Universal Design for Learning

Universal design is a design process that attempts to insure accessibility by the greatest number of potential users of an object or building as possible. An example of universal design in architecture is the curb cut. Regular curbs are inhospitable to persons in wheel chairs or bicycles or a caregiver pushing a baby in a stroller. A cut in the curb at an intersection creates a ramp that allows easy accessibility by both walkers and individuals with wheeled devices. Likewise, an automatic door is essential to an individual who is orthopedically impaired, but is also very helpful to an individual carrying a heavy load in his or her arms.
This design principle has more recently been applied to the development of curriculum materials and learning activities that are computer or web-based. Technology makes it possible to take into account the broadest range of potential users. Screen readers assist individuals who are blind, have low-vision, or have a reading disability; talk to text devices assist the hearing impaired or learning disabled compose on computer and communicate by email. Web-based video technology allows communication as though face to face. The immense information storage and flexible access capability of computers allows for the creation of pathways for users to get to the same learning outcome. However, each of these innovations has broader applicability than for those with disabilities. The idea of web-based video technology allows one to communicate with my daughter in a distant city in a more personal way than a letter or a traditional phone call allows. (For a more in-depth discussion of universal design and technology see CAST  or Frank G. Bowe's book Universal Design in Education, published in 2000 by Bergin and Garvey: Westport, Connecticut.)

Universal design for learning (UDL) is also being applied to the development and delivery of learning opportunities, separate from technology applications. The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) has offered a definition of universal design in education:

In terms of learning, universal design means the design of instructional materials and activities that makes the learning goals achievable by individuals with wide differences in their abilities to see, hear, speak, move, read, write, understand English, attend, organize, engage, and remember. Universal design for learning is achieved by means of flexible curricular materials and activities that provide alternatives for students with differing abilities. These alternatives are built into the instructional design and operating systems of educational materials-they are not added on after-the-fact. (Research Connections, Number 5, Fall 1999, p.2)

Universal design in instruction addresses the creation of broader accessibility to learning opportunities by students. Teachers do this by following three principles in designing instruction:

  1. Multiple means of representation,
  2. Multiple means of engagement, and
  3. Multiple means of expression.

Multiple means of representation means that whatever content or information is to be learned can be represented in different ways. For example, a teacher can have many books at different reading levels to deliver the same information. Or a teacher can plan to deliver information through lecture, but also provide visuals of main points, guided notes, and a video/audio for students to access again at a later time.
Multiple means of engagement can be described as creating many pathways for students to actually learn the material presented. Practice, or active mental/physical engagement, is required by students to make real learning happen. Some students may benefit from small group learning opportunities, others may require more focused practice with precise feedback, while others might benefit from working independently. Some students will need to write, others will need to talk through ideas before they understand, while others may need to physically represent what they are learning.
Multiple means of expression refers to how students demonstrate what they have learned. Again, the creation of many paths is key. Some students are good test-takers, while others are not. Some students write well and some students express themselves exceedingly well orally. All expressions can be equal in terms of quality.
Universal design for learning (UDL) is a means of creating greater accessibility to curriculum and the mastery of learning standards for students of varied ability. When we create varied and multiple pathways for students to follow to a learning outcome, it is more likely that most students will get to the destination.
Developed by: Suzanne M. Robinson, Ph.D., University of Kansas