Closing Equity and Inclusion Gaps with Universal Design for Learning: An interview with Dr. Brett Christie

Published by Carrie O'Donnell
on Jun 18, 2021

Crises are often credited with being a catalyst for transformation and change. This is certainly true for higher education. When the pandemic forced campuses to shutter nationwide, huge gaps in equity and inclusion were widely exposed – and students paid the price.

As a result, more consideration is surfacing for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how this approach can help close those gaps. Of course, integrating UDL campus-wide presents its own set of challenges. I sat down with Dr. Brett Christie, Director of Learning Design at O’Donnell Learn – and our resident guru for all things UDL – for his take on how colleges and universities might begin this important task.

For those not familiar with Brett’s expertise, prior to coming on board here, Brett was instrumental in the success of several UDL and inclusive teaching initiatives, including 10 years as a lead for federal UDL projects, developer and moderator for UDL-Universe, and 10 years with the California State University, Office of the Chancellor’s Office as Director of Quality Learning and Teaching.

Most educators understand UDL’s goal is enabling more students to succeed through a variety of teaching and learning methods, but they might not immediately see the farther-reaching benefits. What did your work at Cal State reveal?

“Discussions around UDL can often bring resistance based on the belief that course outcomes will need to be lowered to make success achievable for all. However, UDL is about providing more ways to present content, engaging students more effectively, and allowing students multiple ways to express what they have learned and are able to do. Everyone should be supported to be successful in a course and it does not necessarily mean that a teacher is too “soft.” Quality instruction is demonstrated through student success vs. fixed grading curves implemented to ensure that a certain proportion of students will arbitrarily succeed or fail.

We found our work with UDL helped the greatest diversity of students succeed without affecting standards. It helped close equity gaps and more students completed their courses. Which meant less course repeats, higher GPAs, and stronger retention rates. Taken further, this means a shorter path to graduation, which in turn, could mean less debt and a stronger start at life after college.”

By now, all institutions have a mission statement that includes elements of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In addition, many have a related initiative and may have a diversity officer overseeing the effort on campus.  Do you see this translating to more inclusive course experiences? How can institutions help instructors bring more equity and inclusion to their courses without it becoming obligatory or overwhelming?

“It’s great that institutions are embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many new efforts have been undertaken and resources allocated to improve the experience of a wider range of students. However, these efforts often fall short when it comes to impacting students at the center of their experience – their courses. There is much to be done in terms of more inclusive course design and delivery. This involves helping faculty to better understand what equity and inclusion means in the context of teaching and learning. This can involve a significant shift in mindset and skills as an instructor. As a result, they will realize ways they can greatly impact the success of more students while meeting course and program outcomes. It’s helping faculty humanize the student experience while also considering instructor efficacy. 

It’s also important institutions recognize this isn’t what we might categorize as traditional professional development. It’s more about understanding where there may be unnecessary barriers to learning that can be removed. Through this increased understanding of the experience from diverse learner perspectives, incremental changes can be made continually over time. It’s important to give instructors permission to consistently learn and evolve, and provide the tools to help them do so. Celebrate the growth along the way. Changing the way learning happens is an “always” strategy. It’s important to validate the efforts being made.”

Personally speaking, I’m truly proud of the new products we’ve developed around helping higher education and workforce development improve learning.  Your expertise has played a significant role in this process.  Related to our conversation today, what excites you about what we’re doing? 

“It’s how we’ve brought together the evidence of best practices and humanizing learning. The work I did prior to joining O’Donnell Learn provided solid evidence that UDL can and does improve learning for all students. Not just students with specific needs, but all students. The tools and products we’ve developed around our purposeful learning approach and Purposeful Learning FrameworkTM  have UDL principles and best practices built right in.

For example, the Purposeful Learning Check and Learner Connectedness Survey are two simple tools instructors can implement right now to gauge where they could be making changes. I’m especially proud of Jumpstart and Propel and how institutions can use these tools to empower their faculty to impact student success. And now, with the products currently in development to provide faculty with a means to continue their individual growth paths…I’m excited about the potential this can have on both faculty and student success and what it means for learning overall, especially in the current times.

To learn more about our purposeful learning approach and how it could help you change the way learning happens, check out our ongoing webinars, our purposeful learning module or reach out to our sales team. We’d be happy to show you!

Our next Webinar, “Pride & Equity in the Learning Experience“, is Wednesday, 6/23/21 at 12 pm EST. We hope to see you there! Register easily here.

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Giving Faculty Back Their Time

Published By Carrie O'Donnell
on Nov 10, 2021

Institutions and faculty are emerging from the pandemic with the realization that they must reframe their courses for an evolving, and here to stay, virtual learning landscape. Many online courses resulted from an overnight shift from in person to virtual. With little time to reimagine learning with pixelated faces and on screen white boards, courses that were developed for in person do not translate to the screen. 

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O’Donnell Learn recently hosted a webinar led by Mays Imad, Ph.D. as a part of its recent Purposeful Learning Festival focused on mental health and wellness. Dr. Imad is a thought leader in trauma-informed pedagogy and a professor at Pima Community College based in Tucson, Arizona where she is also the coordinator of the Teaching & Learning Center. As a current Master’s of Education student at Northeastern University who also lives with mental illness, I was excited to learn more about using the classroom, virtual or traditional, as a safe place for learners to heal and grow. I met virtually with Dr. Imad to hear more about her teaching philosophy, beliefs surrounding mental health, and ways to ensure student success in uncertain times.