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The Future of Learning: UDL, Tech, and AI in the Classroom

Anne Wolff MEd
Anne Wolff MEd
November 16, 2023

On our team, I am known for the phrase “think outside the box.” I am always looking for alternative ways to use something. Whether it is turning a boot into a planter, just like in the movie Wall-E, or looking at how different educational technology tools can enhance voice and choice for students. Cue AI to help me find more ways to “think outside the box.”

Let me break it down for you. So, yours truly was born in '83, just when the tech tornado was starting to rev up. From what I hear, the radio was the ultimate family entertainment in the ‘20s. Then, bam, the overhead projector in the '30s, followed by those snazzy headphones in the '50s and videotapes not long after. And who could forget the photocopier in '59 and the revolutionary handheld calculator in '72? Let's not even talk about the Scantron testing system — like we needed another reason to fret over exams, right? I still have nightmares from our “bubbling parties”, we had to ensure the students stayed inside the lines! Then, the internet barged in during the wild '80s, followed by the debut of Google Apps for Education in '06. Fast forward to '10, when the iPad swooped in. Despite all the fuss about these gadgets messing up education, they actually made classrooms more inclusive and way more thrilling!

In 2022, we got our first taste of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Many of us are still trying to wrap our heads around it, but as educators, our mission is to prepare our students for the real world, which now includes dealing with AI. You might think AI sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi nightmare, but believe it or not, it's here to stay. In fact, two unions in the entertainment industry were on strike, partly due to AI. AI will only become a bigger part of our daily lives, and it's our job to teach our students how to use it to break down barriers. But here's the tricky part: we have to harness this tool without making things even more complicated for learning and thinking critically. Just like any tech gadget, it's all about finding that sweet spot and using it purposefully. 

Using A.I. as a Tool

As one example, AI-powered language translation tools can break down language barriers, ensuring that multi-lingual learners (MLL) can access content in their first language, promoting comprehension and participation. Using the tools to provide MLL access to complex text can better support them as they begin to analyze the same text in English and use sentence stems to discuss with their classmates. AI doesn’t take over for the teacher or prevent students from learning additional languages, but rather, it eliminates a barrier to ensure students are more prepared to contribute to meaningful discussions with their classmates.

As educators, we can use AI to let robots handle the nitty-gritty technical stuff, freeing us up to flex our critical thinking and people skills to better connect with our learners and colleagues. Let me tell you a little story from earlier this year. I was knee-deep in creating an order form for our curriculum using Google Forms. My goal was to ensure the right folks got a heads-up whenever someone submitted a new order. Now, Google Forms didn't have an option for that, so I knew I needed to roll my sleeves up and write some HTML code. 

That's when I called in ChatGPT, or what my Director lovingly calls “Chuck.” I asked Chuck to write code to shoot out emails to specific folks every time a new entry was submitted. To my absolute shock, not only did Chuck write the code, but it also served up a step-by-step guide on how to insert it into Google Forms. Talk about a game-changer!

Since I didn't have to waste endless hours banging my head against the code-writing wall, I could pour myself into designing an innovative lesson for my students at the Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy. That day, the lesson was called "think outside the box" with Google Slides. Now, I won't bore you with all the ins and outs – another story for another day. But, so you know, I challenged my students to use Google Slides for something way cooler than your standard presentation. It's all about giving them freedom and letting their creativity and problem-solving skills run wild. Plus, as I was putting this post together, I got a little curious about what Chuck had to say about other ways to make the most of Google Slides. Guess what? It churned out 15 ideas that hadn't even crossed my mind. AI can breathe fresh life into even the oldest lessons, turning them into something brand-spankin' new.

We need to make sure our students are ready not just to handle this tech-driven world but also to use it to their advantage.

Embracing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and integrating technology purposefully through the lens of UDL, educators can ensure their learning environments are more inclusive and better equipped to meet the diverse needs of all students, ultimately preparing them for success in a world where technology and AI will continue to play a significant role. 

By diving headfirst into UDL and making technology an integral part of the learning experience, teachers ensure their classrooms are accessible and engaging for every student. Regardless of student identity or specific learning challenges, they can access the material, get engaged, and show what they've learned in their own way. It's like giving them a personal learning toolkit.

Why's this a big deal? Well, we live in a world where tech and AI are getting bigger every day, and that's not changing anytime soon. The jobs of the future will likely involve working with artificial intelligence in some way. We need to make sure our students are ready not just to handle this tech-driven world but also to use it to their advantage. When teachers embrace UDL and tech, they're preparing tech-savvy, adaptable learners who can take on a world that's always in flux.

Anne Wolff, MEd
Over the course of a 13-year career in education, Anne Wolff MEd, has built a professional reputation utilizing expertise in education, arts, media, entertainment, and information/communication technologies on three principles: hard work, efficiency, and continuous improvement. Anne's tech-savvy mindset, coupled with her creative thinking, empowers students and staff to effectively utilize digital tools. Wolff is the co-author of Universal Design for Learning in English Language Arts
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