There are many conversations in the blogosphere repeatedly emphasizing how the tools are secondary to the pedagogy. Lost in the discussions is the reality that the tools make things possible. The tools allow:
In the previous century, instructional methods were limited to lectures presented by teachers at the front of the class, or at the blackboard; or worksheets and other paper-based presentations; or textbooks; or watching educational PBS programs as a class. There was no opportunity for differentiation. The belief was one size fits all.
We know this doesn't work. We understand that the one-size-fits-all approach ignores the needs of many learners - those with learning challenges, attentional and organizational issues, reading disabilities, physical disabilities and vision issues. Technology allows for multiple methods of presentation and allows students to access the material as often as necessary to facilitate understanding. Technology allows students to respond to the material in new ways.
For example, classroom participation is often factored into a student's grade. Yet how many students remain silent in class (for reasons as varied as they prefer to defer due to social anxiety, slower processing, or expressive communication issues) despite a great deal to contribute in a discussion if it was offered in a different format? Teachers have commented upon the fact that their quieter students now have a voice and an opportunity to participate in online discussions where they can edit their work prior to posting (See here and here). A survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project with support from the College Board and its National Commission on Writing suggests that student writing improves through blogging. (isn't that reason enough?)
The tools make differentiation possible.
What promotes engagement -sitting at a desk, passively listening to a 45 minute lecture with limited opportunity for interaction, followed by a paper-based quiz or test? OR, exploring the subject, participating in online, interactive activities, engaging with the material and then creating a project that demonstrates authentic learning? The project could be anything from a word-processed essay (using all the tools that promote success) to the use of digital media or constructing using 3-D modeling software tools, or creating a podcast or video that demonstrates understanding and synthesis of the concept or content.
Tools make engagement possible.
When material is presented in print format only or is primarily lecture-based, many students are unable to access the information. Do you have students in your classroom with attentional issues? Denckla says that nothing a child does requires more energy than sitting still and yet that is what we require of our kids for hours during the school day. They are required to sit still and listen and attend and absorb the material. Is that possible? Is that how you learn?
Are there students in your classroom who are unable to hold paper due to physical disabilities? Are there students in your classroom who are unable to read grade level material due to reading challenges despite sufficient or even superior cognitive abilities?
The tools allow access to the curriculum in ways that were previously impossible. Students can access the text without adult support once they become proficient with tools such as text-to-speech or learn how to manipulate text by size, color, or font.
The tools make access to the curriculum possible for all learners.
And when differentiation, engagement and accessibility occur, so do the opportunities for student success and authentic learning.
Many educators may continue to declare that it's not about the tools. I say it IS about the tools because they make learning possible. AND because it is about the tools, it becomes all about the possibilities.
To explore available tools, please check the UDL Tech Toolkit wiki created by Joyce Valenza based upon a previous blog post.