Council created to promote universal design for learning

When a word or term catches on, it runs the risk of becoming vague as people use it to convey different meanings.

For example — what is response to intervention (RTI): a way to identify children with learning disability, a way to identify children with a wider range of disabilities, or a system for addressing the needs of all children?

The same thing is happening with universal design for learning, according to Ricki Sabia, senior education policy advisor at the National Down Syndrome Congress.

“The UDL Task Force has been successful in getting language into the Higher Education Act, Every Student Succeeds Act, and the National Educational Technology Plan, but in reality, what is actually happening?” she said in reference to a panel created by the National Center on Universal Design for Learning. “Are [states] really doing anything about UDL, and if they are, is it what people who know UDL would consider UDL?”

To solve that problem, this summer the task force created a UDL Council in collaboration with CAST and the UDL Implementation and Research Network.

The goal, Sabia said, is to promote “greater implementation of UDL, and also implementation of UDL the way it’s intended to be implemented.”

The result, she said, will be a path for teachers and other school personnel to be credentialed, plus a way for districts and vendors to be certified.

If nothing else, she said, districts will become more savvy shoppers.

“Software companies say, ‘Oh, you will be implementing UDL if you use X,'” she said. “If people agree to go to certification, then consumers — school systems — will be able to know.”

Becoming self-sustaining

In developing a credentialing and certifying system, UDL proponents tried to avoid recreating the wheel, according to CAST senior policy analyst Skip Stahl.

Therefore, they turned to the U.S. Green Building Council, which runs the LEED certification program for rating buildings as environmentally friendly, plus a program for helping professionals become LEED Green Associates.

“The thing that appealed to us — it’s totally voluntary, it wasn’t an accountability system,” Stahl said. “[Rather, it was,] ‘If you want to have a certificate, here are the things that you have to demonstrate and incorporate.'”

Now, he said, the task is putting a parallel program into operation, starting with $120,000 in seed money from Office of Special Education Programs.

“The NIMAS center at CAST had some set-aside funds, and we petitioned the department to use that to initiate the council work,” he said in reference to the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard run by the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials.

Much more money is needed, however, he said.

“Our estimate is that this initiative is going to cost $1.4 million to $1.6 million between now and next December,” he said, the timeline for Phase 1 of the effort.

So far, the council has raised almost half that amount from a foundation Stahl was not at liberty to name because negotiations are not complete.

“The goal is to make this self-sustaining through a membership system,” he said, including fees paid by districts, “but we need to get the system operational before we can ask people to join.”

Creating some anchor points

UDL has three principles: developing multiple ways of presenting material, finding multiple ways for students to become engaged with that material, and letting students use multiple methods for demonstrating their mastery of that material.

Certainly, technology can be helpful in that regard, but technology itself is not UDL, according to Sabia.

“For example, [schools] might purchase some equipment, say, smartboards, and say, ‘Well, using smartboards is a way of using UDL because this is a different way of presenting material,'” she said.

But that’s only the beginning, she said — schools must also figure out different ways for students to take advantage of the smartboard.

“It’s more about having a variety of ways of presenting information than just having the equipment,” she said. “First, they would have some professional development around how to use the materials they have purchased in a UDL manner.”

Most important, she said, is to think about every student in the class so that the multiple options being used actually work for all students.

“It’s not just a matter of picking any three ways to show what they know,” she said. “It has to be purposeful.”

And so an effort is under way to make sense of the various claims being made and give people who are devoted to UDL a chance to get credentialed, according to Stahl.

“States are saying, ‘We’re supposed to integrate UDL into our literacy, but how do we know it when we see it — are there are any standards being applied?” he said.

Thus, he said, the council aims to “provide the field with some anchor points and some way of assessing: Is this a valid implementation of UDL, either in a learning environment or learning materials?”

Dr. James Basham will present the Jan. 26 session Keys to Understanding and Implementing Universal Design for Learning at LRP’s National Future of Education Technology Conference at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

Mark W. Sherman a Washington bureau correspondent, covers special education issues for LRP Publications.

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