The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many reflections on the future of higher education and what we value and prioritize as educators. This week we begin a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, Thomas J. Tobin joins us to discuss how the adoption of Universal Design for Learning principles can increase student motivation, engagement, and success. Tom is the author of Reach Everyone Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning. He is one of the contributors to the Pedagogies of Care project from the authors in the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning book series.
- Thomas J. Tobin – website – Twitter
- Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.
- Teaching and Learning in Higher Education – West Virginia University Press
- Pedagogies of Care (Sneak Peek) – video trailer – website
- Kirsten Behling
- Derek Krissoff – Twitter
- Victoria Mondelli
- Neuhaus, J. (2019). Geeky Pedagogy: A Guide for Intellectuals, Introverts, and Nerds Who Want to Be Effective Teachers. West Virginia University Press.
- Dello Stritto, M. E. & Linder, K. E. (2018). Student device preferences for online course access and multimedia learning. Corvallis, OR. Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit.
John: The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many reflections on the future of higher education and what we value and prioritize as educators. This week we begin a series of interviews with participants in the Pedagogies of Care project. In this episode, we discuss how the adoption of Universal Design for Learning principles can increase student motivation, engagement, and success.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist&helliip;
John: &helliip;and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Thomas J. Tobin. Tom is the author of Reach Everyone Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education and several other works related to teaching and learning. He is one of the contributors to the Pedagogies of Care project from the authors in the West Virginia University Press Teaching and Learning book series. Welcome, Tom.
John: Welcome, Tom.
Tom: Thanks. I’m glad to be here, and thank you for inviting me.
John: Our teas today are:
Tom: I’m drinking decaf black tea as always, nothing added, nothing, taken away.
Rebecca: Sounds perfect. I’m drinking strawberry grapefruit green tea today.
John: And I’m drinking a peppermint tea. I’ve had a lot of caffeine today, so I’m watering it down a little bit. [LAUGHTER] We’ve invited you here to talk primarily about your work with the Pedagogies of Care project as well as your work with Universal Design for Learning. Could you tell us about how this project came together?
Tom: I’m one of the authors in the West Virginia University Press series on teaching and learning and it started with an idea from Jim Lang at Assumption College. He wanted to put together a series of books that wasn’t so much “Here’s all the research and all the bona fides and all the scholarship on teaching and learning topics. He wanted books that talked directly to practitioners about what those best practices are, in a way that’s easily digestible and practical and implementable. My co-author Kirsten Behling and I, we wrote the book Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education for the series. Jim is the editor of the whole series. We’ve got lots of other folks in the series. Michelle Miller is coming up. Josh Eyler just published. Sarah Rose Cavanagh. Kevin Gannon. A lot of the people that you see on academic Twitter. The public intellectuals among us are published in this series and that’s a credit to Derek Chrisoff, the series editor. A number of us who are or will be published in that series in the future, we were part of the emergency response teams at our colleges and universities when the COVID-19 pandemic came up. And we found that whether we were reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside HigherEd, Edsurge, we were reading a lot of, “Well, this is the time when we should be evaluating online teaching because now everyone’s teaching online” or “We should be guarding the ivory tower and defending against these rings of cheating students.” And almost everyone in the series thought these are reactionary takes that are getting published out there. And it’s almost the opposite of how we would advise people to go. So a few of us got out our trusty keyboards and we wrote response articles. I responded to a couple of pieces in The Chronicle. Michelle Miller in Inside Higher Ed. Derek Bruff went over onto Edsurge. And we wrote our responses up and people said, “Oh, this is really humane. This treats students like co-learners in the process Instead of adversaries. What else do you have? Do you have more?” And the answer was, “Well, Perhaps we should have more.” And Tori Mondelli from the University of Missouri, asked, “Why not envision and help to shape what the new normal of colleges and universities and higher education could look like post pandemic, if we’re just going back to the way things were, that’s an opportunity missed.” And so we decided to put together this Pedagogies of Care collection from all of the authors and soon-to-be authors in the WVU Press series. So a lot of things went into it. So it was conversations on the POD network open discussion group topic, Josh Eyler was especially active over there, academic Twitter, Kevin Gannon, Viji Sathy, Kelly Hogan from the University of North Carolina. We’ve been voices out there that people trust. We’ve been doing the research, we’ve been listening to our colleagues. And what we’re doing with this Pedagogies of Care Collection, is we’re trying to create a unified voice for what colleges and universities could look like, with the understanding that we have a huge budget crisis, that we only have so much in terms of people, money, and time to be able to implement things. So this isn’t really a rose-colored glasses utopian vision. But it’s a practical look at what we can actually accomplish if we’re working together, thinking together, and thinking in terms of student success.
John: In terms of the contributions, I understand it’s going to be a mix of different types of inputs. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Tom: Of course. As the Universal Design for Learning thinker among the group, we’ve got a few of us who are also fans of that idea, the initial prompt to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t “Please write an essay,” although I totally wrote an essay, but it was “Please respond in the way that you feel represents your ideas best.” And so for example, Cyndi Kernahan and Kevin Gannon decided that they wanted to, even though they wrote two different books, they wanted to get together and create a video podcast. For example, Sarah Rose Cavanagh decided that she wanted to put together an audio podcast along with a bunch of reference resources and handouts that people could take away. Jessamyn Neuhaus, the author of Geeky Pedagogy, she decided that she wanted to do a video log of different pieces of advice that she had collected and created. And a lot of folks went in lots of different creative ways. So the prompt was: respond how you like, and we got a really varied bunch of contributions from everybody. And we’re in the process of editing that right now as we’re recording this interview, and we hope that that’ll be coming out soon.
Rebecca: Sounds like a very caring way to address everybody’s needs during COVID-19, including all the authors’. [LAUGHTER]
Tom: Well, absolutely. And the flexibility is almost the key here is that we’re trying to model, in our advice, the kinds of strategies that we’re asking people to adopt, and really the overarching idea is that students are coming to us from lots of varied circumstances. One of the things that the pandemic has done for everyone is shown that everybody has barriers to learning. And whether those barriers have to do with disability, whether those barriers just have to do with time&helliip; people are working, they have family responsibilities, their kids are home from school and they’re taking care of them. All different kinds of barriers. And if there are ways that we can address those barriers, help to minimize them, help to lower them, and help to reach out to our students as human beings first, that’s going to actually make our lives as instructors and support staffers, smoother, easier, and it’s going to mean that we’re not as bureaucratic about things as we might have been previously. We’d thought about a number of different titles for the collection, you know, “The road back from COVID-19,” and we didn’t really want to focus everything on the virus. We wanted to focus on the interpersonal dynamics, on the interactions, on the caring that we saw people engaging in, that emotional and affective labor that really marks the best teachers and instructors. And so I think it was Tori Mondelli who came up with the title of Pedagogies of Care, because that was the thread that ran through all of our approaches to this collection and to how we wanted to work with our colleagues at our individual institutions.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve appreciated about the conversations I’ve observed on Twitter and other spaces is how much the focus has been on humans: students as humans, faculty as humans, and that faculty and staff have barriers just like students do. And that’s something that hasn’t really been highlighted in the past in a lot of conversation about disability or universal design or any of these things that tend to be very student driven. And so it’s nice that the conversation has actually widened to be more inclusive.
Tom: Yeah, and this is the myth of the faculty super person, right? The students can have all these challenges but faculty members have got it together, right? We are super and awesome and always good and always on and always perfect, which is baloney. We’re human beings as well. And it’s actually how I got started in the field. Dial back 23 years, it’s 1997, and I’m at a two-year college in Pennsylvania. I’m a 27 year old kid with just about almost have my doctorate. And I’m tasked with creating online courses for this community college. I help them adopt Blackboard version one. That’s how long ago that was. Your listeners can’t see me, but all this gray hair, I earned it. And one of my business faculty members came to me, Marty, and he says, “I would like to teach online, not because I think it’s the next world beating thing or the thing that’s the best for me. But I see the handwriting on the wall. We’re moving in this direction. And I want to know how to do it.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll help you.” The only problem, Marty in his 40s, had gone blind due to complications from undiagnosed and so untreated diabetes. Now that meant that he didn’t, and I’ll put air quotes here, he didn’t know how to be a blind person. He didn’t walk with a cane. He didn’t touch type&helliip; couldn’t read Braille. And so I said, “Oh, the literature will save me.” And I went back to the literature and there was no literature. And so, by good grace and good luck, I got connected with Norm Coombs at Rochester Institute of Technology. Norm is a faculty member who has been blind since birth. He was a great big advocate for the rights of faculty members and instructors who have disabilities. And his advice was essentially “Good luck, kid.” But along the way, he also turned me on to a lot of different ways that I could help Marty, and we did actually get him to teach his business courses online. This is in the days before JAWS and screen readers, and we ended up getting some graduate students from a local university and using them as Marty’s eyes and ears. He memorized what the Blackboard interface, the LMS interface, looked like. And when his students would send him things or put discussion messages on the posts, the graduate students would read them out loud and Marty would say, “Here’s my feedback. Here’s the grade,” and the graduate students would put those things in there. It was wildly successful for about the three semesters before we realized we were violating FERPA privacy laws about eight different ways and we had to stop. It was that failure, though, that really caused me&helliip; and to your point, Rebecca&helliip; it caused me to look around and start seeing people who we weren’t serving well, or maybe not at all. People with those military deployments, those weird work shifts, the family responsibilities, the people who weren’t even in our classrooms because they couldn’t get there. And if I had my way I would teach all of my courses face to face. But that means that I’m leaving out a big number of people whom we could otherwise be serving well, and so I’ve been an advocate for using technology to lower barriers for years and years and years. So, thank you for letting me take off on a little bit of a side note there, but it’s actually the absence of scholarship and research about instructors who have various barriers. And it’s not just disability barriers. It’s instructors who are single parents, folks who are the adjuncts among us, contingent faculty members who are trying to put a life together by moving from among four or five different institutions. These are all barriers that we should be talking more about and surfacing. And that kind of advocating on behalf of, and trying to bring visibility to, a lot of people who aren’t really visible right now, that’s one of those driving impetus behind the Pedagogies of Care collection.
John: The timing of this seems very appropriate because as you suggested before, many of these barriers became much more visible both in faculties own lives and also being on a college campus makes it easier for those barriers to be invisible, that we don’t observe different socioeconomic differences in quite the same way because we’re in the same environment. Students on college campuses at least appear to have equal access to technology through computer labs and college provided WiFi. But there’s a lot of hidden barriers there, as you’ve talked about in many different ways, but I think now is a really good time to be providing these resources because people are thinking about them in ways that many faculty have been able to avoid.
Tom: You bring up a good point because it’s really easy to sort of hide inside the ivory tower, because you see students only in controlled circumstances. And with the pandemic, now everybody’s teaching remotely using Zoom and other remote instruction tools like that. And when you start seeing into students’ living rooms, and seeing how other people live, it’s kind of eye opening in a literal sense. And it also means that we’re at a moment where people are going in one of two different directions that I’m seeing. They’re either going in the direction of compassion, and understanding, you know, that my students are human beings just like I am and our goal for this course is to get them from “I don’t know yet” to “now I know.” But the other direction is also pretty prevalent where you’ve got instructors saying “Now is the time where I really need to tighten up and get hard and maintain my standards, because I’m in a situation that’s way beyond my control and unlike something that I’ve ever seen before,” and both of those are very natural reactions to a situation where you’re in unfamiliar territory. So, in this Pedagogies of Care collection, one of the aims of all of it is to help to show that that road of compassion is one that actually solves more problems for us as instructors. One of the biggest challenges that we’ve had as instructional designers and public thinkers for years is that we have the data to show that the best way to ensure academic integrity is actually to build a culture of academic honesty in your class, not setting up panoptical surveillance of your students and assuming that they’re cheating. But why do people still use those other methods of surveillance? Because there’s the promise of, there’s the illusion of, control. There’s the illusion of “I’ve got this all set,” and you’ve both been teaching for a while and so have I. If I go back to when I was first an instructor, I was the worst professor in the world because I had a legal pad filled with reminders to myself: “tell this story,” “make sure they understand this concept,” “do these things.” And I was so focused on the content itself, that I forgot to actually interact with my students. [LAUGHTER] It was just a big lecture, it was a bunch of information presentation. And I can’t tell you how many of the same questions that we all struggled with, when online teaching was brand new back in 1997 and 98. they’re coming right back up again, from people who didn’t think they had to pay attention to technology-mediated instruction, and now everyone must. So that’s one of the things that we want to address in the collection as well. So, I appreciate where you’re going with your thinking process there.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about UDL and what it is, and how faculty might start thinking about universal design for learning, moving into the fall?
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. There’s four different ways that I talk about UDL a lot, and one of them is the least helpful for most instructors. And that’s the neuroscience behind it. When we learn anything, and it sticks, we have to activate three different chemical pathways in our brains. So there’s the acetylcholine uptake pathway through the hippocampus, there’s the norepinephrine cycle through the frontal cortex. And then we have to stimulate the amygdala in order to reduce fear response and actually put things into long-term memory. If you go around telling people that their eyes glaze over or they run away, so I usually don’t start there. What I usually do is, the folks at CAST, C_A_S_T, the Center for Advanced Specialized Technology in Boston, they are the neuroscientists who figured out in the early 1990s that those three brain networks correspond to: the how, the why, and the what of learning. So they figured out that if you design learning interactions, to give people a “Why,” “Why am I learning this,” right? So if a pipe underneath your sink breaks at eight o’clock at night, it’s just around dinnertime, and there’s water gushing out, what’s the first thing you need to do? You need to turn off the water. If you don’t know where that shutoff valve is, you have to figure that out. Most people these days, they would turn on their phones if they don’t know, and they say “Where’s the shutoff valve?” Usually under a sink. But having that “why,” having a reason to learn something is the reason that we stay engaged. And if you can give people more than one way to stay engaged, that’s what the folks in CAST talk about multiple means of engagement, then having the choice that leads everybody to the same goal means that people feel that they can have a measure of control, have a measure of agency in their learning. So that’s one of the three principles. The next one is the “what” of learning. You need to have some content to learn, some information. And so if you’re teaching a microbiology course and you’re talking about the cellular energy transfer process, you might be talking about meiosis and mitosis. Well, people have to be able to experience what that looks like, or see a description of how that process works in meiosis and mitosis and the difference between the two of them. So, you have to have multiple ways of taking in the information. So, perhaps that microbiology Professor might have a video animation that the textbook publisher provided, and might also have a text-based description of each of those processes as well. So, students can use one, both, or make a choice about where they’re going to get the information and how. So, that’s multiple means of representing information. And the third part of universal design for learning, and this is the part that no one’s using yet, and it’s most powerful, is multiple means of action and expression. When we learn anything, we have to have a way to show what we know with which we are comfortable. And the way that we’ve been failing folks, that we’ve been letting them down, is asking everybody to demonstrate their skills in exactly the same way. Mark in the bubble sheets on this final examination. Write out your thoughts on the exam and tell us what you know, when a demonstration might be something that would be equally valid to show that someone has internalized the concepts for your course, but is not necessarily a written format. So, we’ve got multiple means of staying engaged, multiple means of representing information, and multiple means of action and expression – that’s allowing students to write out the traditional three-page essay, or it’s allowing students the choice to take out their phones and take the selfie camera and put it to good use and narrate what they would have said in an essay as though they were doing a news report. So long as you can grade both of those according to the same criteria, you have the same learning objectives, the same demonstration of skills, then give students the choices there. So, those three principles: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representing information, multiple means of action and expression come together into universal design for learning. And you know what? That was a long explanation. And people’s eyes… well, they still kind of glaze over when you talk like that. So I and Kirsten, in the book, try to simplify it even further. And at its root… this isn’t the whole thing, but it’s a wonderful place to start&helliip; Universal Design for Learning is really just “plus one” thinking. Think about all the interactions that your students have. The interactions that they have with the materials, yes, but also the interactions that they have with one another, that they have with you as the instructor, with support staffers at your college or your university, and with the wider world when you ask them to go out and talk to people in the field. All those interactions. If there’s one way for it to happen now, make one more way. And that is a very UDL approach to things and then you can start getting into the details of the three different principles and how to apply them. But that’s a quick overview of UDL. And what I love about universal design for learning is that it is a mindset. It’s a framework. It’s not a set of practices that you do, it’s a way of thinking about the interactions that you create. So if you’re a fan of active learning, or the flipped classroom model, or any other specific way of teaching, you don’t have to change what you do, or how you do it. You just have to think in terms of being more inclusive and doing that “plus one” thinking.
Rebecca: How common are these UDL practices in higher education right now?
Tom: Ah, not common enough. The data that we have suggests that it’s about 10% of college courses that actually use any kind of inclusive design methods, including UDL. And we would love for that number to be higher. Because Universal Design for Learning&helliip; Yes, it does require work up front… it’s work that pays you back, many, many fold. So, when we’re thinking about Universal Design for Learning, that’s actually the hardest part of the conversation to have with a lot of college and university instructors. Because they say “Do I have to do absolutely everything and set everything up ahead of time?” And the answer is largely “Yes, there is work involved.” And once you design those choices for your students, you can start in three different ways. One: where are the pinch points in your course? Where do you… that microbiology professor&helliip; where do your students always get the concept of mitosis and meiosis confused and they send you the same email 700 times every time you teach the course? That’s a wonderful place to start doing some plus one thinking. Where do your students get things wrong on tests and quizzes, everybody, and you end up having to reteach, again&helliip; a good place to start doing some choices, or to give them information in more than one format to help reduce that reteaching load. And where do your students say, “Hey, Professor John, Professor Rebecca, that was a great lecture, but I still don’t get it.” And when they’re confused, that’s another good place to give them more options for engagement, more options for how they take in information. And if people start there, it doesn’t have to be “Oh, I have 30 half-minute videos in my course. And now I have to caption all of them.” It’s just looking for those pinch points, starting small and starting in the places where you already have identified things aren’t going the way that you wanted them to go. So, how common is UDL in higher education? Ah, right about 10% adoption right now. That number is climbing. It was a buzzword in higher ed, maybe a couple years ago, 2015, 2016. And I’d like to advocate that it not be a buzzword. It’s not like, you know, “my President went away to some leadership conference, and every year that person comes back with a new thing that we’re all going to try, and UDL was one of those new things.” [LAUGHTER] Instead, I’d like to say that Universal Design for Learning is one of those toolkit issues that everybody should have in their panoply of strategies that they’re going to use when they’re designing and when they’re teaching, because it helps with persistence, retention, and satisfaction for our students. Students who have choices and feel that their instructor is helping them to move through their own education with a sense of agency. We’ve got 35 years of data that show that students who have that feeling, they stick around better, so more students who are there on day one are there to take the exam. They retain better. More students who are with us this semester will come back next semester, and they’re more satisfied with their experience, they’re more likely to tell their friends, “Hey, come to this college or this university.” So, the idea of how common is UDL? We haven’t had as much of a head start, as the folks in K-12 have, it’s only really been a big thing in higher education for the past four or five years. But, we’re getting there. So I’m happy to be an evangelist for it. And I’m really grateful to see how people are applying it in small ways and then moving from those small beginnings into larger and larger iterations as word spreads. You’d be surprised, you’d be absolutely surprised. One person in a faculty meeting says, “Hey, you know, I made this one change. And now I don’t have to reteach the hard concept in our field every semester.” And then that person just sits back and is quiet. And everyone else in the faculty meeting goes, “What did you do? How can we get in on that? Help us, please.” And then UDL takes root. So, there are some good things coming out of it.
Rebecca: Tom, what do you think the biggest barrier is for faculty to get started with UDL?
Tom: The biggest barrier is really the investment of time and effort, as well as misunderstandings about what it is. So imagine for a minute&helliip; I’ll ask you and John a quick question. You both teach at SUNY Oswego. When was the last time that you had an accommodation paperwork from a student with a disability barrier?
John: I get them every semester.
Rebecca: I get them less often.
Rebecca: But, I also teach in the arts.
John: I usually teach three to four hundred students at a time. [LAUGHTER]
Tom: Ah yes, but you’re both familiar with that paperwork, right?
Tom: So, it’s usually “give this student extra time on a test” or “set up some individual accommodation for the student” that is different from how you treat all the other students. Because our disability services areas are often understaffed and overworked, that Disability Services paperwork often comes to you like in week two of the semester. And it’s almost always a surprise, right? And you think, “you know, I did all of my prep for this course. And now here’s this paperwork that says, I have to do all this extra work just for this one student.” Now, I’ll be charitable, I don’t think either of you, or any of your listeners hold that kind of mindset. But there’s a lot of people who say, “You know what? I’m mad about this. Is this student faking a disability? Is this a real thing?” I hear these kinds of questions from people and it kind of breaks my heart because the answer is these students are struggling and they’re trying to get a level playing field and they’re doing their best to be good students in your class. And that mindset of “Well, this accommodation paperwork is just a thorn in my side or it’s extra work,” that’s what people think about when we all say, accessibility. So, if I come to you and I say Universal Design for Learning, it’s easy to make the mental mistake of thinking, “Oh, that must be about students with disabilities and that accessibility paperwork, that’s a bunch of work” and it makes me kind of frustrated, and the emotions that come up for a lot of people are negative ones. Now Universal Design for Learning has nothing to do with accommodations, individually. It really has nothing to do with Disability Services. It’s all about constructing interactions so that we are reducing the effort and work that’s needed to engage in the conversation in the first place for students. Universal Design for Learning has the good benefit of reducing the need for individual accommodations. Fewer of your students will need that piece of paper to come to you and say treat me differently. It doesn’t mean we’ll ever get rid of the need for those accommodations, but it does help to reduce them quite significantly. Because, if you’re giving people information in more than one way, if you’re helping them stay engaged in more than one way, and you’re giving them options for how they demonstrate their skills in more than one way, then, by definition, fewer people are going to have to say, “You know what? I can’t write that essay because I have a physical disability barrier, or I can’t do this project because I have this time crunch and I have personal family care obligations, so please treat me differently.” But that’s the biggest barrier is people mistake UDL with disability accommodations. And so when I talk about Universal Design for Learning, I actually don’t&helliip; I know there’s lots of people listening, but don’t hate me on this one&helliip; I don’t talk about people with disability, not first, and not only. What I talk about is mobile devices. Absolutely everybody in college and university has a smartphone, just about. Now granted, there are lots of people who don’t, but the latest Pew Research and Pearson Research surveys show that between 90 and 95% of college and university students have smartphones. Does that mean that they all prefer to work on their smartphones? No. Katie Linder at Kansas State University now, when she was with Oregon State University, they did a huge nationwide survey in the United States and Canada, and found that by and large college students prefer to learn using their laptops or desktop devices. But, oftentimes they don’t have those or they don’t have access to those. So, they’re trying to learn using their mobile devices. With the COVID-19 pandemic, everybody got thrown into that same situation where everybody needed to be remote. And it was “Let’s be remote students with whatever devices and whatever connectivity we have at the moment.” So, the challenge there is with Universal Design for Learning, when I talk about students and their mobile devices everybody understands that, everybody knows how students are tied to their mobile devices. And it applies to everybody in the course. it’s not “Oh, this is just for those students over there, that small percentage of our population with disability barriers.” No, Universal Design for Learning is design that helps absolutely everyone in the class to lower access barriers, rather than just accessibility barriers. And in fact, I chop the end of the word off when I’m talking to people. I seldom talk about “accessibility” anymore, and talk just in terms of “access.” And that is what helps to address that main barrier, Rebecca, that you talked about.
John: For someone who wants to get started, what would be a relatively easy way of providing the thing that’s missing most, the multiple means of expression?
Tom: So, for example, when we talk about multiple means of action and expression, this can be as easy as helping people with drafting content. So, if I’m teaching a chemistry lab, and I would like for my students to understand how to mix reagents safely, I might create a video that shows how to mix these two chemicals together in order to create a component for a chemical experiment, and if my students are remote or they’re at home, they might not be able to do that process themselves. But, I still want to know that they know the process well. And in a single-stream course, I would say, “Please write up five paragraphs where you go through the five steps of this process and send it to me, and I’ll grade it based on how well you’re following the safety protocol and how you’re well you understand the process of mixing reagents.” In UDL, a plus one way to do that is to use the same criteria, you still want to see those five steps. But you might ask your students to take the choice: write it out in a word processing document, or do an audio podcast where you walk people through the process and describe all the steps of the process in that audio file. You’ll notice two things in that sort of first way of doing multiple means of expression. First, we’re using the same grading criteria or the same learning objectives for the activities. So that the instructor can give a grade or give feedback in the same way regardless of how the students choose to perform that activity. Second, and this is the fun part, the students still get to demonstrate their knowledge, but they choose how they do it. And both of the choices lead them to the same goal. You’re not giving choice just for the sake of choice, but the choice actually helps students to demonstrate needed knowledge or information so that they can move on to whatever is next. I teach English Composition courses. And it’s really difficult to ask students to demonstrate APA format in any way other than doing a word processed file. I cannot tell whether someone has Times New Roman 12 point font, double-spaced one-inch margins, all those things, unless there’s a word processed document. For those of you who really didn’t like English composition, I’m very sorry if that was just traumatic for you. [LAUGHTER] But, in that case, the format is the requirement. So I don’t give my students a choice. I say “On your final essay, you have to demonstrate that you know APA format by writing it correctly in APA.” Does that mean that my students don’t have any choices as they’re writing? No. When they’re drafting, when I’m not concerned about their APA format, but I am concerned about them being able to structure things with a thesis statement, giving details, evidence and examples, following a rhetorical mode. In those instances&helliip; writing instructors don’t hate me here&helliip;I don’t care whether they write that in a word processed format. What I care about is “Can they state a thesis statement? Can they demonstrate those details, evidence, and examples?” So, I give my students the choice between writing it in Microsoft Word or turning on the camera on their phone and just talking to me about how they want to compose a particular paragraph or a section of their writing. All the while knowing that the final product does have to be a word processed document. So, multiple means of action and expression can be something small, it can be a draft. But, wherever you have an opportunity to give students those options and choices that all lead to the same outcome, and you can grade them the same way, do so. Your students are going to feel like they have more of a choice. Like they have more control, like they have more agency in your class. They’re likely to stick with you better. And it’s an engagement strategy, par excellence. So, thanks for the question. It’s a really good one.
John: I’ve been teaching at this program for middle school and high school students at Duke for about 30 some years now. Unfortunately, I’m not doing it this summer. I used to have a final project, a capstone project at the end of the course, it was basically a college-level course in micro and macro economics. I had them do a policy debate at the end. And then after reading a little bit about Universal Design, I gave them a choice and said “Here are some options, but basically you can find whatever way works for you. If you want to write a song, you can do that. If you want to make a video. you can do that.” I even threw in the option, since at the time I had just seen some of the YouTube videos on dance your PhD, I said if you want to do an interpretive dance illustrating the concept, you can do it. But these are the things you need to achieve. And it was so much more fun.
Tom: They lit right up, didn’t they?
John: They did. And the quality of the work and their engagement was so dramatically higher. And it was so much more fun for me too to watch what they were doing. The additional creativity that that unleashed was really amazing.
Tom: But, and that’s actually one of the joys of Universal Design for Learning when it’s done well, is that you can start with that plus one mentality. And that’s actually speaking from a position of control, where I don’t want to give people lots of lots of choices, because then I’ve got to grade lots and lots of things. And so starting out small with that plus one mentality is a way to dip your toe into the water of Universal Design for Learning. But really, the goal of UDL is to create expert learners rather than expert students. We in the K-12 and higher education system have so structured things that we have created students who know how to take a test, rather than students who know how to do an inquiry and how to explore and learn on their own. The goal for Universal Design for Learning is creating those expert learning strategies. And think about it. John, what’s the hobby that you’ve enjoyed over your lifetime?
John: Music, I suppose, is probably the longest one.
Tom: What instruments do you play?
John: Mostly keyboard but also bass and guitar. At one point, I played drums back in high school.
Tom: Oh, fantastic. Rebecca, how about you?
Rebecca: I embroider.
Tom: Ooh, embroidery. So, hand eye coordination, those skills, that takes a lot of concentration and effort. That’s awesome. And when you were learning those hobbies, who graded you? What tests did you have to take to prove that you could move from one level to the next?
Tom: Nobody, right? And if someone tried to do it, you’d laugh at them. Because when you’re into something because you’re engaged with it, when you’re into something because you have a choice or you get to go and have some control or agency over it, it becomes rewarding. It becomes, dare I say it, fun, sometimes. And I don’t mean to say that every single college course that people take should be an exercise in fun. It should, though, offer a way for people to catch fire, to light up, to understand, to bring a little bit of themselves into the scholarship, and the research, and the curiosity that they’re expressing. And that’s what Universal Design for Learning is really about. And it actually brings me back into the Pedagogies of Care collection. The academic climate that we envision in the Pedagogies of Care collection is one that is more open, more equitable, and more just. It reaches more people who want to learn. It provides them with choices, voices, and agency in how they take a path through our colleges and universities. Now, at the same time, we’re all helping to keep the lights on at our individual institutions. We’re now in a time of catastrophic budget shortfalls. We need collectively to be thinking about the best ways that we should be serving students, to bring them in and keep them coming back. One of the things that we haven’t been able to really figure out in higher education is something called the freshmen cliff. And I imagine that some of your listeners are familiar with it. But what it means is, if at my university, if we bring in 2000 freshmen, we’re probably only going to get about 1400 of them back as sophomores. The number one reason why those 600 students dropped out among them, it’s financial, and we really can’t touch that with our instruction. But the number two reason is time. And we can definitely touch that with our instruction, with our design, with the way that we teach our courses. We can help students to manage and juggle among lots of competing priorities. School is usually down toward the bottom of the list if caring for your family, going to work, and putting food on the table are top of the list. And that freshmen cliff&helliip; If we can keep more of those students who are freshmen to become sophomores, that actually costs us less in terms of dollars, in terms of resources, in terms of time, in terms of people. For every $10 that we spend bringing a freshmen into our institutions, we usually only spend about $2 on upkeep and maintenance supporting that student in the next years. But every time a student drops out, and we have to go find another one, that’s another 10 bucks. So in terms of just keeping the lights on, being sensitive to our budget crises, that Universal Design for Learning helps more of our students, and all of the caring ideas in the Pedagogies of Care collection help more of our students stick with us, feel valued, and move through their education with us in a way that they feel they have some control and agency. And of course, Universal Design for Learning helps us to address exactly that. It’s a tool that helps us reach more broadly, teach more inclusively, increase students’ persistence, retention, and satisfaction. We’ve got 30 years of data to show that engaged and active students who feel that they have choices and a say in their programs of study, stick with us in higher numbers. So, it’s not just that we have our rose-colored glasses on. I’m talking to you: Presidents, Provosts, Chancellors right now, these are mission-critical efforts. While our collection speaks most directly to individual instructors and designers, the issues for which we advocate are those ones at the C-suite level. We’re trying to create a new normal at colleges and universities in order to find and serve new populations of students and then keep them with us better than we’ve done in the past.
John: We always end with the question, what’s next?
Tom: So the what’s next for me is I’m doing research on a book that addresses a problem that I’ve seen in terms of quality and it gets a little bit outside of my usual wheelhouse. We’ve all been to academic conferences where somebody who is talking to us about the latest way of keeping students engaged is standing there reading from a script and using a bunch of bullet points on a PowerPoint slide and reading them directly to us verbatim. Oh, my goodness, if I have to sit through one more of those. But that frustration is what is causing my new research in what are the real bare bones of how to give a good presentation? How do you present information? And it’s not just for people at conferences, it’s for instructors in the classroom. It’s for people who are doing research and grants. It’s for presidents, Provost, and Deans who need to share information with the people who are under their direct reports. So, I’m working on that book and it’s been lots and lots of fun doing the research. I’ve taken a bunch of photographs at conferences over the past couple of years here. And if you see me taking a photograph of your slides, it means one of two things: you are a rock star, or goodness, you need help. And it’s gonna be a fun book, I’ve been repurposing a lot of these things. I’ve been reading up on the literature of how to present information. And you can tell I’m an advocate for it. I did a little stint of radio voiceover when I lived in Chicago and really just fell in love with it. And I’m a big believer in communicating information in a simple way, that then helps people to get fired up and want to learn more about the details and the complexities behind it. So, I’m really grateful to be here on the Tea for Teaching podcast. And I hope that your listeners have enjoyed it. If you’d like to reach out to me, my website is just my name, ThomasJTobin.com. And I’d be happy to talk with you about whatever we’ve talked about here on the podcast or any other technology mediated teaching issues. So, thank you again for having me on.
John: Thank you. This has been fascinating, and we’ve long had you on a list of guests that we wanted to invite and this provided a nice convenient reason.
Tom: Splendid, awesome deal.
Rebecca: Yeah, we’re looking forward to seeing the Pedagogies of Care when it comes out.
Tom: We’re hoping that this will come out close to when the collection comes out as well.
Rebecca: Excellent. Thanks so much.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer. Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Savannah Norton.