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From Where We Sit

The power of choice

Imagine a learning environment, whether in a school or corporate setting, where learners are given the opportunity to choose topics that interest and engage them by truly personalizing their learning experience.

In the 2006 Hollywood comedy film, Accepted, Bartleby Gaines (played by Justin Long) and a group of high school graduates create their own fake college after being rejected from the colleges to which they applied. Their plan bombs when the website, which automatically accepts any applicant, enrolls hundreds of other rejected students. Bartleby realizes that these people have nowhere else to go, so he lets them believe that the school is real. Disenchanted with traditional college life, he decides to let the students create their own curricula, which range from the culinary arts and sculpture to meditation and even unusual courses such as psychokinesis.

When the school is forced to close and Bartleby is at risk of facing jail time for fraud, he makes a moving speech before the education accreditation board on the failures of conventional education and the importance of following one’s passions, convincing the board to grant his school a one-year probationary accreditation to test his new system.

The learning model where learners take control of their education is not just Hollywood fiction, but a new reality in the real world of education. This approach to education is not really new and is known by different names: self-directed learning, personalized learning and student-centered learning. While gaining momentum and still evolving, these models are described as a kind of freeform learning that is not “teacher-centered.”

So what inspires the next generation of learners?

In the past decade, I spent my career teaching students across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. During my years in the academe, it occurred to me that students love to make “choices.” Some ways of providing options to students include letting them choose their own learning materials, initiate their own projects, select options for their assignments and choosing from a broad range of electives.

In designing classrooms that support student choice to improve and optimize teaching and learning, there is a need for insights into how humans learn. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a powerful framework that helps educators design learning experiences to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, inspiring learning opportunities. UDL looks at the design of the learning environment rather than thinking of what needs to change about the learners.

UDL offers guidelines for educators and instructional designers on design strategies, materials, assessments and tools to proactively meet the diverse needs of learners with varying skills and abilities. The UDL framework is based on three main principles: representation, engagement, and action and expression.

Provide multiple means of representation. This is the “what” of learning that suggests the use of multiple strategies to present information and content. Learners perceive and comprehend information differently and have a way in which they learn best. Providing learners with study materials in a range of formats and allowing them to choose which format they are comfortable with will increase their academic confidence. It is also important to identify whether your students are visual, auditory, reading/writing or kinesthetic (VARK) learners, and to align your overall curriculum to accommodate these different learning styles.

Most educators and training professionals use PowerPoint presentations. In fact, there are over 500 million PowerPoint users and 30 million PowerPoint presentations created each day around the world. PowerPoint presentations are overused and more often, boring. Learners will read and learn from PowerPoint presentations, simply because they don’t have a choice.

In my experience in designing online learning courses and blending it with my classroom teaching, I have developed and introduced learning materials in a range of formats, including digitized textbooks, slide presentations, short videos, webpages, articles and concept maps. Surprisingly, when given options, students will immediately ditch PowerPoint. Among the range of content formats available, the preferred choice is the concept map. Students holding a concept map printed on A3 size paper is a common sight instead of printed books, handouts or PowerPoint slides. When using a Learning Management System (LMS), learning analytics will also show which type of content they access frequently.

Provide multiple means of engagement. This is the “why” of learning that suggests multiple strategies to stimulate interest in and motivation for learning, and it is reflective of diverse learning characteristics and backgrounds. While some students favor a well-structured approach to learning, others may prefer flexibility and autonomy. Attracting student attention and interest is a recurring challenge for teachers and is made more problematic when considering individual learner styles and preferences. Identifying alternative strategies to stimulate learner interest is important.

Specific examples would include providing students with choice and autonomy in the tools they will use to work on a project, flexibility in the timing of completion of tasks, variety in course materials and activities to help personalize and contextualize individual learning goals, and an array of activities that encourage creativity, active participation and exploration. It is also equally important to minimize threats and distractions by establishing course calendars and schedules to increase predictability.

Provide multiple means of action and expression. This is the “how” of learning that suggests alternative ways students can act skillfully and demonstrate what they know. Teachers can use digital tools to provide options for learners to interact with the materials and to demonstrate comprehension and mastery of skills and course goals. Teachers can also leverage technology in assessing student learning and providing feedback.

Several assessment tools that can be used include online quizzes and discussion forums at the end of each module, practice problems and exercises for problem-based course and collaborative assignments that students accomplish using Google Apps for Education. When using online quizzes, teachers can create question banks within their LMS to provide random sets of questions for different students and per attempt by the same student. Quizzes can be timed, adjusted to provide instant feedback and can allow multiple attempts. Such exercises will later serve as examples of practical solutions to real dilemmas.

For further utilization of these materials, collaborative assignments, through Google Apps for Education, will allow students to work digitally and, at the same time, share their knowledge and insights. Using the application can simplify academic tasks, aid easier communication and even assist the next class session. At the end of the day, teachers will be able to assess their students’ overall performance with the results produced from the digital tools used.

While educators are expected to use technology in teaching, the use of UDL guidelines has different starting points and works differently in every classroom. Some educators may face issues on using technology itself; others may relate to the lack of training to help them become proficient with digital technology. Hence, school leaders should take action to support teachers in facing these challenges to avoid the risk of creating a generation of learners who are uninspired and ill-prepared for the next digital revolution.

The UDL framework can also be applied in the corporate world. When these principles are applied in corporate learning, every business can create powerful learning cultures that encourage and stimulate the interest of its people by providing trainings using different approaches and modalities. Corporate learning, however, creates a larger and more in-depth learning when employees are provided with choices to either improve existing skills or acquire new expertise in whatever field they choose. Making people in charge of their own development provides a key element of personal satisfaction and inspires them to think and work beyond the box.

Jess Obana is a senior managing consultant in the Advisory Services Division of P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading audit, tax, advisory and outsourcing firms in the Philippines, with 23 partners and more than 900 staff members. We’d like to hear from you! Tweet us: @GrantThorntonPH, like us on Facebook: P&A Grant Thornton, and email your comments to or For more information, visit


As published in The Manila Times, dated 15 April 2020