Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?
When developing content for students to access online, it's important to remember that your audience is diverse and so may their needs be. Universal Design (UD) is the design and composition of content so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, including those with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, and other characteristics.
These principles are extended into the classroom and in the online learning environment and are often referred to as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development to serve all learners, regardless of ability, disability, age, gender or cultural and linguistic background.
Key concepts in UDL include:
- Information is provided in a variety of formats/ways so that students can effectively choose to use resources based on varied needs.
- The content is accessible to students with all ranges of abilities.
- Student choice provides students with the opportunity to make decisions about their learning, such as flexibility in how they demonstrate their knowledge.
- Student voice allows students to choose how and why they incorporate their experiences and knowledge into the learning experience.
Why is it beneficial?
A course designed with UDL in mind invites students to engage with the course content and assessment in ways that allow them to integrate their personal experiences and beliefs, drawing deeper connections to the disciplinary content while growing their own learning practices.
Murawski and Scott (2019) explain how research has shown that "when educators implement UDL,...the framework increases student access, participation, progress, attitudinal outcomes, and achievement for all learners, including those with a significant disability" (p. 5).
UDL not only considers the design of the course (where and how students access content and how easily they can access this information), but also what types of resources they have available (a variety of modes, such as books, videos, interactive activities), and the ways they can demonstrate their learning (such as the option to write a paper or record a presentation).
What are the challenges/disadvantages?
Applying UDL principles may not align with all course needs. For example, if one of the goals of the course is to prepare students for a specific type of disciplinary standardized tests (e.g. a Nursing certification test, a Social Work certification test, a Teacher certification test), then students will benefit from practicing the type of assessment questions and structure they will encounter in the certification test. Allowing students to record a video essay would not accurately prepare them for the assessment they will encounter to enter the workforce. As such, there may be times when a partial UDL strategy will work better than a full UDL strategy.
Furthermore, there is a time investment in rethinking course materials and assessments. However, to this we remind you that course design is an iterative process and UDL elements can be implemented in steps!
How can this be implemented?
If you are building a new course from scratch, you can work to build the course using a UDL Framework.
If you are updating an existing course, you can focus on specific course materials, assignments, and purposes to start implementing UDL in your course.
To get started, we encourage you to have a conversation with the Instructional Designer that is the primary support of your Academic Unit.
Readings that you can begin to engage with include:
- Equity by Design: Delivering on the Power and Promise of UDL by Mirko Chardin and Katie R. Novak - This book focuses on how to support diverse learners through culturally responsive and equitable UDL principles.
- Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education by Thomas J. Tobin and Kirsten T. Behling - This book focuses on accessibility for ADA compliance to reduce the need for accommodations (because it's already built into the design), and how the UDL principles support all learners, not just those who might have needed an accommodation.
- What Really Works With Universal Design for Learning 1st Edition by Wendy Murawski and Kathy Lynn Scott - This book focuses on UDL in disciplinary settings and how to address the needs of students with emotional and behavioral needs, how to incorporate flexibility and technology with UDL, and how to incorporate this UDL framework beyond the classroom.
- Boothe, K. A., Lohmann, M. J., Donnell, K. A., & Hall, D. D. (2018). Applying the Principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the College Classroom. Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, 7(3).
- Hromalik, C. D., Myhill, W. N., & Carr, N. R. (2020). “ALL Faculty Should Take This”: A Universal Design for Learning Training for Community College Faculty. TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 64(1), 91-104.
- Parra, J., Osanloo, A., Raynor, C., Hair, S., Korang, T., Padilla, C., & Chatterjee, S. (2018). Perspectives on a Graduate Online Course That Modeled Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to Teach UDL. Asian Journal of Distance Education, 13(1), 59–87.