Practice What You Teach: UDL & (aiming for) Communities of Practice in Adult Education

(This post is adapted from the original posted here, as a preview for the 2nd Pan-Canadian Conference on Universal Design for Learning, being held at UPEI May 31-June 2.)

Sometimes, in teaching, a happenstance discovery can shift the course of your entire practice.

UDL was that discovery, for me. In late 2014, I was hired to design and teach a fully online course in adult learning, as part of an Adult Education program I coordinated at UPEI. The learners in the course were primarily instructors themselves, from our local college as well as our university B.Ed program. As an educator, I operate from the premise that in teaching adult learning, I should design my courses to enact and embody the principles they communicate, and so I wanted to make sure the course was built on the concepts it was intended to convey. I wanted to encourage the students to grapple with course concepts from both learner AND teacher perspectives.

In order to succeed in that endeavour, I had to make sure the course was learner-centered, self-directed, and designed to draw out and respect learners’ prior knowledge and interests, all in an online format.

How to bring learners into an unfamiliar online context without reinforcing teacher-centered pedagogies? While I had longstanding experience teaching online, and in participatory settings, doing so while making it all align with the tenets of adult learning was a new and welcome challenge. I felt the course was a powerful opportunity to model meaningful and participatory learner-driven online learning, and so in order to create that experience I went looking for some new and emerging concepts that would help me engage learners. And when I searched for interesting short videos to explore “increasing engagement with students,” I happened on one about UDL.

I liked the way in which UDL offered a broad conceptual approach to inclusivity: a way for me to offer my learner-instructors an approach to meeting their own adult learners “where they are,” without anybody needing to ask. I was new to the idea of UDL, but brief reading led me to a depth of resources, and I included the video and a short article in our course syllabus and our weekly readings. I designed a week of the course around UDL, incorporating the video, some readings, and activities based on UDL principles of “multiple means” – of representation, engagement, and action/expression. But that’s where I stopped, that first year. UDL was just one of a number of one-week topics that I introduced learners to, as a way of opening thinking about difference and engagement.

I hadn’t yet fully begun to take my own advice, and engage with it as both a teacher AND a learner.

A year later, I was offered a second opportunity to teach the course, and the chance to sit back and reflect on what had worked and what I wanted to try to change. I was proud of the positive feedback I’d gotten from students about the first iteration of the class: many learners who’d initially been hesitant about the online format had expressed real appreciation for the participatory and meaningful work we’d done together. I was looking for ways to build on that success, and particularly to deepen the social learning and community of practice elements of the course.

When I went back to the UDL video I’d included, I wondered…could UDL be used to foster and enable deeper sharing and connection among learners? In the first year of the course, UPEI students from Education and Nursing had worked together with Holland College instructors from all different programs – including practical nursing – to share perspectives on learning in common fields and domains. In this sense, the course design was in keeping not only with its adult learning principles, but with what Lave and Wenger (1991) call community of practice. Communities of practice focus on learning together in areas of shared interest – in the case of our class, conversations about shared growth had emerged, based on participatory prompts and design, not only in relation to adult learning and to the common domains in which people taught or practiced, but also in relation to online learning itself.

I knew, as coordinator of the Adult Teaching program, that a few participants in my second iteration of the course had very limited comfort in online and even text-based spaces, let alone with online learning. I had tried hard in the first course to build a sense of social learning and social presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) into the Moodle environment that was our primary site of instruction, but social learning did not minimize the text-heavy nature of forum discussions. I recognized that with this second group of students, UDL might offer me an opportunity to genuinely welcome instructors with low literacy levels, digital and otherwise, into a less exclusive community of practice, and enable meta-learning about online learning at the same time.

So in redesigning the course for its second year, I delved deeper into my own understanding of UDL, and tried to ensure that multiple means of representation, engagement, and action/expression were core to ALL weeks of the class, rather than just the one that covered UDL as a topic. I added more visual and video content to my Moodle design, opened up the assignments to enable a greater number of non-writing-based responses, and created prompts that encouraged learners to connect over their shared online learning curve as well as shared professional interests.

I had a lot to learn. I made an effort that second year, and then an even deeper effort in the course’s third year. If you’d like to hear more about what I tried, and how it worked…come to Bringing User Experience to Education: UDL and Inclusion for the 21st Century! (or check out the Slideshare above – spoiler: UDL had unexpected benefits in terms of making my course more social and further along the path towards a community of practice. I loved teaching all three iterations of this class – the first time I’d taught something that wasn’t explicitly digitally-focused in quite some time – and I loved what UDL fostered in terms of inclusion and participatory engagement.

In my “Practice What You Teach: UDL and Communities of Practice in Adult Education” presentation at UPEI Thursday morning, June 1st, I look forward to outlining how UDL’s minimization of barriers to participation had an effect on my course in its second and third iterations, particularly, and served as a positive contributor to social learning and engagement for the adult learners I taught. I’ll share examples from what I did, and explore some of the benefits experienced in combining UDL with a social learning/community of practice approach in adult education. Hope to see you there!