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E-learning, agency and the UDL

These are some of the thoughts floating around in my head on the flight home, a roaring cold southerly pushing the tiny plane and my big ideas back up to Gisborne…...The past e-fellows experience in Wellington has been a challenge, however - at this point in time I don’t feel as mentally or physically drained as on previous e-fellow trips,  we had plenty of time to synthesise our inquiry’s at the amazing beach front house we called home for 3 days.  

In this trip I grappled with what true agency meant, and rolled between the notions of freedom of thought, choice and direction and the underlying aspects of effectiveness, efficiency and academic rigour - and how agency has a part to play in all of these - and is true agency ever obtainable, or is it as elusive as the green flash at that moment where the sun sinks into the ocean beside Kapiti island?
This all melded together into a timely reinforcement of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how that can relate to everything we should be doing in education right now.  Let me explain further……

John and Anne-Louise waiting for the green flash behind Kapiti

The tug of war that has existed in my enquiry was highlighted in one of the schools we visited that had essentially applied what I was looking into across the local scale of my classroom on a school
wide scale.  Their journey had mirrored mine over time where they found that letting go of control, giving freedom and therefore allowing enhanced learner agency had to be reigned in by scaffolding mechanisms and systems that would maintain rigour and produce effective learners on their own personal journeys - the school also found that not all students wanted a sense of agency over their learning, and as my students experienced, a trip into the lonely chasm of aimless procrastination can sometimes be associated with self directed learning (more on this in the yet to be published second instalment, but you can read about ‘a call to adventure’ elsewhere on my blog).  This reinforced what I knew already, but made me think of new directions for my action research, and further lines of enquiry.  Do students who struggle to find direction in an agentic environment suffer as they have not had the opportunity to exercise their own agency in the past?  Does every student who walks into a modern learning environment with modern learning practices know what they are doing and just gets on with it - I’m not sure but I’m guessing that most learners require support and mentoring/facilitation, which led me to thinking that perhaps my enquiry could now look into a longitudinal study about which students embrace agency and which students need so much support that it is no longer self-directed - is it possible to predetermine who needs support through learning analytics and prior experience feedback?  As well as investigating the reasons behind this - educational history, self efficacy or a combination of the many variable aspects of personality, motivation and experience.  

Being an e-fellow isn't all about mind melting conversations, there is some time to relax - +Rowan Taigel+Ben Britton and myself make creative use of the glass wall in the Wellington CORE office while +Marnel van der Spuy and +Anne-Louise Robertson pose for a nice pic with the amazing +Karen Melhuish Spencer!
Although some of the experiences I have had as an e-fellow this year have left me more confused than when I started, what I have come to realise and reinforce is the importance of relationships and that knowing the learners, is the key to engaging and motivating students in the classroom, and therefore guiding them to successes, whether that is a personal win for them, or the successes that our education system has established through the NCEA and standardised testing.

This leads me to the second epiphany I experienced on the trip to Wellington;  all students have special needs, no two students have the same strengths and challenges.  We have developed a system that recognises that some students have specific ‘special’ needs and we group those children together, whether the thing that may affect their learning in a normal classroom is a visible physical difference like wearing a hearing aid or an invisible element like dyslexia or ADHD.  We ask ourselves what are we doing to support children with special needs,  but surely we should be asking ourselves what are we doing to support all learning (of course as teachers we know that we have to differentiate learning, but perhaps this net needs to be thrown wider to truly recognise how every learner learns best?)  

The UDL is a framework (Figure 1) that embraces the individual characteristics of the learner and states that every child can learn, and every child has the right to instruction.  In the UDL we look at the class in front of us and think about how we can cater for all of their needs by making our teaching and learning activities accessible and meaningful to everyone, and therefore a truly inclusive.  Chrissie Butler mentioned a couple of examples in our Wellington workshop; firstly from a primary school classroom that had a student who really liked cats, but didn’t really like numeracy, so the teacher decided to design whole class maths activities around feline creatures in order to engage that student, this is common for inclusive practice in primary schools - but perhaps harder to implement in a secondary classroom where you see more students for less time during the day.  However, an example from a high school context would be a teacher working alongside a student with some hearing loss, using videos with closed captions - but they could actually use the same videos with everyone and the captions can be used by everyone if they need them or find them useful.
Figure 1, Universal Design of Learning Guidelines (Butler, 2014)

As a group in discussion we toyed with the idea that in essence the UDL was still a one size fits all approach (like mainstream education) but the one size fits all approach we are generally used to in education is that of the outcome - everyone needs to pass the test, or complete the assessment - we need to look away from the end point and look at the start point and think about the learner before the learning, it’s the classic chicken and egg scenario i.e how do we know what to teach before we know who we are teaching?  We need to make content accessible and intriguing for all students, and although this is sometimes challenging without superhuman teaching abilities, we can harness the power of technology to open the doors for us, asking open questions and seeing what the learners come up with with any app, programme or scrap of paper they can get their hands on - or have preference over.  So although amazing in its objectives the UDL hasn’t really had too much exposure until recently, and the problem is that in an everyday traditional classroom this is difficult to achieve - I know because with some classes it is just a challenge trying to keep them in the room and prevent any major injury!  However, now we are at that point on the exponential growth curve of technology where the tools are powerful enough to make a difference, and by applying it in a blended way in education we can allow educators to revisit pedagogical frameworks that were difficult to implement before the introduction of technology.

Figure 2 Adapted from the thoughts in my head during the wellington trip

The diagram above is a visual representation of how e-learning can support the UDL, and learner agency, and in turn allow UDL and agency to enhance the effectiveness of each other.  The technology enhances the UDL by unlocking the potential of using speech to text, or text to speech apps, representing information in a visual, or audible way as well as many other depictions of information and ideas.  Learners have opportunities to use the tools they have in their pockets in a way to benefit their own learning - there are some amazing guides to help teachers and students select the appropriate tools for the job.  Through using the UDL we can allow greater choice, direction and voice of the students in mediums they can use and relate to and therefore enhancing agency and maximising engagement.  Allowing students to connect with the teacher through multiple methods like social networks, written/recorded words or simply speaking opens up many more avenues and opportunities for dialogue, support and manaakitanga. 

The challenge lies with educators in allowing their pedagogy to adapt and allowing the learner more control and responsibility for their own learning, as well as developing a sense of agency in learners to accommodate this shift in pedagogical approach.  It will not happen on it’s own and needs the support, scaffolding and guidance for all involved.

Descending now back into Gisborne…..and reality ;-)

6 Essential tips from +Chrissie Butler to start using the UDL

1. Know the learner, 
2. Work out what are we here to do, 
3. Recognise and remove barriers in the goals, resources, assessments , teaching methods and in the physical and emotional environment, 
4. Identify what universal supports we could offer to everyone, 
5. Use the udl guidelines to design the lesson/activity/opportunity,
6. Teach, evaluate, revise…..

**The Universal Design group on the VLN has some great discussions and support for incorporating the UDL into your teaching.**

Thanks again to Chrissie for offering her wealth of knowledge in the construction of this post, have a look through her blog for some excellent posts and resources :)

Butler, C. (2014). Planning for learner variability. Passonable. Retrieved 5 September 2014, from


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