Universal Design for Learning: The Intersection of Flexibility and Specificity

Today, we are going to discuss — and make a case for — Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a framework for optimizing the development of learning materials and learning design utilizing lessons learned through neuro, cognitive, and behavioral sciences. At its core lie three principles: multiple means of Representation, Action/Expression, and Engagement. But before we explore in further depth, let us first look at the origins of Universal Design. 

Universal Design

Universal Design was first conceived as an architecture and product development philosophy by Ronald L. Mace at North Carolina State University. The idea here was that products and environments should be useable by all people while still minimizing, or even eliminating, for specialized designs.  

The classic example of this in practice is the automatic sliding door — a design with which we are all fairly familiar today. The elegance of this design lies in its ability to accommodate all entrants to a building or facility with little or no hindrance. In other words, through a single modality, those with impaired mobility have less impediment while, at the same time, unimpaired individuals enter unhindered. 

Learning is not Architecture

As elegant a solution as the sliding door may be, the idea of a single modality of teaching or learning that serves all learners in a universal manner is not realistic. A better analog of environmental design and its application to learning design would be a multi-paradigm entrance — for instance, offering stairs, a ramp, and an elevator. In this scenario, the entrant can choose their modality based upon their individual preferences and needs. This is where UDL diverges from its origin story at North Carolina State University and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) enters the narrative.

Through the application of various sciences, David H. Rose, Ed.D., further developed the concepts of Universal Design but in a manner specifically adapted to learning and, in the 1990s, coined the term Universal Design for Learning. This new concept recognized the individualistic nature of learners and a need to accommodate such differences in order to produce effective learning experiences. This is where we return to the core principles noted above.

So, then, how do these principles work in practice? Excellent question. Let us take a look at Representation to start. 

Multiple Means of Representation

Simply put, no single form of media — whether it be pen and paper or digital — is sufficient enough to address the unique needs of all learners. Something as seemingly benign as a graphic or a passage of text or a video could present unnecessary challenges to a particular learner and limit, or even preclude, their success.  

Now, to be certain, there are very clear divisions that have been made purely for reasons of accessibility. An individual with impaired sight will not gain anything from printed text or a video if an alternative media such as audio or a Braille transcript are not also provided. The goal here is not to dismiss those specific needs, but to design learning material in such a way, and with enough variety of mediums, that it becomes suitable to, and accommodates, all learners. 

Let us revisit the original scenario, then, and explore how it applies to learners of all levels of ability. In order to do so, an educator must understand their overall goals for a lesson, as well as their specific goals for an individual.  

Let’s say our overall goal is to teach the concept of mathematical ratios. Certainly, a graphic would seem to do a fine job if we assume the learner had no visual impairment. However, even individuals who do not contend with visual impairment — as has been learned through work in the neuro and cognitive sciences — might have difficulty processing spatial relationships or shapes, and so a graphic will do little to improve their knowledge of, and their ability to retain and recall, the subject matter.  In this case, adequately descriptive text portraying the relationships between objects or amounts may better serve that student. 

Similarly, or conversely, someone who struggles with dyslexia will have limited success with a passage of text, but would thrive upon an audio or text-to-speech rendition of the content, or a video or other non-text representation.

The next question becomes what, then, are the specific goals a teacher might have for an individual student? Merely offering multiple forms of representation will help facilitate the accessibility of materials but, left solely to the student to choose, may not achieve the desired outcome.  

For instance, if in addition to the overall goal of subject matter competency the instructor may have, they may also wish to have a student work to overcome a deficiency in reading comprehension —assuming there is no physical impediment to doing so — then allowing the student to consume all of their learning material through a non-textual medium would be antithetical to the desired outcome. Thus, an instructor must tailor the prescribed format to the individual’s goals.

The key here is not in providing all formats to all students, but to making available multiple formats to be utilized when and where appropriate to ensure all students are enabled to obtain mastery of the subject matter and improve in the areas in which they may have unique challenges and differing levels of competency. It must still be the teacher who guides the learner to success. 

Technology to the Rescue

In the past, application of UDL theory has been somewhat prohibitive in respect to the amount of time, resource, and even money necessary to produce and provide multiple forms of representation. The good news is that we are no longer in the past. With today’s ready access to tools for content creation, tools for content curation, tools for the sharing and collaborative development and refinement of content, and tools for assessing and tracking the use, performance, and success of that content among diverse learner groups, we are in a better position than ever to apply UDL to our learning experiences.  

The even better news is that by leveraging the passion, determination, and grit already exhibited throughout history by educators, and by enabling them through these technologies and tools to bring UDL into the classroom, we all benefit and in a manner that will resound for generations to come. 

In future installments in this series we will take a deeper dive into the other core principles of UDL — Action/Expression and Engagement. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about how you can apply UDL principles to your content through the use of flexible and intuitive digital authoring tools and/or would benefit from some instructional design consultation to get you started, please reach out to us at knowbly and we would be more than happy to help.

Related articles by this author:
Situated Learning and the Evolving Learner
Narrative Learning: The Value of Storytelling in Adult Education
Should You Open Source Your Educational Technology?

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