Oddly enough, I don’t get asked this question much. I find that most people believe they already know the answer and see no reason to ask or don’t care and assume if they ignore it long enough it will go away. Whatever the reason is, I figured I should go ahead and create a post with a basic explanation of what Universal Design for Learning is.
For starters, the term Universal Design for Learning comes from Universal Design, an architectural term. The idea behind Universal Design was to create things to accommodate the most users from the beginning. Think of curb cuts as an example. They help people in wheelchairs, right? But who else uses curb cuts? I know I do. So do people with luggage, baby strollers, and bicycles. This is an excellent example of designing things in the beginning with the end in mind. Other examples include Closed Captioning and automatic doors. Can you think of anything else? If so, post in the comments section below.
Moving from architecture to education, the term Universal Design for Learning came about. Its purpose, similar to Universal Design, is to make learning accessible to the largest group of students possible from the start. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) describes UDL in the following terms:
One important thing to keep in mind that is often confusing for people is that UDL is not something you can touch. I remember in Kentucky for example, when UDL was really gaining support, the state took the initiative of getting a special contract with a text reader software company to help make text more accessible in KY schools. The text reader of choice was Read&Write Gold from Texthelp so for the next 3 or 4 years I think half of the state thought that UDL and Read&Write Gold were the same thing. This of course was not the case, so during trainings I always started off with an explanation of each. I’m not sure if this helped or not, but I always referred to UDL as a theory. I believe CAST described it as an “educational approach,” which I always thought sounded good too. CAST also laid out three principals to help people understand UDL. They are as follows:
- Multiple Means of Representation – provide students information in multiple ways (lecture, audio, video, learning centers, etc…)
- Multiple Means of Expression – allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in multiple ways (instead of paper and pencil tests for example, allow students to create a powerpoint, make a blog post, etc…)
- Multiple Means of Engagement – motivate your students.
One misconception of Universal Design for Learning is that you must have technology for it to happen. This is not always true. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a technology guy and technology really helps, but don’t think that you have to spend thousands on a smart board to have a universally designed classroom. There was an article in CEC back in 2005 titled “Using Universal Design to Unlock the Potential for Academic Achievement of At-Risk Learners” by Cynthia Acrey, Christopher Johnstone, and Carolyn Milligan. It had tons of useful information in it, but the main take away for me was that you don’t always need expensive equipment. It talked about what paper color to use and how you should use bolded text instead of underlines because it is easier to read… Things that all of us can take note of and start implementing today.
Ideally new technology will make its way into your classroom over time and you can begin getting more creative with how you make class accessible for ALL of your students. I’ll post ideas and resources as time goes on to help with this, but just wanted to give you a quick overview for now.