I wrote this post for the blog corresponding to the Second Pan-Canadian Conference on Universal Design for Learning, which will be held at the University of Prince Edward Island from May 31 to June 2 this year. The subject of the conference is “Bringing User Experience to Education: UDL and Inclusion for the 21st Century” and my keynote address, which I refer to at the conclusion of the post, is about “Universal Learning Experiences: How UDL and UX Structure Inclusion & Transfer in Education for All.”
Practitioners in education care about the work that they do — usually pretty deeply. Probably as a result, they have clear intentions behind their work and immediate goals for the learners they work with. Yet in education it is also notoriously difficult to have enough time, energy, and reflective space to think about the long term, or to envision the future we are working towards. Given education systems that are tied to political systems, paradigms and funding alike change frequently compared to other forms of social organization. Given educational programs that progress according to ages and abilities — rather than developmental milestones or interests — goals and meaning in learning can become muddled. And given the bureaucracy and logistics that define schooling, thinking beyond the increments of three or nine months — let alone two or four or six years — is nearly impossible. Furthermore, as John Dewey pointed out and as remains the case, education lacks a unifying philosophy; therefore, trying to envision the future is a particularly difficult exercise in our field. At the same time, we know that the work we do in the present is a fundamental link to the future, albeit a nebulous one: our current everyday efforts to be better teachers, better students, mentors, colleagues, neighbors, and participants in society shape what is to come.
I heard a designer named CJ Maupin say that design is “the act of seeing something we want to make better, and then making it better.” It would thus seem that design and education, as actions, are quite alike. The disseminated implementation of UDL is an example of educators wanting things to be better. When I first learned about UDL as a reverse-inclusion classroom teacher, it was perhaps a bit daunting, but it also made sense, because it just seemed like a logical way to make learning experiences better. I think that what underlies the spread of UDL in schools and classrooms is this intention make access to learning better, and improve equity in learning as a result. That’s a pretty decent vision for the future.
That said, it’s not a new vision. Over the course of the last century, countries have progressively adopted laws and resolutions against limiting or excluding individuals from access to education; yet inclusion remains an unattained goal regardless of continent, GDP rankings, and PISA scores. With respect to inclusive access, UNESCO states, “It is about being proactive in identifying the barriers and obstacles learners encounter in attempting to access opportunities for quality education, as well as in removing those barriers and obstacles that lead to exclusion” (UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, 2013).
This sounds a lot like a UDL approach: UDL views barriers to learning as the products of variable interactions in environments, rather than as inherent mutable characteristics of learners. While removing barriers to equitable access is a key priority, the ubiquitous challenges in achieving high quality inclusive education locally, nationally, and internationally suggest that there is some other pervasive obstacle, or problem, impeding access to learning for all.
This is where design may hold particular promise in education. If design is about improving, it is also about first identifying the right problem to improve upon.
UDL emerged from the field of design (i.e., architecture), but is asks us to begin somewhat differently; not with a problem, but with a goal. In its overarching goal to foster expert learners, UDL as a framework aims to develop purpose, motivation, resourcefulness, knowledge, strategy and goal-orientation in learners. The UDL principles work towards these goals by directing designers of learning experiences to consider multiple entry points into learning, and multiple ways that learners can engage with their environments. But why are these goals necessary in the first place? What is the problem that UDL solves, and does identifying such a problem provide the UDL framework additional leverage?
I think that the problem is not just access, but equity. Equity in learning is foundational in UDL, but achieving it in practice is enough of a challenge that I wonder how our initiatives, interventions, and instruction might benefit from really grappling with what it implies. Equity may be best achieved through ubiquitous access to learning experiences that are meaningful, or as John Dewey would say, “educative” (since humans are making meaning and having experiences all time). Without designs that lead to equitable, i.e. accessible and thus meaningful, learning, education will continue to marginalize people. The principle of multiple means of engagement moves in that direction, but the guidelines and checkpoints can really only be effective if they align with a problem, not just a goal. If the problem is that students have access to learning but can’t draw meaning from it, any strategy to engage them will come up short.
Thus, how can we feasibly design learning experiences that will provide all learners with that necessary and yet elusive quality — meaningfulness?
User Experience Design (UXD) in particular provides some guidance by emphasizing that we have to ground our problem solving in concrete examples (user research, and perhaps empathy). UXD values the insights that can come from the extreme cases, i.e., ‘the margins’; and UDL further posits that these are key to designing solutions that will work well for the broadest range of people. When schools and curricula employ an access-only model of inclusion, and fail to emphasize the importance of equity in inclusion, they lock themselves out of the potential of diverse learners. We then — often inadvertently but perhaps sometimes by design — create learning experiences and environments that do not align with the needs and skills of the learners, because they are not designed with their experiences, their definitions of what is meaningful, as the central consideration.
UXD, as a process, is fundamentally about asking questions about goals of stakeholders, making sense of answers, and then using those to organize information with “human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal” (Jesse James Garrett). At our conference, I am going to ask a lot of questions about education and experience. I may offer some answers — definitions, really — based in the scholarship of influential thinkers, as well as personal anecdotes, but it is my goal for attendees to make sense of my ideas by comparing them to your own answers, based in your experiences. It is certainly my “explicit goal” to organize information into what I hope will be an engaging keynote, and thus tentatively complete the UXD process. If you don’t leave this talk, I’ll at least have achieved the “explicit outcome” of you having an experience.