A New Approach to Designing Educational Technology

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 the 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,” and a movement was born. Spurred by the rapid advance of computers and broadband Internet in schools, UDL initiatives have sprung up in nearly every state in the last five years.

And now, Rose and his team have concluded that the most pervasive learning disability in schools, and the No. 1 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.

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