Getting Started with UDL

Illustration of five people in an open-plan office with some principles of universal design evident, including alternative seating options and wide spaces between furniture.My pathway to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was long and winding. I first came to Universal Design (UD) through architecture and the built environment. Discovering universal design felt like a deep breath out. It is all about designing with respect and consideration for all – designing with accessibility, usability, pleasurability for all who may use the building. It. Just. Made. Sense.

Naturally, the application of UD to learning makes sense as well. If you value the diversity that each of us brings to our teaching and learning, it’s good to have a tool that frames and guides teachers and learners. It helps maximise and utilise this diversity.

UDL aims to change the design of the environment rather than to change the learner. When environments are intentionally designed to reduce barriers, all learners can engage in rigorous, meaningful learning. CAST

The UDL framework is a three-part guideline. It promotes multiple options for key parts of a learning experience:

    1. engaging students
    2. explicit teaching
    3. students’ action and expression of their learning

UDL celebrates learner variability. It supports practical, realistic and achievable means of providing learning experiences that cater to a broader range of students. 

Getting Started with UDL

Universal design for learning can be implemented in any learning scenario: pre-school, school, higher education, online or face-to-face.

Due to the depth of the framework and changing existing practice, getting started with UDL can be daunting. However, some simple steps can help you get started.

First, clearly define the learning goal. Next, consider learner variability and identify barriers that learners may face in reaching the goal. Then, plan flexible and meaningful assessments. Actively design the learning experience using the UDL principles of Engagement, Representation and Action and Expression, and finally, reflect on the learning engagement.

The CAST website is the birthplace and home of all things UDL, including suggestions for implementing each of the UDL framework checkpoints. You can also read more widely on the premise and goals of UDL so that for you, too, IT. JUST. MAKES. SENSE!

See more on Universal Design and more practical suggestions on Universal Design for Learning on the CUDA website.

How Does UDL Support Cultural Diversity?

A montage in the shape of the world, captuing the diversity of humans.In a time when cultural diversity and the recognition of systemic inequity is in our shared consciousness, how does UDL support cultural diversity?

Joni Degner cites a range of measures in her article, How Universal Design for Learning Creates Culturally Accessible Classrooms, including:

    • co-designing learning and seeking student input and feedback,
    • seeking out students’ lived experiences and personal stories,
    • recognising students as cultural resources in developing culturally responsive learning,
    • developing a culture of connection, and
    • considering the language and discourse in which our students are immersed

Drawing on the UDL framework, embracing diversity in content and practice is the recommendation in the article, Diversity and Equity in Learning. Key suggestions include:

    • Assume students are diverse in ways that you cannot see. This may be related to race, national origin or socioeconomic status. Or it may relate to ethnicity, physical and neuro-disabilities, sexual orientation, or spiritual beliefs. There are many other possibilities, too.
    • Design group assignments and intentionally mix groups. At times, require students to work purposely with others they may not know. Ensure students in the minority are not isolated. Encourage or help set up diverse study groups.
    • Examine and consider revising texts, resources, guest speakers, examples, and authors. Include contributions from diverse scholars.

Against these suggestions, how do your teaching and learning experiences shape up?

To further your practice or understanding, read the article Culturally Responsive Teaching and UDL. It explains key terms and theories and links to the research. The article supports the understanding of Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) in addition to UDL. Loui Lord Nelson and Patti Kelly Ralabate also focus on CRT and UDL in their book, Culturally Responsive Design for English Learners.

See more on UDL on the CUDA website.


DI and UDL: Is there a difference?

A woman in a blue shirt and a long pig tail has her hands upturned and eyes wide in a pose of confusion.Confused about the differences between Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? A previous post explains the two concepts in basic terms, and from two perspectives – one from Katie Novak and the other from New Zealand Ministry of Education. But what about the literature on this topic? 

 A recent systematic review provides an insight into the views of the two approaches to inclusion. And yes, there is a bit of “fuzziness” between the two.

The systematic review confirmed that confusion exists when examining the two frameworks. They explored twenty-seven peer-reviewed articles and found three interpretations of the two approaches. One was to diminish one approach in favour of the other, another was to include DI within UDL, and incompatibility was the third approach.  

The authors conclude the approaches are complementary theories; DI is embedded within UDL and that DI is a model independent of UDL. However, descriptions of the interrelationships in the literature tended to rely on perception rather than evidence. 

The authors reference studies that show they are both are inclusive pedagogical models. They have the potential to transform education systems by counteracting the existing one-size-fits-all approach. 

The article provides a salient overview of the importance of pedagogical approaches that aim to reach all students, as a foundation to truly inclusive education.

The title of the article is, “Exploring the interrelationship between Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Differentiated Instruction (DI): A systematic review”. It’s open source from ScienceDirect.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

Marie Kondo and UDL – What’s the Connection?

You may well be wondering what Marie Kondo and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) have anything in common! Well, I could make an analogy about tidying up our teaching practice. Or, cleaning out old beliefs about UDL being for ‘Special Education’ only! But the analogy is that UDL and Marie Kondo are both about sparking something within us.

Carefully folded washing placed neatly into drawers.
Sparking joy: Neatly folded clothes in a chest of drawers.

This post explores Guideline 7 in the UDL framework. It relates to engaging learners. Specifically, the guideline is about recruiting the learner’s interest. Just as Marie Kondo implores us to value items that ‘spark joy’, in Guideline 7, the UDL Framework recommends working with students to ‘spark excitement and curiosity for learning’.

But how? Engagement is based around three checkpoints in the UDL Framework.  The first is optimising individual choice and autonomy. This is about empowering learners to take charge of their own learning. Second is optimising relevance, value, and authenticity for learners to connect with learning to experiences that are meaningful. The last checkpoint is to minimise threats and distractions in order for students to feel safe and take risks in their learning.

In her book, Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning, Loui Lord Nelson dedicates a chapter to ‘Engagement.’ She links to the research in addition to providing examples of what the checkpoints look like in practice. To resonate with a range of educators, some examples are given for learning experiences with younger, middle years and then high school students.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.


Differentiated Instruction and UDL. What’s the Difference?

A photo of a woman wondering different thingsSchools work hard to meet the needs of their learners. There are various frameworks of inclusivity, which sometimes can be confused. So what is the difference between Differentiated Instruction (DI) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

Inclusivity is not just for students with disabilities, but also for all students, educators, parents, families and community members. Inclusivity is an attitude or belief system that becomes embedded in policies, practices and processes. It needs to be nurtured in every educational setting. 

The concept of inclusivity is embedded in global and national legislative obligations.

Australia signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. Together with the Disability Discrimination Act and the Disability Standards for Education, schools have a legal obligation to provide inclusive practices that ensure full equality and protection for persons with disabilities, under the law.

So what’s the difference?

So how do teachers and schools work to meet these legal/moral/social obligations? All teachers know that DI, or “differentiation”, is expected to meet the individual needs of learners. But when UDL enters the pedagogical mix, how do they align? 

UDL expert and author on the topic, Katie Novak, created a dinner party analogy to explain the difference. The illustration is that making individual meals for each guest is akin to DI. The host chooses what each guest will eat, despite individualising it for them. UDL, on the other hand, is a buffet. All diners have choice and the diner drives that choice.

The New Zealand Ministry of Education Guide, explains the two another way. It suggests that UDL is an “overarching approach focused on the inclusive design of the whole learning environment at the outset”. They state that DI, on the other hand, is a strategy that addresses “…each student’s individual levels of readiness, interest, and learning profiles”.

In the two minute video below, Katie Novak explains the dinner party analogy.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website in Lizzie’s UDL File.


Online Learning Technologies and UDL

Image of a laptop computer in which an online learning lesson is taking place with a teacher standing in front of a chalkboard.Students around the globe are learning online. How do we make the most of online learning technologies and UDL?

David Rose, Jenna Gravel, and Yvonne Domings explain that UDL goes beyond digital technologies.  They discuss this on their question-and-answer on the CAST website. The team acknowledge that modern technology makes implementation and elaboration of UDL easier. Next, they remind us that the UDL principles are guides to successful teaching for all students. As such, educators apply the UDL principles with and without digital technology.

With students around the globe learning online, digital technologies in education have come to the fore. As a result, many resources and critiques of technologies have been shared. Find these on official education sites and social media.

A useful example is the ‘Resources’ section of the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website.  In addition, the Digital Technologies in Practice section contains a range of resources.

Without making direct links to UDL, there are many connections to the three UDL principles. One example is in the online information pamphlet called ‘A–Z Digital Technologies vocabulary F–6. For instance, this outlines the language of digital technologies, correlating directly with Checkpoint 2 in the UDL framework. Importantly, there are also new links to materials that may help you get a deeper understanding of the key ideas and key concepts of Digital Technologies.

In addition, if you are seeking a starting point for making a connection between online learning technologies and UDL, the article, Making Your Classroom Smart: Universal Design for Learning and Technology’ by Carrie Anna Courtad provides a match between technology tools and each of the three main principles of UDL.

Finally, read more on ICT and UDL on our website

Smart Classroom Design

An example of educational software. being used in classWhen well implemented, the UDL framework and technology combine to assist in smart classroom design.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) helps shape teaching and learning by focusing on flexibility. Making Your Classroom Smart: Universal Design for Learning and Technology discusses the three tenets of UDL. It then outlines how technology supports each of the areas to support smart classroom design.

The three tenets are Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression. The framework recommends providing learners with multiple options for each principle. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) provides the UDL framework and related resources.

The article presents a variety of technology tools to support student engagement. The tools allow for students to self-monitor, attend to their focus and offer cognitive training. Additionally, the author suggests programs that support scaffolding for learning or make the curriculum more accessible.

Technology that provides for multiple examples of the same concept makes print materials accessible, highlights critical elements, and provides graphics or pictures when illustrating concepts are some features recommended to support Representation.

Offering a variety of ways a student can express their knowledge, serves the goal of the Action and Expression component of the UDL framework. Assistive technologies promote opportunities for some students in this area. The report highlights other programmes that allow teachers to build in reflection, and present their knowledge and skills verbally, in writing, or orally. The report provides examples of the technology, their function and cost.

Smart classroom design relies on curricular goals and material designed in a UDL manner before instruction, never retrospectively. The combination of technology to support students’ learning should also include a concrete framework to assist in the well-considered design of technology into curriculum goals and teaching and learning.

There are more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning on the CUDA website.

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