What's Universal Design for Learning?

The term Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, continues to appear across the field of Assistive Technology. At the ATIA conference alone this year there were five sessions that integrated Universal Design into their title. While the topic is an important one, I find that confusion still exists about what exactly Universal Design for Learning is (or isn’t). For example, when asking people to define UDL, answers range from a software program to a variation of Differentiated Instruction. The purpose of this post is to not only define Universal Design for Learning, but to also provide suggestions on where to start when integrating it into your setting.

For the definition piece, it’s tough to find a better overview than the following video from udlcenter.org:

As the video mentions, Universal Design for Learning is “an approach to curriculum that minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all students.”

The video of course goes far beyond this and explains that to better understand what UDL really means, one must first understand Universal Design from an architectural standpoint.  I’ve attempted to expand on this and more below.

Universal Design

The term Universal Design was coined by Ronald Mace and involves designing environments (buildings, public areas, etc…) to be usable by the largest possible population regardless of age or ability. For example, why do sidewalks have curb cuts? If you are like many, you may say for individuals requiring a wheelchair. While this is correct, curb cuts are also used by parents with strollers, bicyclists, people carrying luggage and even the UPS guy. Curb cuts are a great example of designing an environment with all end users in mind. Even if you do not require a curb cut, having access to one does not negatively impact your walking experience.

Unfortunately, many environments are not created with the end in mind. Take the historic building that was required to build a ramp to be considered accessible. Not only is the ramp typically an eyesore, but it is rarely as accessible as it would have been if considered in the first place. Modifying something only after it has failed is called retrofitting, and it doesn’t occur solely in the world of architecture.

Universal Design for Learning

For example, in classrooms struggling readers and writers are many times assigned a reader or scribe only after continuing to fail over a period of time. Or students in a wheelchair who require a raised desk may be asked to sit in a special location in the classroom because desks are not designed to be raised when needed.

This is where Universal Design for Learning comes in. It takes the idea of Universal Design and applies it to curriculum. It asks “How can teaching methods, goals, materials and assessments be made accessible for the largest number of students possible?” Specifically Universal Design for Learning has three principles:

  1. Provide Multiple Means of Representation (how you present the information)
  2. Provide Multiple Means of Expression (how your students demonstrate their knowledge of the information)
  3. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement (how you keep students engaged and motivated)

Detailed information on the principles can be found on the UDL Center’s website.

If you are just get started with Universal Design for Learning I recommend starting with these simple tips:

  • Review the information on the UDL Center website. While it may go a little deeper than you are comfortable with at the moment, having proper background information will go a long way in helping you make the framework a reality in your environment.
  • Start simple. While deciding to re-create your entire curriculum in UDL fashion is admirable, it is like starting a diet based on not eating – you will stop trying far before you reach your goal. Take one lesson and ask yourself three questions: How can I present the information in this lesson in multiple ways so that it will reach the largest number of students (think audio, video, lecture, hands on activities, etc…)? What ways (beyond worksheets and quizzes) can students demonstrate their knowledge of this information? How am I going to make questions 1 and 2 engaging and motivating?
  • Modify. Modify. Modify. You will find that in the beginning creating a Universally Designed lesson requires more work than what you may be accustomed to. That’s ok. Find what works and keep it, then modify everything else. You will quickly find what works in one lesson can be modified to use with a dozen other lessons.
  • Read this blog. While this post is more of a high level overview, other posts provide specific tools and strategies to help make content more accessible for students. Consider how you can integrate these tools into your lessons early on to provide students greater access throughout the learning process.

I hope that this post helps to provide a good overview of Universal Design for Learning. Next week I will be to diving deeper into Principle # 1 by providing some tips and ideas on providing Multiple Means of Representation.

If you know of any resources that do a great job of explaining UDL, please list them in the comments section below!