Universal Design for Learning

March 3, 2010

Universal design for learning sounds impressive — so, what exactly is it? Well, let’s start with the term universal design. The Center for Universal Design defines universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Inline SkatesExamples of universal design are all around us. The cut-outs on curbs also benefit a person pushing a stroller or doing a little roller blading. Doors that open automatically also benefit people carrying packages. A ramp is useful for a person dragging a rolling backpack or carry-on bag, and so on. Next, let’s apply this to the field of education….

According to the ACCESS Project at Colorado State University,

Universal design for learning (UDL) is a set of principles and techniques for creating inclusive classroom instruction and accessible course materials. At its core is the assertion that when instructors increase the number of learning options available to students, everyone benefits.

What are the principles of universal design for learning?

The ACCESS Project describes three overarching principles to keep in mind:

  • Presentation
    Offer learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  • Expression
    Provide students alternative methods to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes (what they know or what they can do).
  • Engagement
    Tap into students’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and provide a environment that encourages their motivation to learn.

The idea is to be inclusive and provide for a variety of learning style preferences and instructional delivery methods. Think multi-modal delivery — provide content for students with different learning style preferences, such as visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic. Even when using text documents or PowerPoint slides there are methods to provide for accessibility. See Universal Design with Microsoft Word and Universal Design with Microsoft PowerPoint.

When you branch out beyond text materials keep universal design in mind so that you offer choices and options for all learners. For example, provide a text transcript for an audio MP3 or podcast. Locate a video with captions or work with the instructional technology area at your school to add captions to an existing video. The transcript/caption benefits not only students with physical challenges but also students using a low bandwidth internet connection, students using a lab computer without speakers or headphones, and students who prefer to review the content in a text format.

What are Universal Design for Learning practices?

The ACCESS Project suggests that all universal design for learning practices have the following in common:

  • Reach and engage the maximum number of learners.
  • Recognize that students possess different skills, experiences, and learning styles.
  • Emphasize flexible and customizable curricula.
  • Use multiple modes of presenting content, engaging students, and assessing comprehension.

What’s the next step?

Watch for future faculty development opportunities to promote and support universal design for learning. Want to get started exploring this topic right away? See the list of resource below:

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