2021 Faculty Excellence in Universal Design Winner

Joshua Skov headshot

AEC is pleased to honor Joshua Skov, Lundquist College of Business Instructor of Management, as our 2021 Faculty Excellence in Universal Design award recipient. Excellence in Universal Design involves providing flexibility in the ways in which information is presented, how students may demonstrate knowledge or skills, and the ways in which students are able to engage in a course. Universal Design in Learning (UDL) strives to ensure equity and access for all learners (CAST UDL Guidelines). Joshua’s nomination, from a busy yet inspired student, reflected his strong commitment to these practices, his enthusiasm for stimulating his students’ interest in a topic, and to being flexible in the moment, per individual students’ needs.

Joshua teaches both undergraduate and MBA-level courses at the University of Oregon through the Center for Sustainable Business Practices, one of the nation’s top-ranked green MBA programs. His courses focus on clean energy and life-cycle assessment, industrial ecology, and sustainable business. He has worked as an industry mentor and consultant on sustainability in business practices for more than 20 years. Outside the University, he serves in a senior position in the Sustainability, Energy, and Climate Change practice of WSP, a large global consultancy.

Joshua’s nomination highlights his versatility in presentation methods, his creativity in providing students multiple ways to engage with course content, a commitment to continually improving his teaching and course design to better meet the needs of all learners, an overall openness and an approachable teaching style.

Here is some of what his nominator had to say: “From the first recorded lecture Joshua prepared for his students he made it clear that contemporary forms of teaching techniques were not necessarily constructed to benefit the student in maximum comprehension” “[He] made it clear that he has been working on improving his course design using student feedback and research” “He uses videos for visual understanding, readings for immersive understanding of concepts, group interactive activities for further development of understanding, and short quizzes to better gauge where his students may be having difficulties… The activities prompted students to reach into personal experiences for responses which made for easier and deeper understanding [sic] of concepts.”

We contacted Joshua to congratulate him and asked about his perspective on the use of Universal Design for Learning. Here is some of what he shared with us:

“First, it is crucially important to have teaching quality and inclusive pedagogy reinforced as institutional priorities. That means both ratcheting up expectations on departments and colleges and providing resources for instructors across the university…TEP’s activities are a huge deal, in my opinion.

…I have learned so much from my colleagues that I believe much of the challenge here is simply fostering exchange of techniques and ideas. For every neat teaching trick I think I’ve come up with, I’ve picked up about twenty from talking to other instructors. Yet we struggle to create forums for exchange! The All Hands Meeting has been great, and TEP summer institutes are amazing, and being on a CAIT is a huge gift – but we need many more discussions in many more settings throughout the University, I think, so we can foster more of that peer-led learning.”

Other finalists for this year’s award included Bjorn Smars for his work teaching Writing 122 (focus on Food Justice), and Daniel Grimes for his Clark Honors College Biology course on Mutants.

Bjorn Smars was recognized for his commitment to continual pedagogical improvement and its positive impacts on his students. His nominator shared examples of Bjorn attending TEP and AEC workshops “on UDL and accessible pedagogy and technologies,” thoughtfully applying what he learned to his own courses, and sharing knowledge with his entire department in order to improve access for all students taking remote courses through the English Department. His nominator shared that, “He volunteered for extra office hours to mentor faculty through Canvas, introducing everyone to UDL format and strategies along the way. Currently, Bjorn is leading an effort to develop a universally designed reading annotation assignment for adoption in new Canvas course shell and program syllabus for our GE training program. We hope the project will also lead to a redesign of our program's course materials and student publications.”

Here is a statement from Bjorn on his teaching philosophy:

“Universal Design for Learning (UDL) started out as a practical, structured method for redesigning my courses’ assignments to be transparent about the core skills students will develop while completing the assigned tasks and how each assignment contributes to the students’ learning. As I learned more about the principles of UDL, however, I realized it was more than just a practical design tool: it’s a mindset and a philosophy that centers students and their experiences, and that builds accessibility and equitability into the very foundations of my classes by removing the barriers (both anticipated and realized) that prevent students from engaging and by providing multiple options that appeal to different learning styles and preferences. To paraphrase a piece of advice I received during a UDL training workshop, UDL seeks to build a classroom environment where students do not have to request specific accommodations because accommodations are built into the very core of the class. However, because it is impossible to anticipate or plan for every possible challenge or barrier a student may face and different students have different needs, in my view the work of UDL is never complete. Adopting UDL as a philosophy has challenged me to really listen to my students and to use what they teach me from their experiences to improve my own teaching for the next generation of students. UDL is not a one-size-fits-all solution to equity and accessibility; instead, it encourages providing options and flexibility that can apply to a wide array of situations and meeting students where they are.”

Dan Grimes’ nominator described his course as “easy to follow” with “lots of opportunities to participate” thanks to how discussion and peer interaction were woven in to each lecture. They described these opportunities as “low-pressure” and expressed, “I am always excited to participate in these class discussions because they are engaging and always stimulate a variety of opinions and ideas about the subject. By making these discussions so accessible to everyone, he stimulates and motivates learning in all of the students in our class.” The nominator highlighted the breadth of sources he drew from for course materials including scientific readings, narrative readings, lectures and informational videos, and expressed appreciation that course materials were available to students free of charge. The student nominator appreciated that they were encouraged to weave their own passions and interests into their research and presentations, that Dan made time to meet with them individually as needed, and described him as “completely understanding” and “more than accommodating” when disability-related challenges prevented them from keeping up with the pace of class.

Here is what Dan had to say about his course:

“While I was preparing for my first teaching assignment at UO, I was given advice to begin the first class by asking the students to together design a ‘class covenant’, a list of statements we should live by in the classroom to help us achieve our goals on the course. They came up with a long list of ‘ground rules’ such as ‘We understand that everyone comes to the course with a different background and perspective, and we view this as a resource to be tapped’ and ‘Half-formed thoughts are okay; nobody needs to have complete answers to anything in order to contribute to discussion’ and ‘We all make mistakes and we agree to give each other a break!’ I was amazed by how many of their rules touched upon Universal Design for Learning (UDL) themes such as inclusivity and flexibility. By flipping the classroom and placing myself in the listening position, I took the opportunity to learn from the students about their diverse needs and the kind of environments they wanted to generate.”

“But I believe UDL is more than creating a flexible learning environment, its concepts can also let us see our disciplines in new light. Indeed, the very material of my class – “Mutants”, which used the concept of mutation as a lens through which to approach big questions in Biology, while intersecting with Philosophy, Ethics and Disability Studies – revolved around a fundamental problem that affects any discipline: why do we assume the standards and norms imposed by structures of power are the best fit for everyone? In many ways, a deep appreciation of diversity is the single most powerful skeleton key to access the secrets of Biology.

Congratulations to Joshua Skov, Bjorn Smars, and Dan Grimes! Thank you for your amazing work!

To learn more about Universal Design in Learning and campus resources for teaching effectiveness, please visit AEC’s UDL best practices page.