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Neuropsychologist David Rose spent years helping kids with learning disabilities participate in school by creating digital textbooks with pop-up graphics, text-to-speech, flexible fonts and other customizable features to fit individual needs. The books were so engaging “that traditional books started to look relatively disabled by comparison,” says Rose, co-founder and chief education officer of CAST (Center for Applied Special Technology) outside Boston. Not just textbooks. The crew at CAST felt that traditional lesson plans built around print were leaving too many kids out, frustrating some students while boring others.

So they flipped their approach. Rather than help individual students plug back into the classroom, they set out to transform the classroom itself. They built software and digital tools to pack lessons with flexibility, offering every student multiple ways to learn and to express that learning—including print, speech, graphics, music and interactive games, among others. They called their new mission “universal design for learning” (UDL), and a movement was born. Spurred by the rapid advance in of computers and broadband Internet in schools, UDL initiatives have sprung up in nearly every state in the last five years.

Center for Applied Special Technology
Students make use of tablets and technology while working in small groups. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

And now, Rose and his team have concluded that the most pervasive learning disability in schools, and the number one challenge for UDL, isn’t physical or cognitive, it’s emotional—turning around kids who are turned off by school.

“We’ve seen that technology can do a lot of stuff to support students, but the real driver is do they actually want to learn something,” says Rose. “If they do, kids will go through a lot of barriers to learn it. Creating the conditions that turn on that drive has become the major function of our work.”

For example, one of Rose’s favorite new CAST projects is called Udio (the name’s a mash of UDL and “studio”), an online reading curriculum funded by the Department of Education. It’s aimed at kids in middle school, the grades where struggling readers start running into trouble in nearly every subject.

Standard reading supports focus on things like phonics and building vocabulary with simple sentences. The problem is that struggling readers aren’t the same as beginning readers. Research shows that these students feel a palpable sense of dread when asked to read a passage of text, measured as a physical stress reaction of sweaty palms and a rapid heart rate. “You realize, oh my God, these kids aren’t even in the same classroom. They’re in the savanna with hungry lions prowling, and you’re trying to teach them phonics,” says Rose.

“We’re not saying that intensive interventions for reading skills, like phonics, decoding and fluency, aren’t needed,” adds Gabrielle Schlichtmann, CAST’s co-president and director of the Udio project. “But, you can’t get traction with those skills unless you practice. And you have to practice with ardent intent. You have to want to do it.”

“You realize, oh my God, these kids aren’t even in the same classroom. They’re in the savanna with hungry lions prowling, and you’re trying to teach them phonics,”

Rather than the usual “See Spot run” fare of remedial reading, Udio starts by finding kids something they really want to read. Students choose from tons of online articles donated by Sports Illustrated for Kids, NASA, and Yahoo News, among many others, organized by topic. Some articles simply inform, such as a story on bat research or a profile of an extreme athlete, while others cover controversial issues, such as genetically modified food or doctor-assisted suicide. Every article is presented with supports that students can use if they need them, including text-to-speech that will read the article out loud (the kids wear headphones) while highlighting each word, and audible, one-click word translations for English-language learners.

Udio’s other engagement levers are social and interactive. The program prompts students to display what they felt about each article by clicking words like annoying, calming, sad or curious, and then it shows them what their classmates thought about the same articles. Students also make Web-based presentations about the topics that most interest them, using a mix of writing, recorded speech, images and design elements to summarize, draw inferences and make arguments supported by evidence from the reading. They can visit each other’s projects to comment and debate, which they eagerly do. Behind the scenes, Udio tracks every move the kids make, so it can suggest new articles to students and show teachers what students are reading, how much time they spend on each article and what supports they use.

The goal is to change the students’ emotional reaction to reading from something they have to do, because they’re in school, to something they want to do, because it’s meaningful to them and could enrich their lives. Lori DiGisi, a veteran teacher at Fuller Middle School in Framingham, Mass. who uses Udio with struggling readers in sixth grade, has seen that happen.

“I can see their confidence when they’re using [Udio], putting their ideas out there and having me respond and having other students respond,” she says. “It shows their thinking is valued.”

Six schools, primarily in the northeast, are hosting Udio pilots that began with remedial classes in 2013 and moved into a few mainstream language arts classes in 2014. In September 2015, CAST will massively expand the pilots to thousands of students and study Udio’s performance in controlled trials led by researchers at Vanderbilt and Arizona State universities.

Using feedback from students and teachers, CAST has tweaked Udio several times, notably the assessment feature. The original version had standard multiple-choice questions after the articles, to test reading comprehension. But Rose says this backfired.

“These kids have had trouble with tests all through school,” he says. “It made the reading feel more like, ‘Oh, this is something I have to do. The teacher gave me this test that, once again, will show that I couldn’t learn anything.’ ”

The current version dropped the questions in favor of a puzzle—passages from the text appear with blanks and a choice of key words students can choose to make the passage whole again.

Rose says that Udio, like all UDL tools, aims to maximize engagement for all learners, not just those “on the margins.” Indeed, proponents call UDL “essential for some, good for all,” much like the related movement for universal design in architecture and urban planning. Curb cuts and ramps, for instance, while designed for wheelchairs, are a godsend for people pushing baby strollers. Closed captions on televisions help anybody trying to watch TV while running on a treadmill or waiting in a busy airport or doctor’s office.

Next week, about two hundred educators, academics and ed-tech entrepreneurs will gather at the University of Southern Mississippi for a summit on UDL implementation. Advocates are working to get UDL enshrined in the re-authorization of the Elementary Secondary Education Act—formerly known as No Child Left Behind—that’s now being debated in Congress.

Ultimately, Rose says that UDL is only indirectly about mastering facts or specific skills. Its primary goal is to give kids the motivation, confidence and resourcefulness needed to “turn them into expert learners.”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more stories about blended learning.

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