By: Emily Goldenstein and Mandy Smith
Middle school is a melting pot where students from vastly different elementary experiences meet to take on the next portion of their educational journeys. You might be preparing students for this experience, you might teach in these grades, and some of you might be seeking perspective on where your students have come from. As educators supporting these students, we want you to consider what role technology can play in planning and delivering accessible learning for all students.
Our educational technology team in Weld RE-4 is fortunate to work closely with our instructional team. Part of our shared work involves supporting and developing building learning coaches. Through our work with our Learning Coaches and conducting instructional rounds in each of our buildings, we started to notice a theme. Our middle schools, grades 6-8, had incredibly diverse student populations. When we say diverse, we are accounting for and referring to students of different genders, races, backgrounds, interests, academic abilities, and socioeconomic statuses. While our situation is not unique to this district, we found ourselves asking, “How do we make sure all students engage and access learning?”
According to CAST, a multifaceted organization with a singular ambition of breaking down barriers, “Information that is not attended to, that does not engage learners’ cognition, is inaccessible.” As educators, we believe we must develop agency in our learners. Our students differ significantly in what attracts their attention and interests them, and it is the educator’s role to consider this. Technology not only deserves a place in classrooms and instruction, but it is also necessary to keep up with the pace at which students' interests and needs change. In our district, we invest in technology tools that support our beliefs and allow students to choose the type of product they want to create to demonstrate their learning. Some of our tools that educators love are Kami, WeVideo, MyVRSpot, and our learning management system (LMS), Canvas. When students have tools that enable them to make choices toward gaining and demonstrating knowledge, they are more likely to be engaged.
Our next consideration comes from the brilliant work of Katie Novak. In one of her blog posts, “What is UDL” she shared that students can have different barriers to learning that need to be planned for; this is called predicted variability. During conversations with our Learning Coaches and teachers, we often ask, “What challenges do you anticipate the students will face?” This coaching question helps us discuss an important point shared by CAST’s UDL Guidelines "Learning is impossible if the information is imperceptible to the learner, and difficult when information is presented in formats that require extraordinary effort or assistance.”
Technology affords teachers the opportunity to offer a variety of modalities or options for accessing learning. When sharing an assignment to your LMS, think about the format of the information; is text the only option for directions, or can you add an audio recording for greater access? A new unit begins, and you work to activate student background knowledge. Can you offer the choice of a podcast, video, visuals, and text? We work with our teachers to think about how to provide information in a format that will allow students to choose what is best for them on that day, at that moment. Presenting the information in multiple formats creates more entry points resulting in higher student engagement.
Our final consideration for you around planning and delivering accessible learning focuses on the physical act of learning. When students receive a worksheet to complete with a pencil, their physical interaction is limited. Technology can have a similar effect if not planned and executed with intentionality. Students who get on their devices to fill in the blanks of vocabulary worksheets using Kami would be one example. These limited interactions can potentially exclude learners with barriers such as dysgraphia, blindness, physical disabilities, and students with varying executive functioning skills. With the advancement of technology, the number of assistive tools available has also increased. These tools open doors to learning when implemented thoughtfully.
When you know your students’ interests and needs, you can begin to think about the structure of your lessons. What options do students have for demonstrating their knowledge? Can students physically access these options? Are there options for physical movement involved, such as station rotation? Do your lessons apply technology that enhances the lesson?
Our job is to plan for and provide accessible learning to our students. When teachers utilize technology to approach planning and teaching with considerations for helping all students succeed, the impact on student achievement is more significant. Picture the diverse population of students you serve and ask yourself, how can I leverage technology to develop more accessible learning for my students?
CAST. (2022, September 2). The UDL guidelines. The UDL Guidelines. Retrieved September 12, 2022, from https://udlguidelines.cast.org/
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.orgNovak, K. (2021, April 23). What is UDL? Infographic - Novak Educational Consulting. Novak Education. Retrieved September 19, 2022, from https://www.novakeducation.com/blog/what-is-udl-infographic?hsLang=en
Emily and Mandy are part of the Instructional Technology Team in Weld RE-4 School District.