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Asst. Prof. Dr. Heidi Bonner, criminal justice, works with student Lindsey Frederick in the Rivers computer lab. Bonner prefers the active learning techniques incorporated through Universal Design for Learning to traditional lectures. (Photos by Jay Clark) 


ECU faculty create flexible environments for learning

June 21, 2016

By Kathy Bartlett
For University Communication

When a building is constructed using principles of universal design, everyone benefits. Convenient ramps and wide doors not only help elderly and disabled individuals, but also mothers with strollers and teens on crutches.
Faculty members at East Carolina University are learning that the same principles can be applied to college courses. By creating instructional environments and materials using Universal Design for Learning principles, the courses work for everyone - commuters, part-time students, students with full-time jobs, veterans and students with learning differences.

UDL has been a focus on campus for several years now, promoted by both the ECU Office for Faculty Excellence and the UNC System College STAR (Supporting Transition, Access and Retention) program. It encourages curriculum that presents information in ways to give learners options for acquiring knowledge, providing students more opportunities to demonstrate what they know and engaging learners to keep them interested and motivated.

Faculty members are not simply retrofitting their courses using UDL, but redesigning them to meet the needs and preferences of many different students. Through workshops, guest speakers and learning communities known as Pirate CREWs, faculty members have tools to redesign their courses and share experiences with each other.


Dr. Dorothy Muller, director of the Office for Faculty Excellence
"UDL is best practice,"  said Dr. Dorothy Muller, director of the Office for Faculty Excellence. "Courses are more complete and enjoyable if we allow for options. It gives more power to the students and they have more buy-in."

Options for different learning styles

Dr. Jan Tillman is aware that advanced practice nurses in her College of Nursing leadership course are a heterogeneous group.

They are often older than traditional East Carolina students and have years of clinical experience. They are practicing nurses - moms, dads and sometimes veterans - with varied ethnic backgrounds. Tillman knew from the start that they would also bring a wide variety of learning styles to the table.

When a workshop on improving student engagement and learning through course redesign was offered at ECU, Tillman was excited to participate. She spent a summer revamping a hybrid distance learning course to give her students several ways to both learn and demonstrate their knowledge of leadership principles.

"In the workshop, we discussed the importance of guiding students to 'think' about how they learn,"  Tillman said. "If I can teach content in a variety of ways then I'm more likely to guide students toward discovery of their own optimal learning styles."

She divided the course into three tracks: a traditional read-and-lecture track; an "exposure" track that involves shadowing a working nurse leader; and an "experiential" track with a service-learning component. Students can choose which track fits their life and learning style. All three tracks have proven to be popular.


Dr. Jan Tillman, ECU College of Nursing, works with student Anne O'Hara during Tillman's Informatics for the Advance Practice Nurse class.

"Striving for creativity and innovation is a self-imposed challenge that keeps education alive and interesting," Tillman said. "I hope that students have more 'aha moment's in these courses-'Aha moments' will translate into improved patient and process outcomes."

Flipping the classroom

For Dr. Tara Gallien, assistant professor of health education and promotion, awareness of UDL reinforced a course redesign effort already underway with colleague Essie Torres - another assistant professor in the department. They used a series of PBS videos on social determinants of health in their disparities class.

"We were flipping the classroom without even knowing we were flipping it," Gallien said when she described the redesign she adopted.

A flipped classroom pushes activities that a student can complete on his or her own to prepare for class, such as listening to a recorded lecture or watching a video. This reserves class time for activities that engage students in the material through a variety of active learning strategies, such as small group discussion.

"I saw a huge change in engagement and critical thinking," Gallien said of the flip.

Flipped classrooms often work well for students with non-traditional schedules or learning styles, as they can watch the videos at a time and speed that works well for them.

A team approach to retraining

A number of faculty members have organized as Pirate CREWs so they can learn together about UDL technologies and share their experiences across disciplines. One option for lecturers is a software system that helps create video, audio, and computer screen lessons.

"It makes it much more fun for me," said Dr. Heidi Stone Bonner, assistant professor of criminal justice. "I don't have to lecture and I can focus on more active learning among my students."

Bonner acknowledges that it is more work for faculty on the front end, but less work throughout future semesters.

Muller said faculty members across the university are embracing programs that assist them in providing a more active learning experience for students.

"Students won't accept passive learning situations anymore and technology can support activities that enable students to experience real situations," Muller said. "Faculty are realizing there's a better way and they are finding teaching more enjoyable."


Dr. Jan Tillman, ECU College of Nursing, uses Universal Design for Learning principles in her Informatics for the Advance Practice Nurse class. 

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