Using Universal Design to Make Learning Accessible to All Students

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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework curriculum approach that expands access to all students, including those with barriers to learning. As colleges and universities plan their return to campus post-COVID, many institutions will retain some version of hybrid and blended learning, and UDL provides the flexibility needed for learners and instructors alike.

Access, options, and choice are at the heart of UDL. Created by nonprofit Cast.org, the framework is based on a learning model comprised of three networks:

  • Multiple means of engagement—the WHY of learning
  • Multiple means of representation—the WHAT of learning
  • Multiple means of action and expression—the HOW of learning

UDL guidelines are based on research about how humans learn. In order to optimize instruction and learning for all students, the framework promotes access and resources so students can learn in their own unique way.  Eliminating additional barriers, UDL principles allow students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways.

These principles can be incorporated in both face-to-face and online learning.

Reid Anderson, who teaches graphic design at Durham College of Applied Arts and Technology in Ontario, is an expert on UDL. He notes that it is the instructor’s responsibility to design courses that improve accessibility for all students, which is at the heart of UDL. “Since learners significantly differ in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn, providing multiple ways for them to engage in the learning process is essential.”

UDL reduces barriers to instruction without altering high achievement goals or standards. Ensuring that students have accommodations for learning disabilities means that assistive technologies must be available for both in-person and online learning. Technology can support students with visual, auditory, cognitive, speech, and mobility challenges. Anderson suggests that technology tools, such as lecture and video capture, voice-to-text, touchless keyboards, text phones, mouth sticks and mobile phone interfacing be available to support students.

Instructional UDL Practices

At the University of Washington in Seattle, Sheryl E. Burgstahler is the Managing Director of The Center for Universal Design in Education. She writes that UDL principles can be used in multiple areas on campus: instruction, student services, technology, and physical spaces.

Ways UDL can be used in instruction include:

  • A statement on a syllabus that invites students to meet with the instructor to discuss learning needs
  • Multiple delivery methods that motivate and engage all learners
  • Flexible curriculum that is accessible to all learners
  • Examples that appeal to students with a variety of characteristics with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, age, ability, and interest
  • Regular, accessible, and effective interactions between students and the instructor
  • Allowing students to turn in parts of a large project for feedback before the final project is due
  • Class outlines and notes that are on an accessible website
  • Assessing student learning using multiple methods
  • Faculty awareness of processes and resources for disability-related accommodations.

In terms of technology, Burgstahler cautions that any adaptive technology that is used for UDL be focused on providing flexibility and multiple ways to engage and not on changing the content of the curriculum.

As a practical matter, there are countless ways to incorporate UDL guidelines into instructional design—all personalized for the instructor as well as students. Some flexibilities support all learners, such as using multiple types of media for content and assessment that increases engagement for all students, not just those with disabilities. Building connections between instructors and students as well as students with their peers is an outgrowth of building a learning community that supports both in-person and remote learning with UDL at its core.

By emphasizing meaningful access to instruction and assessment for learning, all students benefit from the incorporation of UDL guidelines into higher education courses and campuses.