What is Universal Design for Learning and why does it matter for blended learning?

How would it change your teaching if instead of thinking about learners as ‘abled’ or ‘disabled’ you consider how the learning environment is abled or disabled and change that instead? 

That’s the premise behind Universal Design for Learning, which is all about optimising teaching and learning through design considerations. It sets out the mindsets, frameworks and practices that remove barriers and allow us to meet the needs of all learners. 

What is it?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that guides the design of learning experiences to proactively meet the needs of all learners.

Based on findings from neuroscience, UDL has been developed over the last 30 years by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a US-based nonprofit education research and development organisation. 

The UDL framework is founded on three main principles. It encourages educators to plan multiple, flexible methods of engagement in learning (affective networks), representation of the teaching materials (recognition networks), and opportunities for action and expression of what has been learnt (strategic networks). 

It’s all about:

  • Engagement and the why of learning 
  • Representation and the what of learning
  • Action and expression and the how of learning

These principles have been developed into guidelines for implementing the UDL framework in a learning environment. These guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or setting to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.

UDL guidelines

UDL in the classroom

Variability and flexibility is at the heart of UDL so UDL in practice will take a different form in every classroom. But, says Allison Posey of CAST in her teacher’s guide, there are commonalities. To start with, there’s always a focus on building expert learning for all. Other common elements of a UDL experience include:

  • All learners knowing the goal
  • Intentional, flexible options for all students to use
  • Student access to resources from the start of a lesson
  • Students building and internalising their own learning

She offers some suggestions of how this might work in practice:

Or, to take a specific example, researchers at the Creative Technology Research Lab in the US have been investigating how UDL principles can be applied to computer science, to improve learning and engagement for all students. They have adapted the UDL guidelines to a computer science education context and begun to explore how teachers use the framework in their own practice. The hope is that understanding and adapting how the subject is taught could help to increase the representation of all groups in computing. This Hello World article by Hayley Leonard offers a primer on how computing educators can apply the UDL framework in their lessons.

Why is it relevant to blended learning?

UDL and blended learning are all about optimising teaching and learning through design considerations. The flexibility and variability at the heart of UDL plays very well into the need for blended learning approaches to take account of, for example, the variations in access different learners have to devices and connectivity. So, UDL would emphasise the need for asynchronous learning as some students may not be able to watch a livestream, whether it’s due to timing, internet access, or the ability to focus on a lesson via a videoconference. And some students have trouble processing information when it’s presented only in auditory form. So a UDL approach would be to make sure any live teaching presented via video is recorded for students to access and review later and encourage the use of apps to generate transcripts from any audio. 

It’s fundamental to offer learners different options, from how they engage with the content (reading a text, listening to a podcast, watching a video), to the format of the work they create and even down to whether cameras are on or off during live teaching. You can find more strategies and suggestions in How to plan online lessons with Universal Design for Learning.

Any materials you create for blended learning should be accessible to all by default – again, making the entire learning environment ‘abled’. That might be by creating short text descriptions of images and videos and avoiding using inaccessible image-based PDFs for handouts and other digital materials. Use Word, Google Docs or another accessible format instead, which have optical character recognition for screen reader access.

However, again consider the individual and use context. Although PDFs with images may often not be very accessible in some contexts and do not have all the Microsoft accessibility features, in other contexts, especially if using mobile technology, these might end up being more accessible in terms of basic delivery, than say a Word document, which might require installation of an app to view on a phone.

And, of course, these are all good practices across both remote and in-class learning settings. 

Find out more

CAST’s own pages sets out the Framework in detail

Distance learning: 6 UDL best practices for online learning

How to plan online lessons with Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Online assignments: Best practices for teachers to use with students

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