As we near the start of another academic year, I’m sure many instructors are recording videos for their online courses, creating Powerpoints for their face-to-face classes and writing and updating syllabi. With the variety of tools that educators have at their disposal, curriculum development and instructional design has never been easier. On our laptops, desktop computers and tablets, we have numerous, inexpensive tools that can help us create instructional content for our students. In past posts, I’ve tried to provide evidence-based frameworks that can help guide this creation process. I’ve discussed Mayer’s Multimedia Principles and how it applies to creating screencasts and how Chickering and Gamson’s Principles can be used in developing online classes. This week, I want to focus on another critical framework that instructors need to consider as they develop curriculum and plan instruction for the coming year: Universal Design for Learning.
So, what is Universal Design for Learning? UDL is a blueprint for selecting, creating and planning instructional materials and assessments. UDL focuses on the variability of learners and their academic differences and seeks to overcome the “one-size-fits-all,” inflexible curricula that is a barrier for many learners. Built upon the learning sciences, UDL is a research-based initiative that can help instructor redesign their classroom delivery and assessment to better reach all students.
Universal Design for Learning is built on the following principles:
Principle 1. Provide multiple means of representation. As instructors developing instructional materials for our students, we need to remember to provide multiple ways for students to access this material. Critical to this principle is offering ways for customizing how information is displayed and how auditory and visual information is delivered. Functionally, this may mean that an instructor provides a transcript for a screencast that they’ve recorded for an online class or text-based versions of illustrations they’ve handed out in class. The key is trying to make these customizations and options as seamless as possible and not offering them on demand. We must recognize that all students can benefit from these different representations of content, whether they have a recognized disability or not.
Principle 2. Provide multiple means of action and expression. We all want to assess what our students have learned. Typically, we do this through some standardized method. We assign a paper for students to write or an exam for students to take. There is no medium of expression that is equally suited for all learners or for all kinds of communication. A student with dyslexia who may excel at detailing research in a presentation may falter when describing that same information in writing. By providing alternative assignments for students, they can choose the best way of expressing what they’ve learned based on their own abilities and talents. The key, however, is to make the assignments functionally and instructionally similar so all students’ learning can be fairly assessed.
Principle 3. Provide multiple means of engagement. In a classroom developed following the UDL framework, students have many different ways of communicating and collaborating with their peers and with their instructor. They have opportunities to reflect and self-assess and to be independent with what they learn and how they are assessed. The goal is to engage students by optimizing autonomy and student choice and varying classroom dynamics to suit the variety of learners in the class. Learners differ greatly in the ways in which they can be motivated to learn. By providing multiple means of engagement, students can develop a sense of ownership of their learning and can be more motivated to succeed.
While the UDL framework may appear intimidating to some educators, the principles can help us focus on reaching all learners and develop courses and curricula that supports the variety of learners that enter our classes. For some help getting started, check out the National Center on Universal Design for Learning’s website.