Friday, February 27, 2009

Universal Design

Universal Design is a design, concept or set of tools that allow the broadest participation of people with different needs. Curb cuts are often used as an example of universal design. They were intended for wheelchair users, but they also support people who use canes or walkers or people who do not use assistive technology but who may have trouble navigating a step. They also benefit parents with strollers, runners, people making deliveries with carts. Most importantly, they do not hinder anyone. 

Universal Design for Learning applies this to learning environments like classrooms. Some examples of Universal Design in Classrooms include arranging classrooms with enough space that wheelchair users can maneuver. Others are more subtle, like using dry erase boards with colored background (instead of whiteboards) to support visual discrimination or providing stretch breaks frequently to support learners with ADD or sensory integration. Many supports, are invisible but allow students of diverse abilities to participate in a single lesson, such asa teacher who provides multiple texts with different levels of difficulty on the same topic. 

Laptops in schools have the potential to provide universal design supports. With these tools, learners could automatically change font size, use dictionaries, translation and transliteration tools, and research topics to build background knowledge and vocabulary. Students who already use spelling prediction, voice activation or alternative access methods such as single switch scanning would fit into the classroom almost seamlessly. Students could carry copies of all their core subject texts in a single device, since most publishers now offer e-textbooks. 

Clearly laptops have a great deal to offer. But the important thing to remember about universal design is the instructional component. Buying laptops for every student has had mixed success across sites. The biggest risk would be forgetting that teachers need ongoing training and support in not only using the tools well, staying current with technology, but more importantly in developing new methods of instruction. 

Buying laptops for every student without a strategic plan to support instruction would be like investing in gymnastics equipment when none of the staff has ever taught gymnastics. 

Yet in spite of this caution, I remain very optimistic about the possibilities for laptops in school. The potential it has for modernizing our 19th century educational model and opening up access to a wider variety of students is enormous.