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New discoveries about the workings of the learning brain have converged with advancements in educational technology to finally make possible the kinds of flexible learning environments that students need to prepare for their future. According to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, flexibility is key because it allows educators to accommodate their students’ natural variability in learning preferences.
The Center for Applied Specialized Technology (CAST) defines UDL as a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.
Neuroscience has revealed that learners show a great deal of variability in three key areas: in what they find motivating (the “why” of learning), in how they are able to take in and process information to make meaning from it (the “what” of learning) and in how they demonstrate their understanding (the “how” of learning).
Learners may be strong in one area (remembering the information they read) yet struggle and need support in the others (maintaining their focus or expressing their thoughts). Addressing this variability requires a more flexible approach to instruction that adapts the curriculum to the variable needs of learners, rather than the other way around.
To account for learner variability in each of these areas, CAST developed UDL guidelines that call on educators to provide options in the form of multiple means of engagement with learning, multiple means of representation for information and multiple means of action and expression through which learners can demonstrate their understanding.
The ultimate goal of these guidelines is to develop expert learners who are purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic and goal directed. The goal of learner expertise ties directly into the ISTE Standards for Students, which empower students to take ownership of their learning as they build global competencies and develop deep thinking, collaboration and communication skills.
While UDL is first and foremost about implementing a flexible pedagogy, technology can help by making the kind of personalized learning envisioned under UDL a reality. Read on to find out about a number of free and low-cost UDL-aligned apps and websites that you can use to make learning environments more flexible and personalized. Or, if you prefer to view the list visually, take a look at our Pinterest board.
Tools for engagement and the affective network
For students to be engaged, learning has to be relevant and meaningful on a personal level. Project-based learning (PBL) is one approach that achieves this goal by tying instruction to real-world concerns that really matter to learners.
With PBL, learners gain knowledge and skills as they investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex problem or challenge over an extended period of time. In conducting their inquiry, learners may do online research as well as go out into their communities to gather information through surveys and interviews that place the problem in a more personally meaningful context.
As they learn about the problem in the context of their own communities, learners engage in ongoing reflection about not only their emerging understandings but also the process involved in their inquiry. At the conclusion of the project, they make their project work public, often by sharing it with a wider audience through a classroom website or blog.
A challenge of implementing PBL, however, is storing and organizing materials and resources so students can access them easily when they need them.
Here are a couple of our favorite cloud storage tools:
Google Drive. This web tool/mobile app provides an easily accessible collaborative environment where students can create and share information related to their PBL activities. Drive provides a file storage solution and supports the creation of documents, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings and forms (for data collection) that are stored online, always backed up and accessible from any web browser or through dedicated apps on iOS and Android devices. Learners can collaborate on these documents in real time and even chat with each other as they brainstorm ideas and make changes to the content.
Dropbox. This online file storage app, similar to Google Drive, allows students to store documents and access them from any device while working on collaborative projects.
To persist in their learning, students need to be aware of their progress. The best way to get this information is by receiving formative feedback throughout the course of each activity. In a UDL environment, this feedback originates not only from the teacher, but also from peers and even the learner him or herself in the form of reflection. Polling and student response tools can easily collect this information and display it in real time to help learners self-assess how their understanding relates to that of their classmates.
Here are some of the best student-response tools:
Nearpod. This app allows the teacher to broadcast a presentation with embedded polls and quizzes. You can control the pace of the presentation, and as learners respond from their devices, you can see the results in real time and adjust the lesson accordingly.
Peardeck. This tool works in a similar way. Learners can follow along with the teacher’s presentation and answer interactive questions from any device that can connect to the internet.
Socrative. This tool lets you create quick assessments on any web-enabled device. Unlike Nearpod, Socrative does not have a presentation component.
Plickers. This system is unique in that it doesn’t require learners to have devices to respond. They just hold up a card with a special code that can be read by an app on the teacher’s device to collect the responses.
Tools for representation and the recognition network
For much of the history of education, print has been the primary way students have received information. If a learner could not process that type of information well, he or she was labeled disabled. The digital revolution, however, has created new options for presenting information in a multitude of formats to accommodate the many different ways learners prefer to retrieve and process information.
On both iOS and Android devices, a number of built-in accessibility options make it possible for the learner to customize the size of the text, invert the display for better contrast and make other adjustments to the display of text and the interface.
Check out these tools that make it easier to read on the web:
Safari Reader. This built-in option of the Safari web browser on Macs and iOS devices allows learners to remove the navigation, ads and other visual clutter from a web page to better focus on the content. Safari Reader has options for customizing the text size, the background color and the font for a customized reading experience. With iOS 11 and Mac OS High Sierra, learners can even set up Safari Reader to automatically activate on web pages that support this feature.
The Chrome web browser does not have a native option for removing the clutter from web pages, but learners can choose from a variety of free extensions that perform a similar function: Mercury Reader, Just Read and Easy Reader.
OneNote Web Clipper. Learners can use the free Web Clipper to save articles to their OneNote account for access from any device that supports that service. Once the article is in OneNote, learners can activate the Immersive Reader feature to view a clutter-free version of the article and use text-to-speech to listen to it as they follow along with the word highlighting. Immersive Reader is highly customizable and includes a number of display themes as well as options for adjusting the text size and line spacing, displaying the parts of speech and more.
While some learners may need to customize only the display of the information, others may need to have the information presented in a different format to account for limitations in their sight or hearing. Fortunately, accessibility is now a built-in option on major operating systems.
For learners who have trouble reading on screens, try these basic screen-reading tools:
VoiceOver. This is the built-in screen reader for iOS. It uses synthesized speech or braille (with a connected braille display) to describe what is on the screen to someone who is blind.
TalkBack. The built-in screen reader for Android devices, TalkBack is similar to VoiceOver but does not include braille support out of the box. However, it does support it when you install a separate component called BrailleBack.
ChromeVox. You can use this free screen reader, which is available on Chromebooks and as an extension to the Chrome web browser, to provide better access to content for students who are blind or who have low vision.
Text-to-speech is helpful not only for those who are blind or have low vision, but also or a variety of other learners, including those who struggle with decoding and those who prefer to listen to audio.
Here are the go-to text-to-speech tools:
Speak Selection and Speak Screen. These two iOS built-in text-to-speech features include word and sentence highlighting and the kind of high-quality voice that used to be available only on the Mac. With Speak Screen, a special gesture (swiping from the top of the screen with two fingers) will activate an automatic reading move that will also flip the pages of an electronic book or scroll a long web page. Speak Screen also shows on-screen controls for adjusting the speaking rate.
Voice Dream Reader. This full-featured document manager expands on the capabilities of the built-in text-to-speech with even more options for personalization, including fully customizable colors for the word and sentence highlighting, masking to display only a few lines of text at a time, support for dyslexia-friendly fonts and more. Documents can be imported from a number of sources such as Google Drive, Dropbox and Bookshare, a service that provides free access to books in accessible formats for students with qualifying print disabilities.
Announcify. This free Chrome extension can also read a web page aloud. While it does not provide word highlighting, it blurs out most of the page and shows only a small section in focus to direct attention.
TextHelp Read&Write. This Chrome extension provides a number of UDL supports for language and symbols, including text-to-speech, translation, a picture dictionary and highlighting. The free extension is available to any educator with a valid school email address, and a fully functional 30-day trial gives everyone access to the text-to-speech features even after the trial ends.
Quillsoft WordQ for Chrome. This app offers an easy-to-use, writing space (compatible with Google Docs) for Chromebooks that includes word prediction, speech feedback and Google Voice Typing. WordQ’s word prediction features also work offline, a boon for schools and students with spotty or limited access to the internet. The app’s perpetual license, is transferable and eliminates yearly renewal costs.
Once learners have access to the information, the next step is to help them make sense of it. One way teachers can help students make sense of vast amounts of information is by highlighting some of the key patterns, concepts and relationships — in other words, the big ideas.
Here are some tools that use visual strategies to help students make sense of ideas:
Draw.io. This free software lets you draw and create almost anything you want, including mind maps. You can add shapes, links, text and images. You can use lines and change colors. You can access it directly from your browser without logging into an account or download the desktop version.
Popplet. This tool available on the web and as an iOS app makes it easy to build simple concept maps, which is a great way to activate a learner’s prior knowledge. Ask them to create a concept map at the beginning of a lesson, then have them make a new one at the end of the unit that builds on their first map. Popplet has a free “lite” version for test driving the app with only one concept map. It costs $4.99.
Tools for action, expression and the strategic network
Just as print was the primary way learners accessed information in the past, so writing has been the main way they have been able to demonstrate their understanding. Unfortunately, this puts some learners at a disadvantage, including those whose motor challenges make it difficult to hold a pencil, type or use a mouse, or those with processing or memory issues.
Dictation is a built-in feature on iOS devices for students who would rather speak their answers instead of entering text with an onscreen keyboard. No prior training is necessary for the speech recognition to work, but an internet connection is required. The speech recognition features built into both Windows and Mac provide support for a number of commands that perform common tasks, including opening applications and entering and formatting text. The enhanced dictation feature on the Mac even lets you create new custom commands.
Students who struggle with traditional means of expression, such as writing a paper, can also use video or audio to show their understanding in a variety of creative ways. Some of our favorite video and screencasting tools include:
Clips. As the name implies, this free iOS app from Apple is meant for creating short videos that can be more easily shared through social media and messaging services. A standout feature of Clips is the ability to automatically add subtitles to the videos it creates to make them more accessible.
iMovie. Students who are ready to step up from Clips can use the free iMovie for iOS app to shoot and edit a documentary or short film that captures key ideas about a topic with video clips, photos, music and audio narration.
TouchCast Studio. This free iPad app has everything learners need to create interactive videos that include hotspots linking to a variety of Web content. Learners can use a number of video apps (vApps) to link to supporting research on the Web, ask questions through polls, link to a script of their video for accessibility and more. The app has a number of advanced features, including a built-in teleprompter, green screen capabilities to allow learners to place themselves into different settings and multi-camera support through a connected iPhone.
WeVideo. Chromebook users have fewer options for video due to the limited hardware built into their devices, but they can perform basic edits with this Chrome app. WeVideo is available with a number of subscription plans (depending on the features and storage space needed) that start at $4.99 per month for individuals (with volume pricing for schools).
In lieu of full video, students can use these audio-only tools instead:
GarageBand. This free app for iOS devices makes it easy for students to capture and edit audio and to create podcasts and other audio recordings that summarize their understanding at the end of a lesson. It’s also great for audio reflections.
Audacity. This free and popular cross-platform tool provides basic recording and editing functions, but students will need to find royalty-free loops on sites such as incompetech.com if they want to add a music soundtrack.
Before learners can creatively express their understanding in a variety of ways, they need to organize their thoughts and come up with a good plan. A number of tools allow learners to practice, refine and augment this set of skills, which fall under the umbrella of executive functioning. These note-taking apps, for instance, allow them to easily capture and organize information in a variety of formats:
Google Keep. This free tool lets students store notes online so they can access them from any device with an internet connection, and it gives them multiple ways to save information, including taking photos, typing it in or recording it with their voice.
Notability. This iOS app records audio while learners take notes via text, photos, web links and handwriting. The notes are synchronized to the audio so learners can quickly find a specific point in the recording by tapping in the corresponding section of the notes.
Book Creator. Book Creator provides a blank canvas where learners can bring together all of their media to demonstrate their understanding by publishing an ePub ebook. Each book can include text, images (with descriptions for assistive technologies), audio and video. The fully functional free version of Book Creator for the iPad can be used to create a single book. Upgrading to the paid version not only unlocks unlimited publishing, it also adds some comic book templates. A web version of Book Creator that works on Chromebooks is also available. Teachers can create up to 40 books for free with that version.
Just as a carpenter has a tool belt with a number of options to choose from to best suit the nature of each job, so technology gives educators a wide array of options for engaging learners and helping them access their learning environment. The key to taking best advantage of these new tools is to think pedagogy first, technology second. In other words, don’t make adopting the technology a goal unto itself, but rather select the tool based on how well it fits the particular learning goals of your unit or lesson.
When used in a thoughtful way, technology opens up many possibilities for learners to find and develop their own voices, take ownership of their learning and become creators of knowledge instead of just consumers of information.
Want to learn more about using assistive technology to help all learners? Join the ISTE Inclusive Learners Network for free year-round professional development and opportunities to connect with the experts.
This is an updated version of an article the was originally published on June 8, 2015.
Luis Pérez is a senior technical assistance specialist for the National Accessible Educational Materials for Learning Center at CAST. He holds a doctorate in special education and a master’s in instructional technology from the University of South Florida.
Kendra Grant’s multifaceted career includes stints as a teacher, library media specialist, special ed coordinator, co-founder of a professional learning company, online course creator and large-scale technology implementation consultant. She holds a masters of educational technology from the University of British Columbia.