What began as a need to build curb cuts and install elevators is now moving into the classroom.

Though curb cuts began as a way to help people in wheelchairs get around, they also benefit people on bicycles or those with strollers. Now, teaching techniques are being adapted to help all learners succeed in the classroom. Rather than focusing on one group of learners, universal design provides a framework for teachers to use to meet the needs of a diverse group of students. Universal design means not one solution but several to meet the needs of a variety of audiences in wide-ranging environments.

A recent conference hosted at the Tennessee Tech University’s Millard Oakley STEM Center spoke to educators and technology professionals from across the state about universal design for learning and how it can add to the classroom experience for all students.

“Universal design is just something in the environment that makes it better for all of us,” said Sheryl Burgstahler, University of Washington professor and founder of the DO-IT Center, which promotes universal design in technology and education, and a speaker at the conference. “One real advantage is that it really helps people with disabilities, but also people who aren’t aware that they have a disability.”

The conference comes at the end of a 2007 National Science Foundation grant awarded to TTU, in conjunction with Tennessee State University, Nashville State Community College and Roane State Community College. The four universities researched whether having access to lecture recordings of classroom course content helped students with disabilities improve their grades.

Though the targeted students did not see a difference in their grades – many of them already brought aids like tape recorders to class – those students without disabilities in the bottom of the class did see their grades jump.

“It appeared students without disabilities used it because they had never had access to something like this,” said Laura Graves, a TTU curriculum and instruction professor who served as the research facilitator. “The students that did have disabilities appeared to already know how they learned best and which accommodations they needed to be successful.”

The results of the study will be used to create workshops, training sessions and raise awareness on campus about ways to serve all students’ needs.

To that end, Graves and her colleagues decided to host the conference to tout the benefits of universal design. As part of the conference, they brought Burgstahler and keynote speaker Steve Fadden, vice president for research and institutional operations and director of the Institute for Research and Training, both at Landmark College in Vermont.  

“Universal design is going to be part of No Child Left Behind,” Graves said. “It’s about students with different learning styles, which we all have at different times.”

About 50 educators and information technology professionals came to the conference.

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