Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been shown to have benefits for students with disabilities. However, little is known about its potential to support literacy for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). This qualitative study explored (a) to what extent students with IDD are able to use Udio, an online UDL literacy environment; and (b) how students with IDD experienced and perceived Udio. A grounded theory approach was used to analyze classroom observations, as well as teacher and student interviews. Electronic usage logs and student-produced discussions and projects were analyzed descriptively. Students independently navigated the environment and used embedded supports, including audio-assisted reading and sentence starters. In addition, findings indicate that age-relevant content, choice, and opportunities to socialize in online discussions were especially engaging for students. Further research is warranted to determine how UDL environments affect the literacy development of students with IDD.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that addresses the natural variability of learners by increasing flexibility and reducing barriers in instruction (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). The UDL framework guides the design of learning environments that provide multiple ways of (a) becoming and staying engaged in learning; (b) accessing information and knowledge; and (c) approaching strategic tasks (Meyer et al., 2014). The UDL principles and guidelines (http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines) inform educators designing learning environments that minimize barriers to the curriculum and improve learning outcomes for students (Hall, Cohen, Vue, & Ganley, 2015; Rappolt-Schlichtmann et al., 2013). Although limited research has been conducted to explore the effectiveness of these environments for supporting literacy outcomes for students with intellectual and development disabilities (IDD), two experimental studies demonstrated the benefits of using the UDL framework to inform the design of literacy environments for elementary-aged students with IDD (Browder, Mims, Spooner, Ahlgrim-Delzell, & Lee, 2008; Coyne, Pisha, Dalton, Zeph & Smith, 2012). These findings encouraged us to explore the possibility of using a UDL-designed literacy environment with older students.
The present study focused on the usability of Udio, a UDL digital literacy environment, by middle school students with IDD. Udio was developed through a larger study focused on the use of emerging technologies to improve literacy achievement for middle school students with high-incidence disabilities. The goals of Udio are to improve reading comprehension and foster interest and investment in reading by students who have become disenfranchised from traditional practices. Udio combines research on motivation for reading (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000) with evidence-based literacy practices (National Reading Panel, NRP, 2000) to provide sustained, rigorous, and personally optimized learning opportunities by providing occasions for students to (a) access high-interest content; (b) choose reading materials; (c) develop an understanding of their interests; (d) engage in social experiences with text; and (e) access scaffolds to support reading and writing. At the time of this study, Udio was featured in approximately 130 articles published by organizations, including Scholastic, Inc.™, the Word Generation™ project at Strategic education Research Partnership, YAHOO, Science Friday, Facing History and Ourselves, and CAST, Inc.
Udio has three main areas: Dashboard, Explore, and Create (see Figure 1). The Dashboard provides students with immediate feedback about their activities and choices through visual displays. In Explore, students choose what to read by browsing Udio's articles and topics. The articles in Udio are about current issues facing teens, such as what it feels like to be bullied or the dangers of texting and driving. Once an article has been selected, the flexibility of Udio supports students to access content by using “just-in-time” features, including audio-assisted reading and vocabulary support. Students are encouraged to further engage with the text by interacting with a comprehension prompt, an online discussion area, and a feature that allows them to react emotionally to the article. In Create, students use templates to create projects about their readings. Students can choose to write, draw, or audiorecord the content of their project, use quotes and images they have collected from the articles, and share their project with peers. Their projects are published within the Udio environment with a discussion prompt of their choice allowing their peers to engage in online discussions about the projects.
The UDL guidelines informed the design of all three areas of Udio. The environment supports Multiple Means of Representation by providing multiple ways to access text, including embedded audio-assisted reading, dictionary support, and single word Spanish translation. Videos highlight key writing skills (e.g., summary writing), and templates highlight the critical features for developing a debate or review of articles read. Multiple Means of Action and Expression are supported by virtue of providing students choices to use a variety of methods (typing, recording, or drawing) to respond to online discussions and create projects. Students also have the option to access graduated levels of support (e.g., embedded models, videos, and sentence starters) for creating and publishing projects based on articles they have read. Individual dashboards display data to help students make informed decisions about their reading choices and activities. Multiple Means of Engagement is addressed by supporting student choice and autonomy. Students make their own decisions about which articles to read, which media to use to respond to online discussions or create projects, whether to start or respond to discussions with their peers, whether to publish projects, and which embedded activities to complete. In addition, the articles within Udio cover a wide range of current, age-relevant topics, ensuring that students have a variety of options to address their interests and to engage them in the content.
The Present Study
The present research project was an exploratory study examining the potential usability and value of Udio, a UDL digital literacy environment, for supporting literacy activities for middle school students with IDD. Two questions guided this work:
To what extent are students with IDD able to use Udio, an online UDL literacy environment?
How did students with IDD experience and perceive Udio?
Site and Participants
The study was conducted at a public special education school in a suburban district within the Northeastern United States serving elementary and middle school students with IDD (ages 3–14 years) for whom individualized educational program (IEP) teams had determined to be in need of substantially individualized, therapeutic learning environments. A purposeful sample of 10 students and seven teachers (four lead teachers and three assistant teachers) participated in the study. Teachers volunteered to participate after attending an informational meeting in which the project was described and demonstrated. The school director and participating teachers selected 10 students based on three criteria: (a) between 10 and 14 years of age; (b) able to communicate verbally; and (c) demonstrated a reading level of kindergarten or higher. Parental consent was obtained for all students before the start of the project. There were three males and seven females. Although all students had cognitive delays, five had a primary disability diagnosis of intellectual disability, and the other five had a primary diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Many of the students displayed some challenging behaviors; although not severe, these behaviors occasionally affected their learning and interactions with peers and adults. The reading levels of the students had been recently measured, with one student at the kindergarten level, six students at the 1st grade level, and three students at the 3rd grade level. Six of the students qualified for a free or reduced lunch.
At the beginning of the study, all seven teachers participated in a 3-hr training session providing an overview of the features and functionality of Udio. As part of this training, teachers had the opportunity to try out various aspects of the program from a student viewpoint. Next, each student received individual training in the use of Udio from their teachers with the help of researchers. Researchers also provided ongoing support to the teachers with respect to any technological challenges (e.g., challenges with a particular web browser). Finally, the students used Udio in place of their regular reading program for 20-min sessions, three times a week, over 4.5 months (mid-November through March). Teachers had access to the same features and components as their students and, if desired, engaged in online discussions with their students. Due to the exploratory nature of this study, teachers were not constrained in how they used their own Udio accounts.
Data sources consisted of (a) weekly classroom observations; (b) student and teacher interviews; (c) examination of electronic usage log data, and (d) student-produced online comments and projects. The use of multiple data sources and researchers to analyze findings supported triangulation (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Patton, 2002). The weekly observations were guided by semi-structured protocols. Every 5 min, researchers recorded data describing student and teacher actions and interactions with respect to Udio, including details of how students interacted with Udio and language used by students and teachers during communications. All students were observed using Udio approximately 8–10 times over the course of the study with a total of 63 observations. Field notes taken during each session were descriptive and reflective (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Patton, 2002).
Within 2 weeks of the study's conclusion, interviews were conducted with all students and teachers to obtain more information about their experiences with Udio. Using open-ended questions, researchers interviewed students individually using a semi-structured protocol that focused on student perceptions (e.g., When you hear that it's time to use Udio in class, how do you feel?). Teachers were interviewed individually or in pairs consisting of the lead and assistant teacher. These interviews, based on a semi-structured protocol of open-ended questions, focused on the perceived value of Udio as a support program for students with IDD (e.g., What do you think was the best part of Udio for the students? Why?). All interviews were audiorecorded and transcribed.
To further elucidate student use of Udio, electronic usage log data and student-produced online work products were collected. The usage log provided click-by-click data for each student, including, for example, their use of supports such as audio-assisted reading and sentence starters, and their choice of whether to type, draw, or record comments in articles and projects.
Research questions were answered using a grounded theory approach (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 1967), in which a substantive theory is developed based on the systematic gathering and analysis of data (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Due to the special features of Udio as an online literacy program, grounded theory allowed for themes and conclusions to emerge organically from the data. Our primary interest was understanding whether the use of Udio by students with IDD was feasible and how they perceived or experienced Udio.
Field notes and interview transcripts
Data from the observation field notes and interview transcripts were analyzed inductively by a group of three researchers utilizing the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) and coding techniques consistent with grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). All field notes and transcripts were uploaded into NVivo (2014) software and field observations were coded first. Two field notes were initially chosen for each researcher to review independently, line-by-line, and to assign open codes, or labels, to discrete units of data. Researchers compared their assigned codes and discussed differences to achieve consensus. Two additional confirmability checks were conducted; one halfway through and one at the end of the open coding process (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Patton, 2002). Each time, potential discrepancies were discussed until 100% agreement was reached.
In addition to open coding, the researchers used axial coding to classify the codes into higher order categories and subcategories. After each researcher created a list of categories, the team met, shared perspectives, discussed areas of disagreement, and refined categories. All field notes were subsequently reviewed to determine the existence of any negative cases or contradictory evidence that could disprove emerging findings.
As a final step, researchers used selective coding to synthesize the axial codes and to identify the most salient themes. Once themes were determined, hypotheses were formulated describing the extent to which the students were able to use Udio and identify aspects of Udio they found engaging. Teacher and student interviews were then analyzed using the same process; themes were confirmed or disconfirmed across these two data sources (Erickson, F., 1986).
Electronic usage logs
Data from the Udio electronic usage logs and student produced comments and projects were analyzed descriptively. Usage log data included the number of (a) articles read, (b) projects developed, (c) times students commented on articles or projects, (d) times using audio-assisted reading, (e) times using sentence starters, and (f) times students wrote, drew, or recorded responses to articles and project discussions. Events in each category were totaled across the study to reveal the specific Udio supports and features accessed.
Data from the student-produced comments were coded based on two categories: (a) relevancy and (b) nature of the comment. Relevancy of the comment to the content of the article or project was coded dichotomously as follows: 1 = relevant; 0 = not relevant. Nature of relevant comments were coded as follows: 1 = comment based on content (e.g., “You like animals, too. That's awesome. Why do you like dogs better?”); 2 = acknowledgment (e.g., “Thank you.”); and 3 = evaluation (e.g., “Nice project.”).
The purpose of the analysis was twofold: (a) to determine how students with IDD were able to use Udio and (b) to learn about their perceptions of Udio.
Use of Udio
Analysis of observations, teacher/student interviews, and Udio event logs revealed that all students were capable of independently accessing the elements and functions of the Udio environment. Event log data revealed that students utilized all three main components of Udio (articles, projects, and discussions) in order to interact and engage with the text. Over the course of 4.5 months, students read 195 articles, published 65 projects, and commented in article and project discussion areas 257 times. Students used all three response options (text, draw, and audiorecord) to comment on articles and projects; they responded 177 times using text, 45 using drawings, and 35 using audiorecordings.
Support Features of Udio
Of the Udio supports (audio-assisted reading, sentence starters, online dictionary, word-by-word Spanish translation), event logs and classroom observations confirmed that 100% of students used audio-assisted reading to access text and 50% used the sentence starters to support their comments and responses. Teachers confirmed the significance of audio-assisted reading for these students: “I think the read-aloud text alleviates a lot of the stress for them, so that they can hear while they're reading.” Teachers also mentioned sentence starters in their interviews: “He uses a sentence starter and then types his own response to finish the sentence.” The event log indicated that student use of the dictionary and Spanish translation was minimal. It is not known why students did not use the online dictionary. Students presumably did not use translation because none were Spanish-speaking English language learners. Future studies should be conducted to investigate why students do or do not use particular features.
Independent Use of Udio
Teacher interviews and observations confirmed that all ten students used Udio independently once they became familiar with the environment. Initially, teachers provided students with a great deal of one-to-one instruction, but this support diminished over time. One teacher commented, “Our kids picked up on the Udio pretty quickly. . . . By the end, they were completely independent.” Another noted, “We started off really one to one . . . (but after 2 months) they could use it 100% independently.” As witnessed during weekly observations and mentioned in field notes, students seemed very engaged and initiated only minimal requests for adult support when using Udio. Student questions to teachers were primarily about spelling or mechanics and not related to the usability of Udio.
Student Perceptions of Udio
Student perceptions of Udio were characterized by three emerging themes: age-relevant content, choice, and socialization.
Teacher and student interviews, as well as observations, converged on this theme around the value of Udio's age-relevant and contemporary content, in contrast to the curricular materials that are typically available to students with IDD (Taub, 2014). All teachers noted that topics such as Beyoncé, cyberbullying, or the 2010 Haiti earthquake piqued students' interest and stimulated peer-to-peer discussions. Teachers contrasted this content with typical curricula for lower-level reading, which gives little consideration to age appropriateness:
I like that [Udio] deals with some real life topics, which is important for these guys, you know, when they have to navigate the real world. . . . Even though my kids are reading at an overall lower level than most of their peers, this kind of gives them access to what their peers are really talking about outside of our school.
During classroom observations, students were observed selecting articles based on their interests. For instance, a student who loved animals chose to read about the ethics of renting pets. Students and teachers were also observed openly discussing (both in class and online in Udio) age-relevant issues, such as dating violence and cyberbullying.
Interviews with all teachers revealed that students were independently seeking and accessing age-relevant text in Udio based on content topics, despite the text being beyond their current reading ability. One teacher observed and commented on the well-known phenomenon in which struggling readers successfully engage with higher-level texts due to their interests (Fink, 1995):
My students do not let the reading level of the article influence whether or not they read it. . . . their choices were made based on topic interest. And I saw . . . low-level readers in the . . . first grade range, reading a level five to six article on cyberbullying. . . . I just think [it] is just phenomenal.
Another teacher noted that students independently used text from Udio in other classes. Without prompting by teachers, students retrieved an article they had read in Udio to support a discussion about bullying held in another class:
We have an anti-bullying class once a week, and the children needed an article to bring with them–an article about bullying. And guess what they all want to do? The article from Udio. . . . Oh, yeah, I can get an article. I know where to find one.
Opportunities for choice
The degree of choice and independence afforded by Udio engaged students. Teachers were instructed to allow students to choose what they read, how they interacted with the text, and what supports and tools to use within the environment. Interviews and observations indicated that students exhibited a considerable degree of autonomy and self-direction in their literacy activities, and expressed excitement about being able to choose for themselves what, when, and how to read. As they became more familiar with Udio and required less support and guidance from teachers, they explored the range of choices available in Udio readings. Observations revealed that students voiced their preferences of what to read and were intent on exercising their right to make individual choices around their reading.
Some students expressed their preference for reading particular types of articles (“I don't do the sad ones”), while some expressed their preference for engaging in particular activities around their reading (“I only want to comment on people's projects.”). Students were particularly motivated by the opportunity to choose reading material based on their personal interests. Content filtering and sorting features supported students to find content related to their interests and to develop and expand on those interests. One student expressed interest in finding an article about whales. Several weeks later, that same student was observed expressing interest in finding an article within the broader topic of science and nature.
As students became increasingly autonomous, teachers also expressed the value they saw in providing students with authentic and meaningful choices in the context of reading. Several commented on the importance of students having the opportunity to choose topics that were personally relevant and meaningful to them. One teacher described a student who was often distracted from reading because of personal issues but became more motivated to read when she found an article on Udio that she was able to personally relate to: “Well, one of the articles in the Udio was about bullying, and she got right on that . . . ‘That's the one I want to read.' And, cause she's both been a bullier and . . . been bullied.”
Udio is designed to promote socialization by connecting readings and projects with online discussions to facilitate student-to-student and teacher-to-student interactions. This, in turn, enables learners to make sense of the materials, connect them to their own experiences, and express opinions in a social environment. All 10 students participated in the discussions: all used text, six used the drawing tool, and nine used the recording tool. Over the course of the study there were a total of 257 comments which showed Udio provided vital and viable opportunities for social collaboration. Coding of comments revealed that 177 (69%) were written (typed), 45 (17%) were drawn using the embedded drawing tools, and 35 (14%) were recorded using the embedded audiorecord tool. Of the total 257 comments, 228 (89%) were coded as relevant, meaning they were directly related to the content of the article or project, or were deemed relevant to the topic of the conversation. Of the 228 relevant comments, 169 (74 %) were related to content, 30 (13%) were coded as acknowledgements, and 29 (13%) were coded as evaluative.
Observations and interviews demonstrated that students and teachers found online discussions highly engaging. Teachers used the discussion areas to praise students for their contributions. One teacher explained, “I liked the fact that you could say something positive back and forth to those students.” Students found online conversations engaging, one of them noting, “It's fun. Because you get to, like, talk to them and stuff.”
Opportunities to begin or participate in discussions about articles and projects provided options for student reading and participation. A teacher noted a student, typically discouraged by long articles, actively reading and commenting on shorter peer projects while paying close attention to authors' ideas. Moreover, even nonreaders' engagement was increased due to various means of consuming and responding to text. A teacher noted a student who
always wants to go on Udio. She's always asking about it. She loves it because she can't read, but the great thing about it is that she can listen to the stories . . . she really has great ideas and talks about things relevant to the articles. She's absolutely in love with it. She asks about going on (Udio) at home, too.
Observations indicated that online socializing carried over to offline contexts, where students learned not only to help each other, but also to reach out for assistance. On several occasions we observed students seeking feedback and suggestions offline from peers and teachers while working on their projects. After completing their projects, students also pointed their peers to comments they had posted, reminding them to respond. Thus, social interaction appeared to engage students in literacy activities.
The goal of this exploratory study was to examine the potential usability and value of an online UDL literacy environment to support literacy activities for middle school students with IDD. UDL digital environments have shown great promise for enhancing literacy skills in students with disabilities (Coyne et al., 2012), but have yet to be explored as a tool for use by middle school students with IDD. To date, this is the first study to examine the potential benefits of an online UDL environment to support the literacy skills of these students.
The present study was exploratory in nature, and thus, no predictions were made regarding how students would interact with the online literacy environment, or how students would react to Udio's design features and elements directly related to the UDL guidelines. The three themes that emerged as particularly engaging factors for students in the study were age-relevant content, choice, and opportunities for socialization.
The mismatch between the content that middle school students are motivated to read and what they are required to read in the classroom is well documented (Ivey, 2010; Pitcher et. al., 2007) with some suggesting that schools serve “as disincentives because they fail to take into account what motivates adolescents to read” (Pitcher et al., 2007, p. 379). Although progress is being made, this mismatch is even more pronounced for middle school students with IDD (Browder et al., 2014). The majority of required reading material for these students is focused on supporting functional vocabulary and decoding skills, often at the expense of content that is authentic and age-relevant (Taub, 2014). Although continued focus on these skills is important, teachers may miscalculate students' ability to access higher-level reading activities in supported reading environments and may inadvertently limit their interactions with age-relevant content. Consistent with UDL's principle of Multiple Means of Engagment, Udio provides students with multiple ways to become engaged with text by providing a variety of options of high interest reading topics, ensuring that all students' interests and preferences are addressed. Furthermore, because Udio is highly scaffolded, students are able to independently access age-relevant texts well beyond their decoding level. In addition, students have opportunities to engage with these texts in authentic, relevant ways such as creating projects that are posted for others to see and participating in online discussions with peers and teachers.
Opportunities for Choice
Well-designed opportunity for student choice is one of the most powerful but under-utilized tools in the design of instructional practices for reading. Supporting students' autonomy through choice improves both motivation to read and reading performance (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006; Pitcher et al., 2007). As such, choice plays a key role in every model of reading motivation, and yet, most students with IDD have few opportunities to experience autonomy in their learning. They are often offered less choice in the classroom and are subject to more controlling and authoritative teacher practices (Wehby, Lane, & Falk, 2003). As a result, many individuals with IDD learn to be overly dependent on others as they reach adulthood and are not encouraged to achieve their potential for independence and self-sufficiency (Wehmeyer, 1992). Again consistent with UDL's principle of Multiple Means of Engagement, Udio was designed to optimize individual choice and autonomy to increase motivation and engage students on a deeper level with text. The environment affords students opportunities to experience autonomy in their reading by providing choices about tasks and texts reflecting interest and skill levels. Students in this study regularly made choices around what to read, how to interact with text, and the level and amount of support they accessed. In particular, they made choices about how to interact socially with their peers by using texts, drawings or recordings to respond, representative of the UDL principle of Multiple Means of Action and Expression.
Increasingly, K–12 students are required by standards to actively participate in classroom discussions and engage with peers (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2010). Yet, students with IDD often lack the social competence necessary for successful engagement in social interaction and learning (Bauminger & Kasari, 2000), as many of the cognitive processes required such as self-regulation and social perspective taking are impaired by cognitive and communicative challenges (Guralnick, 1999). However, the effect of cognitive and social impairments on the development of social competence and the ability to engage in collaborative learning can be moderated by various environmental factors, one being the availability of opportunities to participate in age-appropriate supported social interactions (Diamond, 2002). Udio motivated students by providing them with opportunities to engage in authentic discussions with peers and teachers about what they read. For many of these students, checking notifications of whether they had received comments from peers was the first task they chose when beginning Udio sessions. When notifications were present their delight was evident as was their disappointment when they were not. The Udio environment provided these students with the opportunity to discuss age-relevant topics with peers and teachers, something that is often lacking in the school experiences of children with IDD. These supports for socialization are integral to the UDL principle of Multiple Means of Engagement.
Implications for Research and Practice
The findings from this study suggested that students were able to engage with a UDL environment that provides socially authentic interactions with peers around age-relevant text, optimizes individual choice and autonomy, and provides appropriate levels of challenge and support. Given what we know about the growing evidence that students with IDD can indeed benefit from instructional practices previously thought only to benefit general education students (Browder et al., 2014; Coyne et al., 2012), the current study has significant implications for research and instructional practices in literacy.
Research suggests that instructional practices focused on building background knowledge, effective use of specific strategies, word knowledge, and motivation contribute much more strongly to literacy outcomes than those focused on word recognition or reading fluency per se (Kim, Linan-Thompson, & Misquitta, 2012; Underwood & Pearson, 2004). Despite these key findings, the emphasis of instructional content for students with IDD has traditionally focused on drill and practice instruction of sight words, decoding, and other basic functional literacy skills in isolated contexts, with little consideration given to balanced literacy instruction (Browder et al., 2006; Erickson, K., Hanser, Hatck, & Sanders, 2009).
UDL emphasizes the importance of optimizing student choice and autonomy to promote motivation and engagement. In using Udio, students were excited about the choices available to them and proved capable of navigating these choices and practicing autonomous decision-making around reading. In line with research on typically developing readers, this suggests that choice can play an important role in promoting reading engagement for students with IDD, though more research is needed regarding whether and how choice affects reading engagement for these students and whether the manipulation of choice can have a significant effect on literacy outcomes.
Providing students with IDD with accessible, high-interest, age-relevant reading material has the added benefit of increasing opportunities to engage in authentic discussion and peer-to-peer socialization. Students and teachers in this small study were well aware that Udio's content was relatable and well-aligned with the material read by general education peers, as well as Udio's focus on promoting authentic discussion that drew on background knowledge and opinions regarding relevant topics and issues. In this study, it was clear that in addition to promoting reading engagement, Udio's accessible, age-relevant content promoted peer-to-peer socialization for students with IDD. Future researchers should examine the content and design of literacy-based curricula and its relationship to additional opportunities for learning and skill development.
Limitations relate directly to the research design. Given the exploratory nature of this study and its small sample size, the results are intended to inform future research and cannot be generalized to current instructional programs and practices. Although the results are not generalizable and should be interpreted carefully, they provide implications for the directions of future research and for the instructional practices of educators in similar contexts.
The potential of designing UDL environments for students with IDD warrants closer scrutiny as this and a previous study (Coyne et al., 2012) indicate clear advantages for these students. As research branches out with this population and expectations are raised, UDL should remain in the forefront informing the design and implementation of instructional materials and practices to ensure that motivation and learning are maximized.
The contents of this project were developed under a Cooperative Agreement between the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and CAST #H327M110003. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests. The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to Udio, the research, authorship, and publication of this article.
The authors would like to thank the students and teachers who participated in this project. Their dedication to learning and literacy made this work possible.