Universal Design for Learning: Ensuring Access for All Students
By Ann Keefer, Ph.D., Instructor, English
“What you really needed was a flexibility far greater than anything the technology could provide, some generous, spontaneous gift for accepting surprises.” Michael Herr, Dispatches
Universal Design for Learning, the educational descendant of Universal Design, has the potential to improve learning outcomes for all of our students and to enliven our experience as teachers. An architectural concept dating back to the 1970’s, universal design is all around us: motion-sensing doors at supermarkets, closed captions on television, even the touch screen technology of smart phones and tablets. Universal design posits that we can create built environments and products which are accessible and useable by the greatest possible number of people and levels of ability, with the lowest exertion of effort. The late architect Ron Mace, who coined the term “universal design”, once described his idea as “design for the built environment and consumer products for a very broad definition of user.”(1)
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) takes the concepts and goals of universal design and adds specific insights from education theory, neuroscience and cognitive science in order to make learning environments more accessible to all students. UDL, which is also referred to in the research literature as Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) or Universal Design for Education (UDE), centers on three related concepts: Multiple means of Representation; Multiple means of Engagement; and Multiple means of Action and Expression. While these three concepts are most often presented in order from representation, to action and expression, to engagement, they might be better presented in a continuum of learning from engagement (to prime students’ interest in learning); to representation (the presentation of materials); and finally action and expression (how students show what they have learned and how they are synthesizing it with prior or parallel knowledge).
Universal Design for Learning: A Continuum
By recognizing that students come into the classroom with many different kinds of knowledge, aptitudes and needs, UDL breaks down barriers to learning while retaining high standards for every student.
Giving students choices from among a variety of expressions of course material and concept mastery allows them to not only express their knowledge in a method they prefer, it may also challenge them to think critically about their strengths as a student and how they can present their ideas in a polished, professional and engaging way. While department standards or accreditation boards may require students to write papers or reports, perform complex calculations with specific software programs, or give a series of presentations or speeches, many aspects of a course may be amenable to varied methods of expression.
The flexibility inherent in UDL enhances its usefulness for multiple audiences of students, both students with disabilities who have a legal right to accommodations and students who face any sort of impairment or barrier to learning: students for whom English is a second or third language, a student who must juggle full-time employment with a full-time course load, or students with undocumented or unrecognized disabilities who may not want to disclose their disability status. UDL might be thought of as a curb cut for learners: Curb cuts, in the architectural or urban planning sense, allow people who use wheelchairs to cross streets safely without having to “jump” a curb. But people who are pushing strollers, pulling a wheeled backpack or suitcase, or who choose to use rollerblades or bicycles for transportation, can all use the same curb cut to make movement easier. Having barrier-free design available as a matter of course means that it becomes a truly universal, and useful, aspect of the environment for everyone. Individual accommodations may still be necessary in some situations, but UD and UDL assume that not everyone will interact with the built environment or the learning environment in the same way, so the greatest number of needs are considered and imagined and solutions are put in place from the start.
Professors who have researched and implemented concepts of universal design into their courses, offering many opportunities for alternate engagement, representation and action, report that the small adjustments to course materials and evaluation methods have created tremendous dividends for both their students and for themselves. In an interview for this column, Ann Dolloff, a professor in Temple’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences who specializes in therapeutic and adaptive recreation as well as assistive technology, mentioned the tendency some students have to cling to familiar modes of action and expression. They choose to write a term paper or submit other analytical or reflective writing even if writing is not an area of strength. Having a greater range of options for articulating comprehension and mastery of new knowledge can be intimidating for these students, but with some guidance all students can excel in a UDL-enhanced course by choosing methods of expression in line with their strengths. Encouraging students to try new methods of expression while providing appropriate supports may enhance students’ critical thinking and self-analysis skills.
Professor Dolloff has been incorporating aspects of UDL into her courses for many years, and finds that giving students greater flexibility in their methods of expression has also allowed her to grade more quickly and efficiently. She notes that grading a student’s oral presentation, delivered in the classroom or in her office, using a rubric to assign weight or point values to specific aspects of the presentation, allows her to evaluate in the moment, and as soon as the student is done with their presentation, she has an evaluation and can determine and assign a grade.
Vandana Singh, professor of Physics at Framingham State College, employs techniques and concepts from UDL when she teaches her students about the functions of electrical circuits. In her paper “The Electron Run Around: Understanding Electric Circuit Basics through Classroom Activity,” Singh describes how the activity, supplemented by a brief explanation of key concepts and a pre-activity quiz, is useful for correcting some common misconceptions about electricity. It requires students to understand and accurately portray the functions and movements of electrons within a battery, working cooperatively with their classmates. After the activity, which Singh reports that the students enjoy, they are asked to look at their pre-quiz and determine what new knowledge they have gained through participating in the “electron runaround.” This activity models all three major aspects of UDL by providing alternate means of representation (students become the electrical circuit and embody electrons), enhancing engagement (the students participate as a group) and offering multiple means of action and expression (a pre-activity quiz, the activity, and post-activity review and reflection). The activity also offers varied levels of physical effort and interaction, as some students can remain stationary while others run around in an “excited state” as electrons, and allows students with various levels of mobility and extroversion/introversion opportunities to determine which role they want to take in the activity. Singh writes that “It is this author’s experience that physics is learned at least as much by doing and enacting as it is through lecture and textbook study . . . It is very important for us as instructors to convey the beauty, excitement, and sheer fun of physics, and we need not compromise on standards or rigor to do so.”(2)
Here are a few relatively low-tech techniques to enhance accessibility in the classroom for learners with a variety of barriers to learning:
• When showing a video, turn on the closed captions if they are available. Captioning is useful not only for students with hearing impairments; captions also reinforce audio information with text. Captioning may help benefit second-language learners, students who process written information more effectively than audio information, and students with some kinds of learning disabilities. (Editor’s note: For help with captioning, contact Viral Mehta in Computer Service or Disability Resources and Services.)
• Audio-record lectures and class conversations (with the agreement of your students), then post the digital recording online. Listening to the recording will allow students to replay information as often as they’d like. This technique can also benefit students who may be unable to attend classes regularly due to chronic illness, accidents, or family commitments. Some classrooms at Temple are equipped with TUCapture technology, which video- and audio-records class sessions automatically, then makes the archived file available to students within about a day of the taping.
• In the process of selecting course materials, incorporate textbooks or readings which can be accessed electronically or in a digital format. Electronic books and materials can be used in conjunction with assistive technology such as screen readers, text-to-speech programs or software which highlights individual words make text accessible for students who have vision impairments, learning disabilities, or other barriers to accessing set-size printed materials. Digital texts also have the added advantage of portability as they can be displayed on lightweight readers or tablets and even on smartphones.
Universal Design for Learning, with its rich background, a large and growing body of research to evaluate its implementation and effectiveness for postsecondary students, and its emphasis on creating flexible learning environments, offers a tremendous capacity to dismantle barriers to learning while maintaining high standards for intellectual rigor and student achievement. Incorporating multiple means of representation, action and expression in teaching can help send a strong message that diversity is valued and that all students will be supported in their learning.
Websites for Further Information and Guidance in UDL and Accessibility
http://www.cast.org/index.html The Center for Applied and Special Technology (CAST), founded in 1984, is one of the first organizations and websites to focus on UDL and assistive technology. The website focuses on both K-12 and post-secondary educators, and offers a series of professional development webcasts. The site also links to the National Center for Universal Design for Learning.
http://www.udlcenter.org/ This site offers valuable explanations of the three main principles of UDL, and accompanying checklists, which were developed by the staff of CAST in 2009. The site also offers bibliographies of articles related to specific “checkpoints” which offer techniques and ideas for targeting specific aspects of the three UDL principles.
http://accessproject.colostate.edu/ The Access Project at the University of Colorado features a thirteen-minute video on UDL which models accessibility through its closed captions, text transcript, and audio description track. The video features interviews with award-winning U Colorado faculty who discuss their own techniques and students who benefit from both UDL and the accessibility it offers.
https://www.washington.edu/doit/ Do It: Disabilities, Opportunities, Internet-working and Technology, offers specific information to educators working in STEM as well as valuable overviews of assistive technologies for students in many different disciplines. The home page also provides background on the “hot topics” of veterans with disabilities and students with invisible disabilities, two populations which are increasing at Temple University and colleges and universities everywhere.
http://enact.sonoma.edu/udl This website was developed by the faculty and staff of Sonoma State University, and incorporates some of the video “case studies” originally created for the Merlot/Elixr website. Accessibility is also featured as a topic, with useful checklists to ensure that your course materials and presentations are as accessible as possible for the greatest number and variety of students.
http://elixr.merlot.org/ This website offers video “case stories” of exemplary teachers and techniques. The site offers some background on UDL as well as some case studies that focus on applying UDL concepts and techniques in a variety of disciplines.
http://www.ist.hawaii.edu/downloads/presentations/pdf/ApplyingUniversalDesignConcepts.pdf A pdf copy of a conference poster outlining both UD principles and three techniques for recording and processing information in an educational setting.
Video on UDL:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2njikcxWfrQ “Universal Design for Learning Principles Online Webinar”, hosted by Jim Stachowiak, ICATER at U Iowa.
http://accessproject.colostate.edu/udl/ “Best Practices Through Universal Design for Learning,” ACCESS Project at Colorado State University. This fourteen-minute video emphasizes both the value of UDL for diverse learners and the uses of assistive technology for students with disabilities. The website for the video includes a text transcript and an audio description track to maximize accessibility and model best practices.
Books and articles on UDL in Higher Ed:
Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, Eds. Burgstahler, Sheryl and Rebecca Cory. Boston: Harvard Education Press, 2008. (Professor Burgstahler is the director of the DO-IT program at the University of Washington.)
“Student Perceptions of Faculty Implementation of Universal Design for learning.” Schelly, Catherine L., Patricia L. Davies and Craig L. Spooner. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 24 (1), Winter 2011. 17-30.
(2) Singh, Vandana. “The Electron Run Around: Understanding Electrical Circuit Basics Through a Classroom Activity.” The Physics Teacher. Vol. 48. May 2010. 309-311.