May 24 2023

What Is UDL, and How Can It Be Used in Higher Education?

Universal design for learning gives students options for how to learn, and its implementation can lead to better engagement, retention and outcomes.

Think about the last time you went inside a medical building. They often have large, wide elevators and automatic doors; big, bold signs for easy directions; and translators for people who speak languages other than English. Though wider elevators are meant to allow passage to those using wheelchairs, they also help staff to more easily navigate the building. A person pushing a cart of supplies will have a smoother experience using automatic doors.

These examples relate to a physical space, but the same concept can be applied to education and learning. The act of reducing barriers and providing multiple options is the foundation and mission of universal design for learning (UDL). It’s a framework that aims to “improve and optimize” the way people learn, according to the nonprofit education research and development organization CAST.

Since the 1990s, UDL has been instrumental in K–12, and it’s now gaining momentum in higher education.

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What Is Universal Design for Learning?

Accommodations are already made for individual college students in certain situations, like those who need note takers or translators in class. But UDL provides options for accessing, engaging with and understanding material for a much broader range of individuals. CAST based its UDL framework on the specific ways that people learn.

“We use UDL to reach the majority of our learners,” says Thomas J. Tobin, a founding member of the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We want to give students choices. We want to give them agency in how they take a path through the learning experiences that they have with us.”

Janet Ferone, an education lecturer at Curry College, says that she infuses UDL principles into every aspect of her teaching. Each week, rather than consulting a textbook, students engage with the content through outside reading, watching a video or listening to a podcast.

“I vary the way I communicate information to students while also offering students choice in both the content and ways of accessing information,” Ferone says.

At the beginning of her courses, Ferone walks students through how to use their learning management software, highlighting the tools the platform offers, such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text options. During Zoom collaboration sessions, students can chat, react, use polls or speak up verbally. 

READ MORE: Here’s how instructional technology is impacting higher education.

At the University of West Georgia, audiovisual equipment exists in every classroom, so all in-person courses can be recorded and captioned for students’ future use. Students can easily rewatch a particularly tricky lesson or spend class time engaging with the discussion, then take notes at home using the recording.

“UDL is about access for all and guides the development of flexible learning environments and learning spaces that can accommodate individual learning differences,” says Jon Preston, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of West Georgia.

Why Use UDL in Higher Education?

Tobin says that 1 in 3 students face some kind of barrier that could benefit from disability accommodations, but far fewer go through the process to get that documentation, primarily because of the time and cost required to do so. Given the structure of higher education, disability support services are overburdened with individual requests that mostly could be resolved by restructuring how courses are taught, how information is shared and how assignments are completed.

For example, UDL reduces barriers for anyone who struggles with finding the time to read in preparation for class. By turning a textbook reading into a downloadable PDF, commuting students can use a read-aloud app to complete their homework.

“UDL is a way to address variability before anybody even comes into the classroom,” says Tobin. “Having choices is what makes UDL powerful.”

Thomas J. Tobin
You should be testing technology tools to make sure they’re accessible not only for people with disabilities but also in terms of mobile access and bandwidth.”

Thomas J. Tobin Founding Member, Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

For faculty, incorporating anonymous polls and surveys into lessons keeps students engaged, tests their knowledge on topics and provides the instructor with a quick snapshot of what students understand and where a review might be needed.

“Ideally, it’s that cost-benefit ratio and being flexible in ensuring — from a UDL perspective — that everyone has a voice,” Preston says.

Incorporating UDL principles into higher education has the potential to increase engagement and retention among students. With multiple ways to learn, engage, practice and demonstrate understanding, UDL benefits people with diagnosed and undiagnosed disorders as well as everyone else in the classroom.

What Should Universities Consider When Implementing UDL?

Universities should start with the technology they already have. A simple first step could be going into existing software and platforms to turn on accessibility settings, explains Tobin.

Another key is to train across the university, and not just the faculty. Educate IT and media services teams, so when a professor or student comes to them for help, they can better serve them.

Universities should embrace mobile technology as well.

“Beef up your multimedia support. Have a multimedia repository where students share videos and access them easily,” Tobin says.

LEARN MORE: How to build the hyflex classroom higher ed students want.

Mobile-friendly content reaches students where they are, on the devices they use the most. If a student can’t afford a laptop but has a smartphone, mobile-friendly content can lower the barrier to accessing the content and completing assignments.

Conduct accessibility and quality checks for existing technology and prospective tools to ensure they’re a good fit for what your institution and students need.

“You should be testing technology tools to make sure they’re accessible not only for people with disabilities but also in terms of mobile access and bandwidth,” Tobin says.

Design web pages and systems to look the same, says Tobin. Students won’t have to continually relearn what to do for each class, and faculty can focus on their expertise, not designing websites.

“We want to keep the level of rigor and challenge in our subject fields high,” Tobin says. “What UDL asks us to do is to lower the barrier for getting involved in the conversation in the first place.”

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