Insights from the Field: Making the Transition from Transactional to Transformational Education


Kaitlin Garrett

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This week, Dr. Katie Novak and Tom Thibodeau, co-authors of “UDL in the Cloud” and OLC faculty for the workshop Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles to Online Courses to Increase Accessibility and Engagement, join us to discuss this new offering within the OLC Institute for Professional Development.


Kaitlin Garrett: Hello this is Kaitlin Garrett with OLC’s Institute for Professional Development.  Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Katie Novak and Tom Thibodeau for a quick chat about the OLC workshop they co-developed, Applying Universal Design for Learning Principles to Online Courses to Increase Accessibility and Engagement. So let’s get started.

Welcome Katie and Tom, thanks for joining me today. Why don’t we get started with getting to know you both a bit, so if you could tell me a little bit more about your professional and personal backgrounds please?

Katie Novak: Sure, so my name is Katie Novak, and I am an assistant superintendent of schools in a regional district outside of Boston, it’s called the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, and I have an amazing opportunity as a point-eight assistant superintendent to spend four days a week in classrooms working with teachers and administrators in designing really rich learning experiences that will increase engagement and accessibility for all of our students.

Also, I get to oversee all of the professional development in our district so I actually have an opportunity to design and deliver graduate courses and professional development to educators, you know, pretty much on a weekly basis, in-person and hybrid and online and so it’s really, really important work for me to see that this framework truly allows all learners to be really successful and really engaged in their learning.

And as the other point two of my life, I do consulting on Universal Design for Learning internationally. I work very closely with an organization that’s called CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, and they’re really the driving force behind the research, development, professional learning, and policy that’s maximizing UDL and nationwide. My education background, as I actually started in the sciences, went to get my master’s degree in education, and then have a doctorate in curriculum and teaching from Boston University. I did teach full time for 12 years before transitioning over to an administrator, but I still can really consider myself to be a teacher first in anything that I’m doing.

And something interesting about me is I’m the mom of four kids that are eight and under.  Also, I did run my first marathon this year, and it wasn’t that pretty because I only trained up to fifteen miles and then decided that I was gonna run 26.2, and I did it, but again, if you see the the picture at the finish line, it’s a little scary. And another interesting fact is that my co-facilitator for this class is one I know very very well because he is a very close colleague of mine and a professional mentor and my dad. 

Tom Thibodeau: [laughter] And that must be me. I’m Tom Thibodeau. I am the assistant provost here at New England Institute of Technology where I’ve been for—I’m starting on my 28th year. I started as an adjunct faculty member in video production, and my previous career before coming to New England Tech was as a videographer and a professional online editor. So I’ve been involved in over 2,000 video programs over my career and continue to do video for my new job here at New England Tech (new after 28 years even) so that I am basically in charge of the Faculty Resource Center.  I take care of all the faculty development and have a crew of people—from instructional designers to educational technologists—that help me support about 500 faculty here at New England Tech.

So, like Katie, I get a chance to work with the faculty, faculty directly one-on-one or in classroom situations, and support them in a variety of ways so that we can provide the best education possible for our students. My education background is that I have a bachelor degree in secondary in English education and a master’s degree in broadcasting, and my current profession really builds upon that background on a daily basis so that I really get to involve myself and my faculty in the use of technology to teach technology.

And more and more increasingly, I have been using UDL to accomplish that task. At New England Tech, we have a very dispersed type of students, and reaching them individually through UDL frameworks and strategies really works very very well, so we’re trying to do that more and more on a daily basis. Something interesting that you might want to know about me besides me being Katie’s dad, which is a challenge sometimes [laughter], never, is that I like to work in stained glass, so I can get lost cutting small pieces of glass and soldering them all together inside of lead frames to make hopefully a beautiful image.

Katie: And something else which is kind of cool which you don’t get to say that often is that we actually wrote the book on universally designed online courses. So we worked very closely with CAST professional publications and actually did a lot of research on best practices in designing and delivering an online course. So this is a really cool opportunity for people to experience, you know, everything that we really promote as best practice. You know I know that that one of the next things that we’re going to talk about is, you know, what is it that prospective learners really need to know about this course, and I think that one of the things that I can say for sure is that it will be universally designed.

There will be choices about how you learn; there will be choices about how you share what you know. You know, if you’re a person who is much more apt to learn things from videos or podcasts or peer-reviewed articles, you’re gonna have an opportunity and a choice to build your comprehension of UDL in the way that works best and also express that back to us, you know, using either more traditional tools like writing a response or getting really fancy and using some really cool technology tools to do podcasts like this one as well as other multimedia presentations.

Tom: Another thing that’s very important about the way we teach the course is to truly try and be as responsive as we possibly can. We respond to emails before 24 hours is up, usually sometimes very very quickly. We correct and give feedback to assignments in a very very prompt fashion. Usually you know when a typical online course that goes week to week, we would always have it back to our students within the week, but in this kind of a situation, we’re going to have it back before the next project is due.

Kaitlin: Perfect. Well you guys kind of beat me to the punch for the next question, I love it. So you both hit on very good points about what prospective participants should know about this UDL workshop. So Katie, definitely that it is designed with UDL in mind, and then Tom, more about your facilitation style. So thank you very much. I’m going to jump into the next question.  So what kind of research or projects are you currently engaged in related to UDL?

Tom: Well we’re actually both writing another chapter in another book, which is a compilation of chapters from UDL researchers and professionals across the globe, which is a very exciting project. Katie is actually editing it with another collaborator, and we’re hoping that this will be a great resource for the future for the use of UDL in higher education.

Katie: Yeah, so the book is about the international implementation of Universal Design for Learning and we have an amazing line-up of authors. First of all, we have David Rose, who is the father of UDL, who is writing the forward, but we have authors from 8 different countries actually from, you know, South Africa and Brazil, Australia, Ireland, Norway, United States, Canada. It’s an amazing line-up of practitioners who are really committed to doing this worldwide to ensure that we have a really rich diverse population of students who are able to access and engage in their education. So that is something that’s really exciting to see that it’s truly spinning the globe right now.

Another project that I’m working on right now is a book on how Universal Design for Learning is really a framework that is really focused on the foundation of equity and equal opportunity in social justice. So that’s a book I’m co-authoring with Mirko Chardin, who is an urban educator in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and we’re looking at how when you use the principles of Universal Design for Learning, whether it’s an in-person course or whether it’s a online course or whether it’s a hybrid course, what you’re really looking to do is to ensure equal opportunities to succeed and equal opportunities for people to express their truths and get support where they need it and get feedback to push themselves further than they thought they could go. And so I really think that all intertwines, and you’ll see a little bit of that in our course, both that focus on equity and that focus on scaling this internationally.

Kaitlin: Great, thank you for sharing those. Now for my last question, and a quick look into the future, what changes can we expect to see over the next five years in teaching and learning as a result of the work that is being done to advance UDL?

Tom: Well I’m hoping that within the next five years we’re truly going to transition to a type of education that is transformational rather than being transactional. That we’ll get out of the whole mindset of getting people to do things almost for the sake of doing it and get to the real heart of the issue of getting people to change as a process of the education that they’re going through.

And the beauty of UDL is that it gives every individual the chance to find out what that exactly is for he or she so that they can make it happen for themselves with the help of their instructors.

Katie: I would say also that, you know ,right now when you’re looking at a lot of the rates of successful completion of coursework, especially at the higher education level, we’re seeing actually some some really disappointing trends. Although we’re able to increase access as an entry point into education, and especially online education, the completion rates and the satisfactory completion of some of those is not what we really need to shoot for. And so you know the hope is that we continue to pass these policies, you know, such as the Higher Education Opportunity Act, the new Every Student Succeeds Act in the United States.

What we’re finding through our work with our colleagues internationally is that other countries are getting to step up and do the same.  I think we’re gonna see a very, very different population of students who are able to be really successful and to become really innovative practitioners in our world. And the way that we’re currently teaching is very much knowledge-based. We want to create experiences so students can become knowledgeable, and I always argue that right now the best case of people becoming knowledgeable are robots, and if we can’t figure out how to be really self-directed, creative problem-solvers who can think critically, we’re competing with artificial intelligence, and there’s no way we can ever compete with the knowledge load. And so it’s all about as Tom was saying, we have to teach people how to transform from the world that we live in through the power of education, and that cannot be done using one pathway. That cannot be done with the one-size-fits-all approach to education. And so Universal Design for Learning will create a platform that really starts to embrace the fact that there are many creative, beautiful ways to reach the same destination that allow us to differentiate ourselves from the computers and the robots that can be programmed to be knowledgeable.

Kaitlin: Very interesting. Well thank you again Katie and Tom for taking the time to chat with me today, it’s definitely been a pleasure. Before we say goodbye, could you please tell us how people can connect with you?

Katie: So I’m everywhere as “Katie Novak UDL”. So that is my twitter handle, it’s my LinkedIn, it’s my Facebook. And so if you just go into “Katie Novak UDL” you can find me. My website is And if you want to reach me via email, predictably,

Tom: And I can be reached here at New England Tech at And I do have a Twitter handle, Tom Thibodeau, but I don’t have a web page so you’ll have to just go with those two old-fashioned things.

Kaitlin: Thank you very much. Well this concludes our interview with Dr. Katie Novak and Tom Thibodeau today. Thank you for listening.

About Katie Novak

Katie NovakKatie Novak, Ed.D. is an internationally renowned education consultant as well as a practicing leader in education as an Assistant Superintendent of Schools at the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Massachusetts. With 15 years of experience in teaching and administration, an earned doctorate in curriculum and teaching, and 4 books published by CAST Professional Publications, Katie designs and presents workshops both nationally and internationally focusing on implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and universally designed leadership. Dr. Novak is the author of the best-selling book, “UDL Now! A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning in Today’s Classrooms.” Her newest book, “Let Them Thrive: A Playbook for Helping Your Child Succeed in School and in Life”, was endorsed by the PACER Foundation. Two additional publications, of which she is a co-author, have been endorsed by leading professors in the field of education and state departments of education. “UDL in the Cloud” was endorsed by the Executive Director of The Initiative on Learning and Teaching at MIT while Mitchell Chester, the late Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), endorsed Universally Designed Leadership. Novak’s work in UDL has impacted educators worldwide as her contributions and collaborations have built upon the foundation for an educational framework that is critical for student success.

About Tom Thibodeau

Tom-ThibodeauTom Thibodeau is the co-author of “UDL in the Cloud” and currently oversees and provides online professional development courses with Katie Novak. Thibodeau has also been an assistant provost at the New England Institute of Technology in East Greenwich, RI for 15 years. As assistant provost, he serves as the division chair for nine academic departments with 23 degree programs (AS, BS & MS) and over 1,200 students. He also leads faculty development, outcomes assessment and attendance tracking through a team-based approach. As facilitator of new faculty orientation, Thibodeau stresses the use of UDL, active learning, problem-based learning and technology-enhanced teaching and learning. He managed development of NEIT’s first online degree program in Information Technology and implemented a new curriculum mapping process. Thibodeau started at NEIT in 1990 as an adjunct instructor in video production and then an assistant professor, department chair and director of the Center for Distributed Learning and the Faculty Resource Center. He has been involved in online education since 1996 and has seen, first hand, the impact that positive planning and design can have on student engagement, especially when these are designed to meet the needs of all learners.

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