Putting Theories into Practice: Principles of Universal Design and Using Social Annotation to Support Neurodiverse Students

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The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework helps us understand the importance of using Web 2.0 in teaching and learning. Social annotation tools like Hypothes.is allow teachers to fulfill the three essential components of UDC: engagement, representation and action and expression through thoughtful use of the platform.

Social annotation tools such as Hypothesis and Voice Thread, when properly used, stimulate student engagement, improve critical thinking, expand reading comprehension, and increase interaction between students. Among the many social annotation tools currently available, our institution uses Hypothesis. Hypothesis’ motto – “Make reading active, visible and social” – sums up why we think social annotation is so valuable to our students: it engages students and invites them to read and reflect together by sharing annotations. of websites in real time. or PDF (Hypothesis, 2021). The richly multimodal and interactive nature of Hypothesis provides instructors with a platform through which they can use the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to improve engagement and accessibility for all learners.

There are three fundamental principles of CDU described by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). First, instructors need to provide students with multiple means of engagement, including helping students understand the broader meaning of the content they are learning. Second, instructors should provide opportunities for students to interact with course content in several ways, for example, by providing audio, video, and text material. Third, instructors should provide options for students to express their knowledge and ideas in multiple ways. Social annotation apps like Hypothesis provide built-in options to address these three fundamental principles. As a teacher working in an open access institution, we believe this tool is particularly suited to the diverse learners we serve.

How social annotation works

Social annotation is a way for students to engage deeply in the readings and see how their classmates engage as well. It uses online tools that allow readers to highlight sections of readings and insert comments, questions, images, videos, and links in the margins. Participants can view and respond to comments synchronously.

Students come to open access institutions like ours with very different levels of preparation for academic work. Some have just finished high school, while others are returning to school after a few years of absence. Some are avid and voracious readers, while others may have a hard time understanding. The UDL framework is generally useful for working with students of a wide range of abilities; Applying the UDL framework to reading practices in particular is, in our view, particularly good for creating deep learning experiences.

Implementation of UDL principles with social annotation

Here, we discuss how social annotation tools can be used to implement the principles of Universal Design for Learning to create critical and engaged readers.

The first principle of UDL is to provide multiple means of engagement. Social annotation centers students’ reading and interpretation practices, providing students with options for how they approach and engage with reading. While there is clear evidence that explicitly teaching students reading strategies improves their overall academic performance, such teaching is often limited to courses in the development of reading or study skills (Saxby 2017, 37 -38). Social annotation, on the other hand, gives faculty a low-key way to focus on reading and student interpretation in any course that requires reading. By asking students to openly share their annotations, we help students see a wide range of annotation practices, demystifying what has often been a private and individual practice.

Teachers can use these apps to reinforce the annotation strategies they want to teach students. For example, an instructor might first teach a particular strategy for reading and then invite students to apply it openly using the hypothesis. By making annotations and, in a sense, getting students to think publicly, the tool can also help instructors identify student strengths and weaknesses, a central part of UDL (Carroll, 2018) . The instructor can then react accordingly: additional class time can be spent discussing a difficult reading, reviewing a complex research strategy, or unpacking a technical diagram.

Equally important, social annotation helps students see reading as a dialogue, not a one-sided hunt for knowledge. Teachers who do not explicitly teach reading strategies can still invite students to read socially by asking them to share annotations: as Hawes (2018) argues, “the simple requirement that students write something in response to a assigned text implies that they have something to offer. . “Assigning shared annotations can help students view reading as a social element rather than a private practice. Using the socially annotated version of the text as a reference text, for example by sharing it on the web. screen during the course, can further reinforce this.

A great way to present the hypothesis during class is to have students collectively annotate a short class reading at the start of the semester – the class schedule is a good place to start! This ensures that students learn to use the tool in real time and can see how useful it is in terms of reading each other’s questions and comments. At various times throughout the semester, it may be helpful to have students take time during class to jot down a short reading or other document together. This type of group reading can also enhance the learning experience for neurodiverse learners, who may feel left behind by traditional reading discussions.

The second principle of UDL is to provide multiple means of representation: that is, to provide students with multiple ways of expressing their responses to the material. Using social annotation to illustrate while teaching appeals to students in several ways. Social annotation can allow students to annotate course readings and identify key terms using not only text, but images, videos, and website links (Carroll, 2018). It helps students ask questions, share ideas, and collaborate in ways that meet the needs of diverse learners as they tackle fundamental issues in their disciplines. They can share a link to a biography of someone mentioned in the reading, or a story related to the reading, encouraging their classmates to check it out. They can link to an image or map online that they think will help their peers understand reading better. As a history teacher, for example, one of us asks students to locate archival photographs from the Library of Congress that might help illustrate the reading, link them to the appropriate places, and write a caption explaining why they chose photography. Students can also add links to video and audio that connect to reading. Below is an image that shows how hypothesis social annotation can be used in a classroom using the UDL framework.

The third principle of LDU is to provide multiple means of expression and action. We find it helpful to view this as the principle that transcends social annotation: at this point, students use what they have learned by engaging with the material to create new knowledge. This type of work tends to happen outside of the social annotation platform, as students create videos, essays, presentations, graphics, and other products that showcase their new knowledge.

Social annotation tools provide instructors with a platform to apply UDL fundamentals in their courses to engage students, improve understanding, and create opportunities for neurodiverse learners to truly showcase their skills.


Amanda Huron is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia. Her research interests focus on urban geography, housing justice and the history of Washington, DC In her 2018 book, Carving out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, DC, she theorizes urban commons by looking closely at the experiences of limited-capital housing co-ops in Washington. Huron is active in the housing industry in Washington and is originally from the city.

Fatma Elshobokshy is Director of Learning Technologies at the University of the District of Columbia. His work focuses on digital learning strategies and the instructional technology that supports these strategies to improve learning outcomes.

Christian Aguiar is Assistant Professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia Community College. His research focuses on multimodal writing, collaborative assessment and support for first-generation college students in composition classes. He is the winner of the 2019 Roueche Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

The references

Al-Azawei, Ahmed; Serenelli, Fabio; Lundqvist, Karsten. “Universal Design for Learning (UDL): a content analysis of peer-reviewed journal articles from 2012 to 2015.” Journal of the Teaching and Learning Fellowship 16, n ° 3 (2016): pp. 39-56. doi: 10.14434 / josotl.v16i3.19295

Carroll, J. (2018). 7 ways to introduce UDL to your classroom. Text help. Retrieved April 16, 2021 from https://www.texthelp.com/resources/blog/7-ways-to-introduce-udl-into-your-classroom/

Hawes, Sarah. “Cropped reading for the community college classroom.” Faculty focus, February 12, 2018, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/reading-reframed-community-college-classroom/

Him, yes. Universal design for learning in an online teacher training course: building learners’ confidence in teaching online. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 10, no. 2 (2014): 283-298.

Hypothesis. (2021). Home. Hypothesis. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from https://web.hypothes.is/#features.

Saxby, Lori Eggers. “Effectiveness of a college reading strategy course: a comparative study”. Development Education Journal 40, no. 3 (2017): 36-38.

“The UDL directives”. TO THROW. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/


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