University of Vermont

UVM Hosts Second Better Learning by Design Conference

Todd Rose, a research scientist at the Center for Applied Special Technology and member of the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was one of the featured presenters at UVM's Better Learning by Design conference, which attracted 100 people from five states and Canada. (Photo: Sally McCay)

On June 1 and 2, the fourth floor of the Davis Center was a hive of activity, with workshops and panel discussions taking up many of the small rooms, and keynote lectures filling the larger ones.  The occasion was the second annual Better Learning by Design conference, hosted by the Universal Design Project of the Center of Disability and Community Inclusion at UVM.   

The conference, a forum for presentations and discussion on a pedagogy called University Design for Learning, or UDL, attracted over 100 participants from five states and Canada.

Universal Design for Learning is a teaching approach used in both K-12 and higher education settings designed to address the diversity of learning styles and needs in any classroom by giving students multiple means of absorbing course material, becoming engaged with it and demonstrating that they have mastered the material. Originally conceived as a way to improve access and learning for students with disabilities, UDL is now understood as a highly effective means of engaging all students.   

In 2008 UVM received a $1 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Post-Secondary Education to implement a UDL program at the university. 

If the goal of UVM’s first Better Learning by Design conference was to expose attendees to the idea of UDL, this year’s conference was designed to “look back and share what we’ve done,” said one of the grant’s co-principal investigators, Susan Edelman, an associate professor in the Center for Disability and Community Inclusion in the College of Education and Social Services. 

That sharing took many forms. One of the most powerful was a panel of four faculty members -- Larry Rudiger in Psychology, Sheila Boland Chira in English, Marti Woodman in Business Administration and Brian Lee in Engineering -- who discussed how they had incorporated UDL principles into their teaching and how effective each felt the approach had been.

The panel was a good example of one of the conference’s key goals, Edelman said – further spreading the word among UVM faculty and staff about what UDL is and its power as an engagement strategy.      

Other workshops at the conference included Creation of Materials the Accessible Way, Universal Design for (Service) Learning, Applying the Arts to UDL Partnerships, Choosing and Designing Materials for ESL/ELL Students and What Literature Teaches Us About Learning.

The conference also featured keynotes speeches by David Rose and Skip Stahl, two of the founders of the Wakefield, Mass.-based Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, which pioneered the UDL pedagogy three decades ago and now works to expand its application.  

Tailored training

In addition to the conferences, the DOE grant funded several other key initiatives at UVM.

Faculty on the conference panel, along with 16 others, all benefited from a unique training program the grant enabled UVM to develop – two three-member consulting teams who helped faculty incorporate UDL into a specific course they were teaching. The consulting team consisted of a faculty member, a technical specialist and a graduate assistant, who tailored their support to individual faculty members’ needs and met with them periodically during the course of the academic year.   

The UDL grant also funded an introduction to UDL that has been incorporated into training sessions for new faculty and graduate fellows; a study of faculty attitudes toward UDL, which is nearly complete; the creation of a comprehensive library of UDL Web resources, which is in progress; and a Google map of on-campus UDL resources, a prototype of which has been built. The prototype map has also spawned a multi-unit effort to create an accessible multi-layer interactive map designed for multiple UVM constituencies.  

As the grant winds down, Edelman and Human Development and Family Studies associate professor Larry Shelton, the other co-PI on the project, couldn’t be happier with the impact it has had.

UDL has been “infused into (institutional) awareness at important levels far more than we could have imagined,” Shelton said.  An example is the Campus Accessibility Task Force, created by President Dan Fogel after UDL advocates made a presentation to the President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, which recommended its formation. The task force is grounding its work in the principles of UDL.

Edelman also sees a “convergence” of several of the university’s key strategic initiatives, all of which could benefit from cross-pollination with UDL: the university’s growing internationalization efforts; the Student Success and Satisfaction initiative, and the emerging General Education program.

UVM’s UDL program, and those at all the other colleges and universities that received funding from U.S. DOE, won’t be re-funded by the cash-strapped federal agency, but Edelman and Shelton are optimistic they’ll find funding elsewhere to continue the work, perhaps at a regional foundation, at a larger foundation that focuses on higher education or via new federal sources, like the National Science Foundation, which is funding science, technology, engineering and math-related UDL initiatives.

That would be a good thing, according to Kirsten Behling, director of disability services at Suffolk University in Boston, who presented at the conference and attended both days. When Behling held a similar post at UMass Boston, which had received UDL funding from DOE, she provided UVM with a small three-year UDL "Equity and Execellence" planning grant and provided technical assistance to the university.

“It’s incredible to come up here and to see this,” she said of the conference. “To see the growth and the ownership that the campus has really is fantastic. And the faculty excitement and enthusiasm; you can’t ask for anything better.”