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Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for learning creates equal opportunities for diverse learners in the university classroom.
© UNSW Australia 2017
Humans have diverse experiences, strengths, abilities, interests, needs and desires. This diversity adds richness to any learning community and should be recognised and valued in the educational design process. In this step we look at Universal Design and its role in creating equal opportunities for diverse learners in the university classroom.

Background to Universal Design

You may have heard the term Universal Design used in relation to the built environment. Devised in the late 1980s by Ron Mace, an architect, product designer, educator and disability advocate from North Carolina State University who wanted to design products that were usable by everyone “regardless of their age, ability, or status in life” (Centre for Universal Design, 2008).
Today, Universal Design is an approach that aims to design spaces, products, systems or services so that they can be used universally by anyone. Universal design recognises that people have a range of different impairments, body types, ways of thinking and being, abilities, skills, interests and needs. It recognises that the features of a design could form barriers for some people (Wikipedia), and works – often inclusively with the end users – to eliminate those barriers. For example, designing a footpath with curb cuts can help make sure that a range of users will be able to use the space on equal terms.
The principles of Universal Design are equal opportunity, flexibility, adjustability, perceptibility of information, and simplicity of use. Universal Design starts from assessing the diverse requirements of end users, rather than building a product that must later be adapted, or “retrofitted” to meet a person’s needs.

Universal Design for Learning

In the context of learning, Universal Design principles have inspired the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, which combines the principles of Universal Design with theories of learning from cognitive neuroscience [CAST, 2015]. Universal design is closely aligned with the concepts of equity, diversity, accessibility and inclusivity.
The UDL framework centres around three educational design principles (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2014):
1. Provide multiple means of representation
This principle is based on the idea that learners will perceive and process information in different ways. Provide information in multiple modes (e.g. graphics, audio, text) to enable access for learners with certain disabilities or impairments. It also helps all learners to understand the information and make connections between different concepts.
2. Provide multiple means of action and expression
This principle is based on the idea that learners approach learning tasks differently and will act and express their ideas in different ways. Support learners to communicate their ideas through different means (e.g. through physical action, assistive technologies, text responses, dialogue, creative media), guide them to set goals and monitor their progress, and support them to plan and structure information.
3. Provide multiple means of engagement
This principle is based on the idea that learners will be engaged or motivated by different things. Provide options for personalising activities and assignments, improve engagement in activities, and demonstrate the cultural and social relevance of course concepts. Build motivation by providing feedback, setting goals, and giving rewards for completing tasks. Support learners to develop their self-regulatory skills, and provide opportunities for self-reflection.
Now, take some time to review the UDL guidelines on the National Center on UDL website read the checkpoints and examples.
For additional resources on UDL and Universal Design, see links in the section below. If you have journal article access through your institution or employer, the Eagleton article in the references also provides a good overview of UDL.

Reflection point

  • What are the benefits of designing your curriculum with a diversity of learners in mind?
  • What does the term “retrofitting” mean? Why is retrofitting criticised in Universal Design?
  • What are the similarities and differences between Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning?
  • Which of the UDL principles are you already practicing? Where could you make improvements?

Talking point

Which of the UDL principles are you already practicing? Where could you make improvements?

Want to know more?

If you would like to more about this topic on Universal Design for Learning there are additional resources listed in the Want to know more.pdf for this step.
About the Center: Ronald L. Mace, The Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University.
Universal Design, Wikipedia.
About UDL, CAST website.
UDL Guidelines. National Center on Universal Design for Learning.
© UNSW Australia 2017
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Introduction to Educational Design in Higher Education

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