Category Archives: UDL

PARCC AAF Workgroup Reflections

PARCC = Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
AAF = Accessibility, Accommodations, and Fairness.

On Monday, February 23, 2015, I had the honor of being invited to take part in a workgroup with educators from members of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).  The purpose of this workgroup was to assemble information and lay out an “Educators Guide” to the PARCC Accessibility Features and Accommodations Manual.  That manual describes the rationale for, and the function of, certain features that are built into the online assessment platform.

I was part of a group charged with (among other things) developing a presentation containing information that would be most applicable for educators who work with students with disabilities.  My colleague from Ohio, Ron Rogers (Ron’s blog, Ron’s Twitter) of OCALI, was part of a similar group focusing on developing similar materials for educators in their work with all students.

A brainstorming session resulted in a thoughtful list of ideas, categories, and points of emphasis.  They also meandered in several directions, as brainstorming sessions often do.  The expertise of the representatives around the table was clearly evident, and it would take some expert facilitation skill to bring the cacophony of ideas into a unified message.

Here are the important points that percolated to the top:

– Accessibility features and accommodations do not reduce learning expectations for students with disabilities.

– Students with disabilities are expected to participate in the assessments, but expectation is not enough.  Accessibility features and accommodations also enable a wider range of students to participate in assessments than is possible with paper-and-pencil assessments.

– Accessibility starts with “access”.  All the accessibility features and accommodations in the world may be available on an assessment, but they will have no effect if access is not provided in the regular learning environment.

When are teachers supposed to take time out of their instruction to teach kids how to operate the technology for the assessments?  They’re not.  The types of accessibility features included in the assessment are precisely the same type of accessibility features that can be used to aid learning the material.  We haven’t done our students any favors if we have them take online assessments after spending their school year doing paper worksheets.

This isn’t about teaching to a test.  It’s about teaching students, with a framework of standards as a guide.  What’s the difference?  It’s the difference between helping me learn how to read, and helping me learn how to pass a reading test.

On a personal note, I have a daughter who has been diagnosed with Autism.  Right now, I have very little confidence that this assessment will provide her a good opportunity to exhibit her mastery of skills and concepts she learns.  I have no doubt of her capability to grasp the standards.  I just don’t know whether she will have the willingness to participate in the online assessment when and where the school expects her to.  This is not anything that is broken about her, it is something that is broken in the current assessment system that relies on a moment-in-time analysis of performance.

But, I can’t make it better by sitting on the outside and whining about it.  I can hope to make it better by rolling up my sleeves and collaborating with some great minds. I’m optimistic about the guide material that will be produced as a result of our work.  I know the system is not perfect, but every step that gets us closer to an entire education system – goals, materials, methods, and assessments – that is truly Universally Designed and refuses to exclude any student due to their disability is a positive step worth taking.

Ready for OETC15!

Tomorrow, I will be making my way to this year’s Ohio Educational Technology Conference, held annually at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, in Columbus, Ohio.

On Tuesday, I get to hang out and “absorb” information.  This is also my time to renew some acquaintances, see if anything grabs my attention in the vendor hall, and slip into a few sessions that interest me.

On Wednesday, I will likely spend most of my time hanging out in E-Pod with the #oetcx crowd.  I’m in the lineup to do a “FREd Talk”.  That session starts at noon in the E-Pod.  “FREd Talks” are like Ignite sessions in that they are limited to five minutes, with a set of 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds.  My FREd Talk this year is titled “Ten Important Things Amelia Wants You to Know.”  Amelia is my 5-year-old daughter.  She has a diagnosis of Autism, and is getting ready to transition to full-day pre-school four days a week.  I’ve learned so much from her in the past 5+ years, and I’ll be sharing a little of that in my five minutes.

Last year, I had the privilege to present another Ignite session, “Three Big Fat Lies Tech Coordinators Tell“.  The experience was exhilarating! That’s why I’m so pumped to get to do this again!

After the FREd Talks, I will be hosting a table conversation at 2:30pm on “Presuming Competence”.  I am hopeful of hearing from participants about how technology can enhance students’ strengths and augment weaknesses, and how technology can help the adults involved with education to Presume Competence in each and every student.

Thursday will be back to “traditional mode”, but I’ll be hanging out in a cool place: OCALI’s Assistive Technology Lab.  At 11:00 AM, I will be presenting “Free Tools to Support the Writing Process“, and at 2:30 I will be part of a group presenting “Tech Tools for Access to State Assessments”.

If you’re at OETC this year, look for me, and say ‘Hi’!  I have a couple of surprises in mind, based on things I’ve learned in the past that have made my conference-going experiences so much better!  Follow me on Twitter at @mdroush, or e-mail me at  See you there!

Using the iPad to Support Access to the General Curriculum

The following LiveBinder contains resources used in a presentation at Eastern (Brown) Local Schools on using the iPad to support access to the general curriculum.

Includes great stuff like Rita Pierson, some built in Accessibility features, apps for consuming and for creating content, and information about the Bookshare program.


Presuming Competence

There are two fundamental ideas I hold dear about education: 1) every student deserves to be fully included with his/her peers as much as possible as a basic civil right, and 2) when this is done properly and well, every student in the classroom benefits socially as well as academically.

I owe much of the credit for my current views on this subject to the work of Dr. Elise Frattura and Michael McSheehan, as well as Douglas Biklen’s 1992(!) book “Schooling Without Labels”.

I have collected a list of 30 videos that speak to some aspect of this challenge.  Some are about inclusion in the classroom, some in extra-curriculars.  Some are about inclusion at the elementary level, some in high school, some beyond high school.  Some are about the civil rights aspect, some are about the academic benefits to all.

I have a “typical” six-year-old, and a four-year-old who has been diagnosed with Autism.  I am hopeful that they are going to school at a time when they will never have to be separated from any of their peers on the basis of whether or not they have a disability.  Any school that recommends a separate facility for my kids is not the right school for them.

If you are not already a believer in full inclusion for all, I hope you will be by the time you watch these videos.


I had the honor of being chosen to present at the 2014 “Connect For Success” conference for Ohio educators, sponsored by Battelle for Kids.  The event was held at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus, which is attached to the Greater Columbus Convention Center.  About a thousand educators from around the state gathered to discuss a variety of topics.

Probably the two worst things that can happen when I’m preparing to present my “Google Tools to Increase Access to the Curriculum” workshop are: 1) a spotty Internet connection for the presenter, and 2) Google service outages.

I got both.

Session over, right?  Score one for the anti-tech crowd who says “But if the tech fails, you’re left with nothing” right? Wrong!

The rise of cloud computing has not made me forget my old mantra, “If it’s important, it’s worth having a backup.”  I used the backup version of my presentation on my laptop, and video clips of the live demos that I had originally intended to do.  Was it optimal? No.  But it was serviceable, and allowed me to continue with my presentation.

It served as a very real reminder that the real impact of such presentations is not what happens inside the breakout room, but the changes in instructional practice and approach that occur “back home”.

Despite the ugly technology issues, the session went well. There was good discussion, and some great questions.  There was a fresh look at the first step in education for students with unique challenges, thinking about fixing the curriculum before trying to fix the kid.

And that shift of mindset is better than anything the technology can do.


Learn Like The Rocket Boys of NIH

Terence Boylan and Bruce Cook did something awesome.  The year was 1957, and the two neighbor boys were interested in model rockets.  Terence and Bruce knew what they wanted to do, but they didn’t have the financial resources to make it happen.

And what could have ended right then and there in disappointment turned into something amazing!

If you’re not familiar with their story, go watch this video and/or read this little book.  Then come back!


Online Book (PDF): 

Click to access rockete1.pdf

Here are five important lessons we can learn from the true story of The Rocket Boys of NIH:

1) Kids of different ages and abilities can work and learn together.  Terence was a fairly typical nine-year-old, but Bruce was 14 and in a wheelchair.  In 1957, likely the only time these two boys would have had to pursue their common interest together was after school or in the summer.  Fortunately, they were neighbors, so it was easy for the boys to find time to be together.  Do students who have little more in common than their interests have the opportunity to pursue those interests together?

2) Asking an expert can be a good strategy.  Terence knew that his father got money to do what he did.  That is a gross oversimplification of the process, but it led Terence to ask his father, not for the money, but for some expertise.  Terence then applied his father’s answer to his own situation and made his own funding request!

3) Use failure as an opportunity to ask “How can we improve?”  When early versions of their rocket didn’t launch, or hit the car, or got stuck in the tree, Terence and Bruce were still so enthusiastic about their project that they didn’t let the setback stop them.  They learned from observing and analyzing their failed attempts, and tried again, and again.

Terence Boylan's letter to NIH.
Terence Boylan’s letter to NIH.

4) Don’t be afraid to ask.  They had no official form or insider contact at NIH for their request.  They just had an interest and an idea for a project. Then, most importantly, Terence wrote and mailed the letter.  Without that, none of the rest would have happened.

5) Support someone’s dream, even if it isn’t “your field”.  The NIH (National Institutes of Health) had nothing to do with funding experiments in space travel, either in 1957 or today!  The NIH couldn’t fund Terence and Bruce’s project, but the reviewers decided they could, privately.  In 1957, ten dollars would have bought about 32 gallons of gasoline.  Knowing that they had received a “grant” to work on this project gave Terence and Bruce even more urgency to see their project through to completion!

Do something awesome!


Some useful, free ePub Readers

Today, it’s easier than ever to write, edit, and publish your own material.  Until recently, if you wanted your material to be viewable by the broadest range of people, you were pretty much stuck with using the Portable Document Format (PDF) for your work.  PDF is a light (compared to images) format, and allows you to produce print-quality page-size copy in color.  But, eventually you will want to dabble with Interactive Media, and you’ll outgrow PDF like your first pair of baby shoes.

Enter ePub.  The ePub format takes a standard book-page format (with text and images), and adds the ability to incorporate various multimedia elements (like sound and video).  To view an ePub document, you’ll need an ePub viewer.  Depending on the device(s) you like to use, several good free ones are available!

Free ePub Readers

Depending on what type(s) of devices you use, you’ll need to find a program or app that will read the ePub format.

  • iBooks (iOS) – If you have an iPhone, iPad, iPad Mini, or iPod Touch, iBooks is the way to go.  Lots of free books are available from the iBooks Store, and it will view PDFs and of course ePubs.  The iBooks Store offers “Enhanced Books” that include multimedia elements embedded in certain pages.
  • (Web-based) – is a web-based service that lets you manage and read ePub (and other format) documents online.  This is a great option for a user with multiple devices who has Internet access practically any time.
  • ePubReader (Firefox extension) or Readium (Chrome extension) – Read and manage ePubs right inside the browser.  Chose the one that matches the browser you are currently using.  If you’re not using Firefox or Chrome (why not???), try above.
  • Adobe Digital Editions (Mac, Windows) – If you insist on reading ePubs on a Mac and not doing it through the browser, Adobe Digital Editions is my first suggestion.  Also, some screen reader programs have difficulty navigating and handling ePubs inside a browser window, so Adobe Digital Editions may clear up some of those issues if you’re trying to use, for instance, NVDA on Windows or VoiceOver on a Mac.
  • MobiPocket (multiple)- Some of my friends love this one.  I haven’t used it yet, but it looks nice.  Allows annotation and can be used across multiple devices and platforms.  The one-click dictionary is an impressive looking feature as well!

Now that you have an ePub reader, you need an ePub to read!  How about this one I made using the Book Creator app on an iPad Mini?  It is all about Amelia’s trip to the Cincinnati Zoo with her pre-school class.  Book Creator is available for both the iPad and Android tablets.

A Video Is Worth A Thousand Words

– originally posted December 19, 2013 at

I was recently asked for a list of some videos that I have used to illustrate the importance and effectiveness of assistive technology for students.  Here is (in no particular order) my “top ten list” of videos I use to inform others about the possibilities with assistive technology and get them excited about what they can do!

1) Cheryl and Morgan: Learning Independence – Google produced this video of a high school student named Morgan, and her use of some built-in features of Google Search and Google Drive.  I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Cheryl and Morgan via Google Hangout, and the impact was superb!

2) One Thumb to Rule Them All – Mike Phillips doesn’t let his SMA prevent him from playing online games and working as a freelance tech writer.

3) A Pivotal Role in the Household – ALS doesn’t prevent Marie-France from researching, writing, and helping manage the house, all by only moving her jaw muscles!

4) Fun Theory: Piano Staircase – Tech doesn’t have to make things easier, simpler, or quicker.  Sometimes, the point of technology is to make tasks more engaging.

5) the MaKey MaKey – Part of the allure of this device is the endless possibilities for alternate input devices.  Another important part of the allure of this device is kids coming up with their own creative and inventive uses for it!

6) The Marshmallow Challenge – The system is there to support the student, not the other way around.  This video highlights the importance of keeping focus in any project, and the need for constant evaluation and revision of the structures we put in place to make sure they are still providing the necessary support.

7) Episodes of “Curb Cuts” – “Curb Cuts” is a local-access television show produced by the Central Coast AT Center of United Cerebral Palsy in San Luis Obispo, in California.  These 15-to-30-minute long episodes spotlight individuals using assistive technology to live and work independently.  Cassandra Province and her eyegaze system in Episode #1 is exceptionally inspirational!
Episode 1 – Hands-free Computer Access []
Episode 2 – Blind AT []
Episode 3 – Deaf & Hard-of-Hearing AT []
Episode 4 – Vehicle Modifications []
Episode 5 – AT for Low Vision []
Episode 6 – Adaptive Recreation []
Episode 7  -Home Modifications []

8) Tatum’s Garden – The playground shouldn’t be a place where inclusion stops.

9) Encourage the Runner – Even if you’re not the runner, you can encourage the one who is running his own race.  Side note, this happened at Colonial Hills Elementary in Ohio, where a friend of mine has a son attending.

10) We’ll Always Need Paper – Yep, this one is pretty much just comic relief.  But, I do think it helps drive home the point that the technology should not drive the goal.  The goal should drive the choice and implementation of technology.


Goodhart’s Law and Data-Driven Decision Making

“Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” [Goodhart, Charles (1981). “Problems of Monetary Management: The U.K. Experience”. Anthony S. Courakis (ed.), Inflation, Depression, and Economic Policy in the West (Rowman & Littlefield): 116.]

Educators are relying more and more on data to inform their work.  Individual teachers are using hard data to make decisions about instructional practice (Formative Assessment, anyone?) and whole states are making policy decisions based on “what the data says” (Third Grade Reading Guarantee, anyone?).

The phenomenon is not unique to education.  But, we may not be as far down the road as other professions.  Professionals in other fields have experienced their own versions of “data-based decision making” and learned much from the experience.

In the field of economics, Charles Goodhart made the opening statement in this article.  It essentially says, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

For instance, here is a classic economic example.  A certain factory produces nails.  The owner of the factory finds that productivity and profits are at their peak when the factory produces 100,000 nails per week.  This becomes a target, in the form of a quota.  The factory workers begin cranking out some very small, shoddy nails that can be produced quickly.  The workers easily make the 100,000 target, but it has ceased to be a good indicator, because the nails that are now being produced are useless.

Here is a hypothetical example as it might happen in a school.  A school records copious amounts of data on student behavior and discipline efforts over an entire school year.  At the end of the school year, staff members analyze the data and determine that in 30% of instances of student behavior that resulted in suspension or expulsion, the student was wearing a black shirt, and that figure is far higher than any other shirt color.  Based on this data, the school proposes a new rule for the next school year… students may no longer wear black shirts to school.

The indicator has become the target.  Rather than trying to reduce or eliminate the real target (behaviors that resulted in suspensions), the school has addressed the indicator (shirt color).  There is an underlying belief that the target and the indicator are so tightly linked that reducing one automatically results in the reduction of the other.

The Third Grade Reading Guarantee

More than half of US states now have some form of a “third grade reading guarantee” in place.  These have been sparked by volumes of data about overall student performance linked to the student’s proficiency in reading by the end of third grade.  One such example from the Annie E. Casey Foundation study “Early Warning Confirmed” draws such conclusions as “children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers.” [, page 4.]

This is certainly actionable data.  But, if we place our emphasis there, will we accomplish the real target?  Or will we just destroy the usefulness of third grade reading ability as an indicator of likelihood to graduate?  In effect, will our approach just change the color of the students’ shirts?

Correlation vs. Causation

xkcd comic about correlation and causation.
From xkcd.

If education and economics aren’t enough voices, let’s let the world of statistical science weigh in.  “Correlation” is when two sets of statistical data are closely related, so that when one changes, so does the other. “Causation” is when the existence of one circumstance causes another to happen (e.g., when I push the power button on my laptop, that causes it to turn on).  If two sets of data are correlated, we sometimes leap to the conclusion that one of them is causing the other.  We look for an explanation of the phenomenon.

Another example looks at the number of highway fatalities in the US, and the number of metric tons of lemons imported from Mexico to the US.  The accompanying graph clearly demonstrates that as the number of metric tons of lemons imported from Mexico increased (from 1996 to 2000), the number of US highway fatalities reduced at an incredibly similar rate.  We quickly jump from looking at the data to analyzing it by asking ourselves, “Why would increasing lemon imports reduce highway fatalities?”  And many of us also quickly come to the conclusion that no such link exists, and the extremely close correlation is nothing but coincidence.  A data-based decision in this instance would say that if you want to reduce highway fatalities even more, then lemon imports should be increased.  And nothing in our minds tells us that makes any sense.

Graph of tons of imported lemons versus highway fatalities.
Do imported lemons reduce highway fatalities?

Do What’s Right For Kids

None of these considerations should ever trump the foundational concept of “doing what is right for kids”. Even if locking my daughter in a room by herself and giving her electric shocks while reading caused her to retain more of what she reads and score higher on standardized reading assessments, I would still fight against them because they are wrong.  Whether my kids are able to read at the third-grade level by the end of third grade is one indicator of their likelihood to graduate.  However, whether they have a passion for learning is an even stronger indicator of whether my kids will succeed at school, and in life.  Any approaches that hinder or squelch that passion are wrong, regardless of any indicators that they support.

The “Unmeasurable” Cause

I am quite certain that the conclusion from the Annie E. Casey Foundation about reading proficiency by the end of third grade is correct.  But, I also believe that we make the mistake of taking correlation for causation, and fall deep into the pit of Goodhart’s Law, when we make third grade reading proficiency (or any other measurable indicator) our explicit target.  It may well be that the most affluent neighborhoods have a high percentage of yellow houses, but we do nothing to affect the socio-economic status of a neighborhood by requiring them to paint all their houses yellow, even if we provided all the materials and labor to do so.

Reading at third grade level by the end of third grade, graduating high school, and a host of other academic achievements are all attributable to a passion for learning.  That passion is largely not measurable, and thus it confounds the success formulas of those who wish to create whole cultures of data-based decision making, where experience, intuition, and passion are ignored when they contradict the conclusion pointed to by the almighty data.

This is not to say that data should be ignored.  Data can give us great insights into the effectiveness of instructional strategies and projecting student achievement. Data can help us see holes where they weren’t clear before, or make us face up to deficiencies that we did not (or did not want to) acknowledge by our own subjective perceptions.  However, we cannot allow data to make decisions for us, especially when experienced educators know the conclusions to be (at best) unrelated, or (at worst) detrimental to students.

The next time you are in a district/building/teacher leadership meeting, and the data being presented says you should take a certain course of action, and you know that action is no good, remember Goodhart’s Law, and ask yourself if you’re really just telling the students to change their shirts.


Ten Free Online Simulation Games for Education

originally posted December 2, 2011, at It’s still good, so I’m re-posting it here.

Simulations can be an engaging, effective way to immerse students in a concept. They can also be a good way to spark a student’s interest in a topic by making the factual information to be learned seem “more real”, because it has an immediate purpose – advancing in the game.

Simulations generally require students to learn facts for a purpose beyond simply repeating them on a test. Simulations also often require exercises in decision-making and problem-solving that reach into the upper levels of higher-order thinking skills. Some simulations can be very expensive, though. And just because something is a simulation does not guarantee it will be either educational or engaging!

Here are my ten favorite free online educational simulations!

10) Blood Typing
Why do blood types matter? See what happens when three accident victims come to the emergency room. They all need transfusions, but none of them know their blood type. Can you figure it out in time to save them all?

9) Trade and Economics
Why do some countries specialize in certain goods? Do imports and exports really matter? How do production decisions in one part of the world affect other countries? Explore these questions in a wonderfully developed simulation of the Heckscher-Ohlin trade theory. Playable in minutes, and great for playing numerous times in one sitting. Allows students to adjust their strategy from one game to the next in order to achieve a higher score.

8) Zapitalism
Nice simulation of starting with a small retail store, and taking it to profitability based on the important decisions you make. What should you sell? How high should your prices be? What are the other stores around you selling?

7) Arm Surgery 2
Seriously? Arm surgery? Yep! But don’t worry, the animation is “cartoony” enough that you shouldn’t be causing anyone to faint. And the subject matter is likely to have someone in your class saying “Hey, that happened to me!”

6) Cargo Bridge
Triangles. Leverage. Force. Momentum. Planning and Architecture. Resource management. It’s all part of “Cargo Bridge” (and its expanding variants, like the Armor Games Edition, and Christmas Levels Pack)! Use your knowledge of structures and force to keep advancing through higher and more difficult levels.

5) The River City Project (No longer free)
I’m breaking my own rule here by including a simulation that USED to be free, but is now licensed. In a sense, it was never free… funding used to be covered by a federal grant, but that grant has expired. The fact that the simulation is still available at all is a good thing, because it’s well constructed, and plays very well. Students who do not just rush through the game will be rewarded for their attention to details and recording of interesting facts gathered from interacting with the virtual world and the people in it.

4) GCF Learn Free – ATM
Simulations can be used to place students in situations they never would find themselves in, to give them an idea of what life is like from other perspectives. But sometimes, simulations can be used to give students an idea of what life could be like for them in a year or two, or ten! GCF Learn Free’s ATM Simulation is one of the latter. Using an ATM may be second nature to many people today, but for some students, this is a vital skill they will need in order to function in society. This simulation gives them a safe way to experience using an ATM for themselves. GCF Learn Free simulations include printable worksheets to go along with the online activities.

3) The POD Game
Do your high school students think they’re good in a crisis? Let them find out with this scary simulation, funded by the Center for Disease Control and developed by the Chicago Department of Public Health and CADE. An airplane has released deadly anthrax virus over the city, and you are working in a drug dispensing center’s Point-Of-Dispensing (POD). Take the training, and then see if you have what it takes to take the role of a Medical Screener, Forms Reviewer, or Dispensing in a tense situation.

2) Mission US – For Crown or Colony?
Take up the role of Nat Wheeler, a 14-year-old boy in Boston. The time is the days leading up to the beginning of the Revolutionary War. As Nat, participants make decisions that impact the progression of the game, while learning important facts. Teachers can register an entire class and keep track of their progress through the well-constructed simulation. Don’t miss the fun mini-game “Pennywhistle Hero”!

Two more games have been added to this series.  “Flight to Freedom” has students playing the part of a runaway slave in the time leading up to the US Civil War, and “A Cheyenne Odyssey” puts students in the northern plains in 1866 as part of a Native American tribe!

1) The Oregon Trail
The grandaddy of educational simulations! The one that basically started it all! New versions exist for mobile devices, but they aren’t nearly as heavy on requiring independent thought and planning.
Start in Independence, Missouri, and plan your trip westward to start a new life for you and your family in 1848.
Original edition FREE online
ActiveGS version
Java Version