Where Silicon Valley meets education – 'Learning Design with Technology'

Summer travels took Bob Harrison to one of Silicon Valley's intellectual engine rooms — Stanford University

It was that time of year when I pack my bags and fly to Silicon Valley to be a reviewer for the Stanford Graduate School of Education Masters Degree course “Learning Design with Technology”. On either side of highway 101 from San Francisco to San Jose you can find the homes of many of the household technology names — like Google and Apple — that support our busy and digitally connected lives.

Stanford is in esteemed company, and it makes the most of it with its Learning design with Technology course. It’s a unique blend of blue skies, venture capital and the intellectual property and innovative ideas that gush out of the growing Stanford Campus in Palo Alto.

Stanford University was founded by Leland J Stanford Jr, the railroad magnate, and is one of the most prestigious private universities in the world. With an international reputation and tuition fees around the $50,000 mark it is also regarded as an intellectual engine room for Silicon Valley.

I usually drop in to see my old friend Professor Larry Cuban and share views about the latest developments involving technology and learning and teaching (see “Flight of a butterfly or a bullet? Cuban's quest”). He was particularly keen to learn about England’s computing curriculum this year but, alas, our paths couldn’t cross. However being able to mooch around the campus for a few days did give me the opportunity to discover another Stanford gem, The Schwab Learning Centre, and spend some time with director Nicole Ofiesh. 

Solving education problems using technology – the projects

It provided the opportunity to learn more about an exciting approach to the use of technology in learning environments that is rapidly gaining traction – “Universal Design for Learning”. But first let’s take a look at the student projects from the Learning Design with Technology programme that I had been invited to review.

I joined some distinguished names in the educational technology world, like Professor Roy Pea, John Seeley-Brown, Professor Brigid Barron, Paul Kim, Carrisa Carter (director of Stanford’s D School) as well as representatives from the corporate and tech startup communities.

The projects are all predicated on a carefully defined and researched educational challenge, and over the course of the programme students have to work collaboratively to design a technological solution. All of the project videos can be seen here. The background to some of the projects also is an interesting read (see "Stanford education students invent new tools to support learning at all ages").  

I always find spending time with students who are passionate about the potential of technology to improve and enhance learning refreshing and inspiring. It also leads me to hope that some universities here in the UK might launch a similar masters degree in the near future.

The Schwab Learning Center and Universal Design for Learning

The Stanford Campus has always been a hotbed for innovative ideas and the Schwab Learning Center is the Office for Accessible Education. The SLC offers students with learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder a wide array of state-of-the-art services and resources to enrich the learning and research opportunities at Stanford.

Nicole Ofiesh, director of Schwab and CASTAlthough the starting point has been technology and learning disability, the latest thinking to emerge is relevant and applicable for all learning environments and all learners. Universal Design for Learning was explained to me by Nicole Ofiesh, director of Schwab and the senior research director of CAST and an ambassador for Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This is a research-based set of principles to guide the design of learning environments that are accessible and effective for all, and Nicole Ofiesh (pictured right) is clear about its potential. “UDL is based on the very best research in neuroscience and its premise is access to learning for everyone," she explains.

“It is not about differentiated learning with assistive technology but applying what we know from the ‘spectrum of variability’.It is about designing for the margins and creating learning environments for everyone. When you design for the margins everyone wins.”

And of course there's a useful website-come-app for educators wanting to engage with UDL. Goalbook has produced a very useful toolkit for anyone designing learning environments who may wish to consider the design principles of UDL. I am sure the DfE Priority Schools Building Programme and those responsible for the design of new schools would benefit from a dose of UDL.

So I return from Stanford University once again inspired and enthusiastic about the potential for technology to enhance and improve learning, and I sincerely hope that recent interest from the DfE (see "Government finally promises policy on ICT for learning") will not be a false dawn for learning with technology in our country. Perhaps we could learn something from the Stanford innovations.