In our brand-new issue of Hello World magazine, Hayley Leonard from our team gives a primer on how computing educators can apply the Universal Design for Learning framework in their lessons.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for considering how tools and resources can be used to reduce barriers and support all learners. Based on findings from neuroscience, it has been developed over the last 30 years by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a nonprofit education research and development organisation based in the US. UDL is currently used across the globe, with research showing it can be an efficient approach for designing flexible learning environments and accessible content.
Engaging a wider range of learners is an important issue in computer science, which is often not chosen as an optional subject by girls and those from some minority ethnic groups. Researchers at the Creative Technology Research Lab in the US have been investigating how UDL principles can be applied to computer science, to improve learning and engagement for all students. They have adapted the UDL guidelines to a computer science education context and begun to explore how teachers use the framework in their own practice. The hope is that understanding and adapting how the subject is taught could help to increase the representation of all groups in computing.
A scientific approach
The UDL framework is based on neuroscientific evidence which highlights how different areas or networks in the brain work together to process information during learning. Importantly, there is variation across individuals in how each of these networks functions and how they interact with each other. This means that a traditional approach to teaching, in which a main task is differentiated for certain students with special educational needs, may miss out on the variation in learning between all students across different tasks.
The UDL guidelines highlight different opportunities to take learner differences into account when planning lessons. The framework is structured according to three main principles, which are directly related to three networks in the brain that play a central role in learning. It encourages educators to plan multiple, flexible methods of engagement in learning (affective networks), representation of the teaching materials (recognition networks), and opportunities for action and expression of what has been learnt (strategic networks).
The three principles of UDL are each expanded into guidelines and checkpoints that allow educators to identify the different methods of engagement, representation, and expression to be used in a particular lesson. Each principle is also broken down into activities that allow learners to access the learning goals, remain engaged and build on their learning, and begin to internalise the approaches to learning so that they are empowered for the future.
Examples of UDL guidelines for computer science education from the Creative Technology Research Lab
|Multiple means of engagement
|Multiple means of representation
|Multiple means of
action and expression
|Provide options for recruiting interests
* Give students choice (software, project, topic)
* Allow students to make projects relevant to culture and age
|Provide options for perception
* Model computing through physical representations as well as through interactive whiteboard/videos etc.
* Select coding apps and websites that allow adjustment of visual settings (e.g. font size/contrast) and that are compatible with screen readers
|Provide options for physical action
* Include CS unplugged activities that show physical relationships of abstract computing concepts
* Use assistive technology, including a larger or smaller mouse or touchscreen devices
|Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence
* Utilise pair programming and group work with clearly defined roles
* Discuss the integral role of perseverance and problem-solving in computer science
|Provide options for language, mathematical expressions, and symbols
* Teach and review computing vocabulary (e.g. code, animations, algorithms)
* Provide reference sheets with images of blocks, or with common syntax when using text
|Provide options for expression and communication
* Provide sentence starters or checklists for communicating in order to collaborate, give feedback, and explain work
* Provide options that include starter code
|Provide options for self-regulation
* Break up coding activities with opportunities for reflection, such as ‘turn and talk’ or written questions
* Model different strategies for dealing with frustration appropriately
|Provide options for comprehension
* Encourage students to ask questions as comprehension checkpoints
* Use relevant analogies and make cross-curricular connections explicit
|Provide options for executive function
* Embed prompts to stop and plan, test, or debug throughout a lesson or project
* Demonstrate debugging with think-alouds
Each principle of the UDL framework is associated with three areas of activity which may be considered when planning lessons or units of work. It will not be the case that each area of activity should be covered in every lesson, and some may prove more important in particular contexts than others. The full table and explanation can be found on the Creative Technology Research Lab website at ctrl.education.ufl.edu/projects/tactic.
Applying UDL to computer science education
While an advantage of UDL is that the principles can be applied across different subjects, it is important to think carefully about what activities to address these principles could look like in the case of computer science.
Researchers at the Creative Technology Research Lab, led by Maya Israel, have identified key activities, some of which are presented in the table on the previous page. These guidelines will help educators anticipate potential barriers to learning and plan activities that can overcome them, or adapt activities from those in existing schemes of work, to help engage the widest possible range of students in the lesson.
UDL in the classroom
As well as suggesting approaches to applying UDL to computer science education, the research team at the Creative Technology Research Lab has also investigated how teachers are using UDL in practice. Israel and colleagues worked with four novice computer science teachers in US elementary schools to train them in the use of UDL and understand how they applied the framework in their teaching.
The research found that the teachers were most likely to include in their teaching multiple means of engagement, followed by multiple methods of representation. For example, they all offered choice in their students’ activities and provided materials in different formats (such as oral and visual presentations and demonstrations). They were less likely to provide multiple means of action and expression, and mainly addressed this principle through supporting students in planning work and checking their progress against their goals.
Although the study included only four teachers, it highlighted the flexibility of the UDL approach in catering for different needs within variable teaching contexts. More research will be needed in future, with larger samples, to understand how successful the approach is in helping a wide range of students to achieve good learning outcomes.
Find out more about using UDL
There are numerous resources designed to help teachers learn more about the UDL framework and how to apply it to teaching computing. The CAST website (helloworld.cc/cast) includes an explainer video and the detailed UDL guidelines. The Creative Technology Research Lab website has computing-specific ideas and lesson plans using UDL (helloworld.cc/udl).
Maya Israel will be presenting her research at our computing education research seminar series, on 20 April 2021. Our seminars are free to attend and open to anyone from anywhere around the world. Find out more about the current seminar series, which focuses on diversity and inclusion in computing education.
Further reading on UDL
- Israel, M., Lash, T., & Jeong, G. (2017). Utilizing the Universal Design for Learning Framework in K-12 Computer Science Education. Project TACTIC: Teaching All Computational Thinking Through Inclusion and Collaboration
- Israel, M., Jeong, G., Ray, M., & Lash, T. (2020). Teaching Elementary Computer Science Through Universal Design for Learning. Proceedings of the 51st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, pp. 1220-1226. dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/3328778.3366823
- Rose, D. H. & Strangman, N. (2007). Universal design for learning: Meeting the challenge of individual learning differences through a neurocognitive perspective. Universal Access in the Information Society, 5(4), pp. 381-391. dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1007/s10209-006-0062-8
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