A tablet user takes a picture of a hand using the app Spentys.

Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning: Past Lessons and Future Opportunities

Author: Nicholas Jay Hoekstra

In the December 2021 CIDDL Research and Practice Brief, we interview Dr. Dave Edyburn. Dr. Edyburn is Senior Research Scientist and Professor Emeritus in the Rehabilitation Research Design and Disability (R2D2) Center at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and Associate Graduate Faculty in the Department of Learning Technologies at the University of North Texas.

The Problem Addressed in this Brief

In this brief, Dr. Edyburn discusses assistive technology (AT) and Universal Design for learning (UDL) in light of his work over the past 20 years. AT and UDL have often been misunderstood, both in terms of their definitions and who they may benefit. As a result, DR. Edyburn points out the difficulty in establishing an evidence base for either concept and the struggle to prepare teachers for applying AT and UDL in their classrooms.

Where Are We?

When assistive technologies were initially developed, they were intended as tools specifically designed to benefit individuals with disabilities. Today, however, AT features have become nearly ubiquitous on all devices, placing them at the fingertips of every user and challenging product designers to consider a wider range of user experiences. To take advantage of the availability of AT in today’s classrooms, teacher educators need to model the use of AT and provide preservice teacher candidates the opportunity to meaningfully engage with technology in their own learning.

UDL, meanwhile, has captured the attention of stakeholders at all levels over the past ten years. UDL has been identified in K-12 education and higher education policies as a scientifically valid framework for addressing the needs of a wide range of students. Nevertheless, Dr. Edyburn points out how there is still difficulty around identifying UDL in practice and what elements (in what quantities) must be present for UDL to be considered as part of a classroom environment.

Where Are We Going?

In his brief, Dr. Edyburn provides a strategy for teachers that blends the best of both AT and UDL. In order to optimize opportunities for student choice, teachers should create a menu replete with technological resources and encourage students to try out different tools to determine what works best for them. By creating a UDL buffet, students take on the role of Goldilocks, sampling each dish. Dr. Edyburn goes on to discuss how student needs can be approached from a research and development mindset, with solutions developing out of collaborative work with students. By building out an encyclopedia of student needs and possible solutions, we can provide future educators with a much larger toolkit than what they had 20 years ago.

As you reflect on your own practices, what AT tools and UDL strategies have you used in your teacher preparation programs? How did you model the application of AT and UDL for your students? Share your thoughts and questions with us as we continue the conversation in our CIDDL community. Check out this page to review this Brief or click here to download a PDF copy of the Brief. More CIDDL Briefs can be found on the CIDDL Research and Practice Briefs webpage. Please visit our website for more resources and sign up for the updates from CIDDL.