrooms activities and tasks, and set their own personal academic and behavioral goals. In the implementation examples for 6.4, students are encouraged to ask questions to guide self-monitoring and reflection and allowed to personalize self-assessment strategies and peer/instructor feedback to maximize their own learning.

So what do students designing their own learning look like in practice?  Below is a photo of a high school classroom where students had the opportunity to choose how they shared what they understood of the material.  In this case, a student designed and taught his classmates a lesson on multiple intelligences, with a kinesthetic focus, by demonstrating how to make waffles.

Below is another example of this in action.  In this photo, a group of students in a robotics club collectively and collaboratively design their strategy for the building of their robot.

One of the core principles of a digital learning farm is the concept that our students need to enhance their capacity to work with, publish toward, and learn from a worldwide authentic audience. In UDL Checkpoint 7.2, the emphasis is on varying activities and sources of information so that they are culturally and socially relevant and responsive, and appropriate for different racial, cultural, ethnic, and gender groups.  It also emphasizes the design of activities that end in learning outcomes resulting in authentic communication to real audiences.

In practice, a district focusing on UDL can make this overt.  Below is a tweet from the Technology Director of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District sharing the practice of using digital portfolios to engage students in reflecting on their own practice as well as a way to empower the creation of authentic work. Next to it, is a screen capture of the online digital portfolios that share student work with the world.

In the classroom below, students in Massachusetts are using Google Hangout to speak with a Venezuelan teacher about historic elections in his country.


My last example of this work in practice is around what November describes as “more opportunities for mastery”.  In UDL, mastery is often a product of purposeful feedback geared toward improvement.  The concept in UDL is called “Mastery Oriented Feedback.” and is highlighted in Checkpoint 8.4.  Implementation examples are given such as providing feedback that “encourages perseverance, focuses on development of efficacy and self-awareness, and encourages the use of specific supports and strategies in the face of challenge.”  It calls for feedback to be frequent, timely, and specific and asks instructors to model how to incorporate evaluation, including identifying patterns of errors and wrong answers, into positive strategies for future success.

Below are two examples of how effective feedback is being offered in 7th grade English classrooms. One is a low technology application of engaging in feedback on student work through post-it notes.  In this case, classmates are providing the feedback to one another.  The other offers the use of online collaborative tools such as Google Docs and its chat features so that high school students can provide feedback to seventh grade students (about their poetry) while at completely different campuses.

So why should we do this?  After all, universally designing is hard work.  Planning for students to take an active role in their learning is time consuming!  In my mind, the simple tweet below is both the answer to that question and a call to action for more us to change. The image reflects a classroom that solicits and models reflection and mastery-oriented feedback and culminates with a student who wishes more classes provided him/her with authentic strategies for improvement.


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