Category Archives: UDL

Product vs. Process

Do you know who these two guys are?Norm Abram and Roy Underhill


The man on the left is Norm Abram, host of PBS’ “The New Yankee Workshop” and “This Old House“.  Norm is a master carpenter.  Norm also has a penchant for using a wide range of common and exotic power tools to create masterpieces.  It is not unusual to see him use a variety of tools, bits, and jigs in his projects.

The man on the right is Roy Underhill, host of PBS’ “The Woodwright’s Shop“.   Roy is a master housewright.  Roy focuses his efforts on time-tested, traditional woodworking methods.  Roy uses no power tools at all, sticking to hand tools and human-powered machines.

If I offered you a piece of furniture that had been made by one of these two master craftsmen, would you care which one made it before accepting it?


Neither would I.  And that’s the beauty of how technology should work in education.  When “use of technology” is seen as the product of our educational efforts, we get unnecessarily distracted from what the real goal should be.  When “use of technology” is part of the learning process, then we are better able to decide when and where it makes the most sense, to support what we are truly trying to accomplish.

For example, “creating a Google Slides presentation” shouldn’t be the goal.  “Deliver a presentation to convince an audience to fund your project” is a much better goal – and if the student can use Google Slides to support that work, so much the better.

Technology can help us do some things faster.  Technology can help us do some things easier.  Technology can help us do some things better.  But, technology should not be the “end game”.

When you consider infusing technology into your instruction, do it for one of the following reasons: 1) technology makes a task possible that wasn’t possible otherwise, or  2) technology makes the task more engaging and results in a better product.   Anything else is just a distraction from the real end product.

It’s an old axiom in marketing: “When you buy a drill, you don’t really want a drill.  You want a hole.”  A great drill can help you make an exceptional hole, much faster and more accurately than a hand-drill would.  But, a great drill is not the goal.

When you start with a great real-world authentic learning goal, infusing technology to support that goal stands far less chance of being a roadblock to real learning!


The Opposite of Tech Integration

“Technology Integration Specialist” is the title on my business card.  I like it.  It speaks directly to what the primary focus of my job is – how to use technology to intentionally increase achievement for all learners and close gaps for historically underserved subgroups.

Explaining what that looks like can be difficult.  It’s as difficult as explaining what “good teaching” really looks like, especially once you get beyond definitions that are all about compliance (“students are quiet”, “desks are in neat rows”, “assigned work is turned in on time”) and get to definitions that actually reflect learning (intellectual, emotional, and behavioral advances made by the students).

Sometimes, we can get a clearer picture of what something is by defining what it isn’t.  So, what would be the opposite of Tech Integration?

How about “Tech Segregation”?

“Tech Segregation” separates the technology from the learning process, or relegates it to its own learning path.  Learning to use technology becomes a separate subject, like English, math, social studies, or science.  Or maybe even more like a foreign language.  And anytime learning in one field helps a student make advances in another field, the effect is a happy accident instead of an intentional outcome.  We are misusing students’ time when students in a Technology class learn to create PowerPoint presentations about topics with no explicit connection to the curriculum, and then type or hand-write a book report for Language Arts.

“Tech Segregation” relegates technology to extension activities, only for students who have already achieved the day’s academic goal.  Or, the technology becomes a reward for compliance – something students get to do after they finish the stuff they don’t want to do.  In that system, students have to find a way to perform without the technology before they can use it.  It’s as senseless as making kids prove they can walk all the way to school before they’re allowed to get on a bus.

“Tech Segregation” makes kids achieve a standard or pre-qualify before they can have access.  Access to technology is seen as inherently motivational for students, but that attribute is used as the carrot on a stick to get kids to do things the old way, instead of transforming the way we teach to take fuller advantage of the way we learn.

“Tech Segregation” preserves the rank-and-sort, label-and-identify system that has resulted in significant gaps for students who don’t fit typical socio-economic and cultural norms.  Kids who are “good at school” get the bells and whistles.  Kids who don’t are told to try harder, while we turn away and suck our teeth at the sad state of their homes and families.

Conversely, Tech Integration acknowledges that quality tools in the hands of practiced learners makes amazing things possible.  When that position is paired with the belief that every student can learn, then it becomes unconscionable to keep those tools out of the hands of the very students who need the most support when it comes to accessing the general curriculum.

End Tech Segregation.


Try Eyegaze on Windows!

Have you ever wanted to type on your Windows computer without using your hands or your voice?  A growing number of people are controlling the computer using little more than small head movements.  This technology, commonly referred to as “Eyegaze,” benefits users with motor issues that prevent them from operating a computer in ways that are considered basic to many people.  Such users may include those with ALS (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), Cerebral Palsy, or Muscular Dystrophy.

In its early days, eyegaze technology was incredibly expensive.  The only way most people who could most benefit from this technology could acquire it was by participating in medical or therapeutic studies where the cost of the technology was covered.

Now, you can download an eyegaze interface program to your Windows computer for free.  Actually, Camera Mouse is nearing its 10th anniversary as a freely available program, thanks to the people at Boston College.  When paired with on-screen keyboard software, everything that you could do with the keyboard and mouse can be done with your computer’s webcam, just by moving your head.

So, where can you get on-screen keyboard software?  In Windows, you already have it.  The one that comes with Windows is perfectly adequate.  In fact, the on-screen keyboard built-in to Windows 10 includes word prediction capability.  This can make eyegaze typing significantly faster.  Eyegaze typing typically works by registering a “click” after the mouse cursor stays in the same space for a set period of time (“dwell time”).

Simpler on-screen keyboard software is also available.  Two programs that are designed to work well with Camera Mouse and incorporate a text-to-speech option are Midas Touch and Staggered Speech.

I am typing this sentence using eyegaze and the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard.

Yes, it’s slow.  That sentence took me over one minute to type.  But for a person who cannot use a standard keyboard or speech-to-text technology, typing a sentence in 60 seconds is a gateway to a fundamental communication option that opens up meaningful participation in the world.  Once a user gets more practice with eyegaze technology, they generally will want the “dwell time” reduced from one or two seconds to a half-second or less.  If I were to practice, and tweak the software settings, I could soon get to a point where I can reproduce that sentence in under a minute.

And, thanks to the technology, if I store a commonly-used sentence in a memory bank, I can reproduce the sentence in far less time than it would take me to type it conventionally, with my 55wpm fingers.

So, why would you want to use Camera Mouse and the Windows on-screen keyboard?  Here are three great reasons!

  1. The Lure of the Gadget – Some people avoid unfamiliar technology because of a fear of it not doing what is expected.  Some people, on the other hand, just can’t resist trying a technology just to see what it does.  If you’re the type who has a natural curiosity for technological wizardry, eyegaze is a super-cool interface to try out!  Camera Mouse doesn’t disable your built-in keyboard and mouse, so any time you need to bail out and shut off the eyegaze tracker, you can do so easily.
  2. Contribute to advancement – Eyegaze technology – and other assistive technologies – continue to get better because of the feedback developers get from users who try their software and give them feedback.  Most advancements in software design and capability started with a user who said, “Y’know, it would be great if this could….”
  3. Build Empathy – If you ever encounter a person who relies on such technology, you will have first-hand experience with what they deal with – both the struggle and the possibilities.  Also, should you happen to work with an individual who has difficulty using typical computer interface controls (e.g., keyboard and mouse), you can more effectively introduce and support the use of eyegaze technology for that individual.  Supplementary or alternative interfaces such as eyegaze give people with significant motor impairments a way to use computers to do many things that typical people take for granted.

For the college course I am teaching, I plan to have each of my students take a turn at using Camera Mouse and an on-screen keyboard to type a sentence.  I will not be grading them on how fast they type the sentence.  I will not be grading them on how few mistakes there are.  I don’t even care (much) if they remember the name of the program we will use or if they practice and get better at it.  My goal is for them to build empathy for the kids they will one day work with who either rely on eyegaze technology to effectively communicate, or who could significantly benefit from such technology.  When the rest of the group is in a typing class, there is no good reason why a student who does not have the physical capacity to type on a standard keyboard should be given some alternate activity that has nothing to do with typing.

But, making that a reality in our schools will require the efforts of educators who demand equity and excellence for every student, regardless of any disability label they’ve been given.


Ten Best Math Instruction Tools

In his excellent TEDx talk, “Math Class Needs a Makeover”, Dan Meyer affirms some basic truths about math class: 1) anyone can learn to be successful in math, 2) traditional approaches to math instruction have poorly served a large number of our students, and 3) making math instruction practical is the key to making it “stick”.  He never uses the term “UDL” in his talk, but the changes he proposes are all about changing how we represent material, how we express our conclusions, and how we engage with the curriculum – the three principles of Universal Design for Learning.

Here are my ten eleven twelve favorite sites to use to support math instruction.  None of them are procedural guides or electronic worksheets.  They all involve building an environment that the student can manipulate and get immediate feedback on their efforts.  Some of them can be done quickly.  Some take longer.  But, they all make effective use of the “problem-based learning” model.

  1. NLVM
    A vast array of math manipulatives, indexed by grade band and by sub-topic (Number & Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, and Data Analysis & Probability). This is a long-time favorite of mine.  Most of the applications are built on the Java platform, which unfortunately means they will not work on a Chromebook.  If you have a teacher station with a browser that still runs Java, some of the manipulatives work extremely well with an interactive whiteboard.
  2. iSolveIt
    CAST provides two iOS apps that keep the goal of developing logic and reasoning skill at the focus, beyond simply providing a right answer.
  3. Interactivate
    Interactivate includes the standard fare of manipulative activities and stock lessons, but goes the extra step of providing ideas and material for Class Discussions.  Also has an associated iOS app.
  4. Illuminations
    The National Council on Teaching Mathematics provides this set of manipulatives, titled “Illuminations”.  Searchable by grade band and sub-topic.  Includes Common Core and NCTM standards.
  5. PhET Interactive Simulations
    Colorado University provides this set of modern HTML5-based manipulatives.  Math is the basis for some, and is a strong undercurrent for many of the science activities.  Because of the modern platform, these work well on just about any device or screen size.
  6. NRich
    Includes printable support materials for class and teachers.  And, it gives you a chance to explain to the class why the word “maths” shows up all over the place!  Don’t get thrown off by the UK terminology, the activities are indexed for US grade levels as well.
  7. SolveMe Math Mobiles
    Without using the words “equation” or “algebra”, this interactive puzzle game provides a great introduction to those concepts, while reinforcing number sense and application of basic operations.
  8. Cargo Bridge from Limex Games –
    The guy has to push the box home.  But, there’s a chasm in the way!  Build a bridge to support the guy and the box, with the limited supplies you have available.  You’ll never hear the question, “When am I ever gonna need to know about triangles in real life?”
  9. “Full Steam Ahead” game
    Math abounds in a set of physics and engineering problems based on the real-life advances designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  As you progress through the early tasks, more types of challenges are unlocked.  Build, Test, Tweak, Repeat.
  10. Math Playground
    Somewhat limited set of resources, but the ones that are available are very useful.  Geared more for upper elementary.  Should work well with modern browsers.
  11. Desmos Graphing Calculator
    A graphing calculator for your browser!  Powerful save, overlay, and editing tools.
  12. Geogebra
    Online graphing calculator, and a host of additional tools for math instruction, including geometry, algebra, calculus, statistics, and more.  Downloadable materials as well as online activities.

UDL and the “Hidden Curriculum”

In the 1992 film “A Few Good Men,” prosecutor Capt. Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) questions Cpl. Barnes (Noah Wyle) about the term “Code Red”.  The term cannot be found in the “Marine Outline for Recruit Training” or the Standard Operating Procedure Manual for Rifle Security Company, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Captain Ross suggests that if the term is not specifically named and described in either of these two books, then it either doesn’t exist or is unimportant. The defense attorney, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), points out that the mess hall isn’t named or located in either of those manuals either, but Cpl. Barnes has never missed a meal. How did Cpl. Barnes know what to do and where to go if the mess hall wasn’t explicitly taught to him by his books or his sergeant? His response is as brilliant as it is simple, “Well, I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time, sir.”

School has its own set of unwritten codes and rules. Many students do a great job of deciphering and adhering to these norms by observing them in action. However, some students do not learn these rules so easily in this manner. They are part of what Jean Anyon and others have called “The Hidden Curriculum,” and the phenomenon contributes to achievement / opportunity / support gaps for many students, especially those in historically disadvantaged subgroups.  “The Hidden Curriculum” may include expectations of behavior, content familiarity, and social interaction that are never explicitly taught.  When a student meets these expectations naturally, we deem them “school-ready”.  When a student does not, we somehow conclude that the student is deficient and not the expectation.

In no academic subject area do we expect the students already to have mastered the content before they are admitted to the classroom.  Why should we expect students to have mastered “The Hidden Curriculum” as a prerequisite to being allowed in the classroom, especially when it has not been explicitly taught?

Educators and educational systems can go a long way toward addressing achievement / opportunity / support gaps in their learning environments by looking for “The Hidden Curriculum” and taking actions designed to explicitly teach requisite skills to students who need it.  Or, perhaps even better, redesign those systems to reduce or eliminate inequitable expectations within the “Hidden Curriculum” that perpetuate lack of success for students in historically disadvantaged subgroups.

In other words, when it’s chow time, don’t assume a hungry kid will already know to follow the crowd to the mess hall.

I Hope My Kids Never Have This Classroom

Classroom wall hanging, for student cell phones. “A teacher decided that in order for his students to be marked ‘present’, they have to put their cell phones into one of these slots at the start of class, which they will get back after class is finished” reads the caption on this image of a pocket-chart hanging from a whiteboard in the front of a math classroom.

I hope my children never have to endure being in a classroom like this.

Those who like the idea of the wall-pocket-chart seem to have one universal foundational rationale: “They’re too distracting.”

“They’re too distracting” really means, “The students find their phones more engaging than my lessons, and I don’t know how else to compete.”

Let’s think about the situation a little closer, shall we?  Is it really the phone itself that students find more engaging than Mr. Anonymous’ carefully-worked whiteboard math examples?  Probably not.  Just about any device would do, as long as it presents the students with entertaining snippets of video and audio, and permits them to interact with other individuals (both familiar and strangers).

Call me crazy, but a device that allows us to 1) consume information in a wide variety of formats, 2) create information in a wide variety of formats, and 3) collaborate with others inside and outside the classroom on authentic products for a worldwide audience… that’s a device I want in my kid’s classroom, and I want it heavily used!

How about this for an alternate script for this teacher?

“Who has a cell phone?  Let’s see them.  Great!  You have a device in your hand that is thousands of times more powerful than the computers NASA used to put a man on the moon.  You have a computer, a camera, a video camera, a microphone, and more.  You can take pictures, write poetry, record video, write songs, publish books, connect with people all around the globe, and more.  If you think I’m going to let you bring that sort of power into my classroom and just launch cartoon birds at pigs, or text your friends ‘im bord hmu’, then you are sorely mistaken.  We’re going to create documentaries, write poetry, mix and release albums, invent solutions to world problems, author books, connect with people who know much more than we do about some things, and teach some people who want our expertise on topics I can’t even imagine yet.  Get your cell phone out, and let’s start learning.”

That’s the classroom I want my kid in.  I promise you, Mr. Anonymous, you won’t have to spend all your time trying to sneak up on my kid to see what he’s actually doing with his phone when he’s supposed to be filling out a worksheet.

(And if you’re suddenly thinking, “But some of the kids don’t even have cell phones.  What about them?” then that’s great.  You’re ready to help become a world-changer.  The best changes in this world usually started with the question, “How might we…?”)

Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know

Ohio’s State Professional Development Grant (SPDG) provides resources for select districts to participate in important work around changing outcomes and improving achievement for diverse learners.

I was honored to be asked to speak at a state-level meeting of SPDG district representatives at the Battelle for Kids “Connect for Success” conference.

My presentation was titled “Ten Important Things Amelia Needs You to Know”.  Big thanks to my friend Patti Porto for getting video of the presentation for me!

The slides are available at