UDL supports Indigenous culture

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) fits well with Indigenous ways of teaching and learning. That’s what Liz Stone discusses in a podcast – how UDL supports Indigenous culture. Liz is a woman from Turtle Island – the name that the Algonquian and Iroquoian speaking people call the north-eastern part of North America.

A bright yellow background with the words Think UDL.

The cultural iceberg – the feelings we can see at the top. What you can’t see is much bigger: the cultural beliefs, knowledge, and ways of being. They impact the way we learn.

Liz tells the story of when she was hired to provide Indigenous input to academic teaching. She found herself in a team who were using UDL principles in their teaching methods. This was a nice surprise because Indigenous ways of teaching are very similar. She says both are about meeting people where they are and making sure nobody gets left behind.

UDL is often only associated with disability and accessibility, but it is much more than that. Liz found that people with disability experience the same oppression as Indigenous people. Indigenous learning, knowledge ability is minimised similarly to people with disability.

After interacting and learning from the team Liz was set to teach her first class. She felt competent in the role. That was until she saw a student walking towards her who was blind. That was when she realised she had focused on visual content – another learning experience for her. With relief the student walked on to the next class.

UDL disrupts teaching culture

UDL disrupts the culture of academia by offering lots of options and valuing different things. It isn’t just for the classroom either or the written word. It should be looked at when we build our institutions and at times of crisis like COVID. Liz asks “Why aren’t we looking at Universal Design for Learning when we are creating contingency plans for example?”

If we don’t recognise the diversity of UDL and argue there is only one right way, we fall into Western ways of doing things again. Communities differ in the way they live and learn. So there is no one right UDL method.

The hour-long podcast has a transcript, which isn’t perfect because it is auto-generated. There is a long introduction before getting to the UDL content and discussion. It’s a refreshing take on UDL and how closely it links with Indigenous ways of living and learning.

The title of the podcast is Supporting Indigenous Culture with Liz Stone. There are links to other resources for teachers.

This website has a section on Universal Design for Learning where you can find out more.

Student insights into teaching methods

Graphic of first page of an AHEAD video. Student insights into teaching and learning.Much has been written about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the benefits for a broad range of students. The concept is based on teaching methods that allow for different ways of learning. Some students are visual, some like discussion, some like an enthusiastic lecturer and written material. But rarely to we get student insights into teaching methods. 

Using video is one way to engage learners whether they be new students or teachers wanting to improve their skills. The video below is from Ireland where 11 higher education students answer four questions:

      • What kind of learner are you and how do you learn best?
      • What do they think of the standard lecture format and how do they prefer to be taught?
      • We asked them about the traditional exam format and what types of assessment worked for them.
      • What is one piece of advice you can give to academics to help them improve their teaching and learning practice?

See their interesting answers in the video below. 

The website with the video has more information about UDL and how to apply it. It’s part of a lecture series by AHEAD, and there is a section for people who work in education with written and video material.

The CUDA website has a whole section devoted to UDL. The graphic below shows the three pillars of UDL. 

The three pillars of UDL graphic. Multiple means of Engagement, Representation, and Expression.


Universal Design for Learning and Teaching

A group of five students cluster around a computer screen. They look as if they are seeing something important. Universal Design for Learning and Teaching.People have different ways of learning and cultural background can influence a person’s approach to learning. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is often associated with school children who have learning difficulties. But it is much more than this. Difficulties with learning can also be attributed to teaching methods. Consequently, we need universal design for learning and teaching. 

A good description of UDL is in the Ahead Journal article by Kevin Merry titled, Universal Design for Learning – It’s Just Good Teaching

“UDL is an approach that incorporates a variety of options to allow it to be accessible and inclusive to diverse groups of students possessing a wide variety of learning needs and preferences”. 

Merry discusses both cultural differences and disability and lists the three pillars of UDL. The aim of UDL is to create expert learners who are motivated and goal-orientated.  Merry proposes a Cheese Sandwich analogy. 

The Cheese Sandwich

Merry created the Cheese Sandwich approach to supporting learning. It is a process “that helps students to become expert learners by supporting their mastery over each of the cognitive skills in Bloom’s Taxonomy (1968).”

Diagram of Blooms Taxonomy, cognitive skills - Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation
zoom Figure 1. Bloom’s Taxonomy

The cheese is the contact time with teachers and the slices of bread are the times spent learning independently. Teacher contact time includes peer support and application of higher order skills and collaborative learning. 

In the slices of bread time, students consolidate their knowledge and understanding. 

Merry explains that UDL was initially focused on classroom-based practice where modifications were made to existing methods. But there is a case for creating universal teaching, not just learning. His article goes on to explain the CUTLAS approach. CUTLAS is Creating Universal Teaching, Learning and Assessment Strategies and the article describes this in some detail. 

This website has a section on Universal Design for Learning, and Lizzie’s UDL File has practical ideas. Lizzie provides the basics of the three pillars in the video below.


Incorporating UDL into the curriculum

The word learning in upper case characters.Universal design for learning (UDL) has three pillars: multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement. Previous posts have explained these in more detail. But how does that work out in practice? It’s one thing to talk and read about it. It’s another to actually incorporate UDL into the curriculum. An article in the Learning Innovation Exchange spells it out. 

Christina Galliou has devised a checklist based on the three pillars. She links usual practice to alternatives with particular relevance to online learning. Many of the alternatives are easy to achieve such as providing documents in Word format as well as PDF. 

Multiple means of representation:

Usual practice Alternatives
audios transcripts and visuals
file types for editing provide Word versions
information in one language tools for vocabulary, dictionaries
limited supply of background knowledge concept maps to make connections, bridge concepts

Multiple means of action and expression:

Usual practice

use assistive technologies


alternative keyboards, voice control, text to speech (vice versa) 

use multiple media text, audio, graphics, videos, interactive web tools
provide support in learning strategy development prompts, guides, checklists, planning templates
customised feedback progress charts, hints and cues
flexible assessment, self assessment strategies review, peer feedback, role playing, checklists, rubrics

Multiple means of engagement:

Usual practice Alternatives
purpose of lesson is clear to learner provide learning objectives
capture learner interest relevant material, real world examples
foster self-regulation rubrics, checklists, reflection
maintain effort and persistence scaffolds, group work, differentiated degree of difficulty in activities.

The title of the article is, Applying Universal Design for Learning. The focus is on creating an inclusive online educational environment. However, the principles apply to all learning situations and all age groups. The website has more articles on learning including Designing the ‘experience’ not the lecture

The three pillars

CAST UDL guidelines graphic is a quick reference guide to the three pillars. Click on the picture to download the chart. CAST UDL guide of three pillars.

There is more on UDL in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website. 

UDL and education resources in online learning

Title slide of the presentation UDL for education resources for online learning.
Title slide of presentation

People have worked and studied from home for several years. It is not a new concept, but it has evolved. e-commerce has become online shopping, and e-learning has become online learning. Living life online during COVID times has become the new normal. It’s likely that online learning will continue to evolve and that means open education resources need to keep up.

Most people were not taught digital accessibility in school.  Consequently, it likely it comes as an afterthought to designing open education resources. Similarly to a building, it takes far more effort to make it accessible after it is built. This point is made by Josie Gray from BCcampus in Canada. 

Gray’s presentation slides and speaking notes explains how to create inclusive open education resources (OER). First she takes you through the basics of UDL and some digital information. Subsequent slides explain the best ways to make links, data tables, audio, and video. Colour contrast, images, text descriptions and displaying image captions are also covered. 

The last part of the presentation discusses the “average” student, social model of disability, and other factors affecting accessibility. This is a useful document for anyone producing online educational material.  

As these are speaking notes together with presentation slides, it makes for easy reading and understanding. A good example of document presentation style for others to follow. 

The title of the presentation is Accessible and Universal Design for Learning in OER. The presentation slides are available separately. The slides are free to use, modify, or distribute with attribution. 


Teachers’ perceptions of UD for Learning

A collage of words relating to universal design for learning. UDL - teachers' perceptions.Teachers who have embraced UDL are great advocates for the process of designing learning programs that include diverse learners. However, not all teachers like the ideas – resistance to change being a major factor. This was one of the findings from research on teachers’ perceptions of UDL (Universal Design for Learning).

Perceptions are unlikely to change by mandating instructional changes and consequently other methods need to be found. That is one of the findings from a research project on UDL. 

Students benefit socially, emotionally and academically with UDL. However, the successful implementation of UDL is based on teachers’ perceptions. Consequently, promoting equitable instruction requires a positive perception of the UDL model. 

Teachers need to see evidence of student success. Real systemic change requires time for teachers to properly learn and implement UDL strategies. That includes professional collaboration, and peer and administrative support. 

Mary E. Jordan Anstead investigated the issues and presents them in her doctoral dissertation Teachers Perceptions of Barriers to Universal Design for Learning.

From the Abstract

This qualitative case study was designed to understand teachers’ knowledge and perceptions of UDL. It was designed to identify the barriers to implementation and how to overcome them.

Participants were teachers who had implemented UDL from a public charter school serving only students in Grades 3-11 with low incidence disabilities. Twenty participated in an online survey, seven participated in an individual interview, and three participated in a group interview. Data were coded and analyzed for common themes.

Participants expressed resistance to change, negative impressions of UDL, and disability bias. 

Recommendations for administrators included strategies for implementation of UDL, periodic collection of teachers’ perceptions of UDL for formative purposes, modeling UDL for teachers, monitoring teachers’ lesson plans, and classroom observations. 

This study contributes to social change by identifying teachers’ perceptions of their own knowledge, needs, and barriers to implementation of UDL in order assist administrators in effectively preparing them for delivery of instructional services to enhance learning for all diverse and struggling students.

UDL gaining momentum

Three principles of UDL - expression, representation, engagement.
Three pillars of UDL courtesy NSW Education

Is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) gaining momentum? Answer – it looks like it. UDL has been around for some time, but not all educators have the opportunity to develop UDL skills. A UDL approach values diversity and supports all students to learn.

The NSW Education Department has a UDL planning tool for educators. It covers the basics and has links to other resources and videos. It mentions obligations under the Disability Standards for Education. However, UDL is for all learners – they are just good teaching and learning strategies. However, it is unknown how widespread UDL practice is in Australia.

The University of New South Wales has additional resources for higher education. Most resources link to CAST whose work is considered the gold standard in UDL. While these resources focus on school and university education, it is also applicable to continuing professional education and staff training. 

UDL in early childhood education

An article from New Zealand outlines the three UDL principles and provides examples in early childhood environments. The title is, The beauty of universal design for learning (UDL) and why everyone early childhood education should be using it. It’s open access in PDF. 

An Irish study

The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design has been promoting UDL for more than ten years. It has strong links to the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin. This has lead to UDL gains in higher education. But they wanted to find out if UDL is gaining momentum in school education. 

They found that curriculum development is shifting towards a UDL framework in Irish schools. It was most established in the middle years, and increasing in primary years. Teachers who engaged in professional UDL learning were more likely to embed UDL into practice. However, learning opportunities for UDL are limited. This lack is not a personal teacher one – there is a lack of policy support. 

The title of the article is, Universal Design for Learning: Is It Gaining Momentum in Irish Education?  


Responding to student diversity has become a key policy priority in education systems around the world. In addition to international and national institutional policies, major changes are underway in instructional practices and pedagogy in many national contexts. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has become a key pedagogical approach used in education systems which seek to promote inclusive and equitable education in response to student diversity.

Despite Ireland’s policy commitment to inclusive education, UDL has been traditionally focused on the higher education sector with little discussion about the role UDL can play at primary and second-level education to achieve inclusion. Furthermore, there has been no research to date on the extent to which education policy reforms are introducing part, or all, of the aspects of the UDL framework.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the extent to which UDL is gaining momentum in Irish primary and second-level education through an analysis of curriculum policy. This paper examines the development and evolution of UDL in Irish education policy over the past decade by exploring the use of UDL in national educational curriculum frameworks.

The paper highlights how UDL is slowly and implicitly emerging in education policy at a national level but suggests further momentum could be gained from its inclusion in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) and professional development programmes.

By exploring the development of UDL within existing policy contexts, the paper argues for a more explicit commitment to UDL as part of ongoing curriculum reform at the primary level, the review of Senior Cycle, and Ireland’s broader inclusive education agenda

Inclusive Education in Remote Teaching

Child sits at a computer. Inclusive Education in Remote Teaching
Remote teaching and online learning

With the first wave of COVID-19 in Australia in 2020, many students faced unforeseen challenges and many lessons were learnt.  Despite distance education being a part of tertiary education for some time, remote learning for primary and secondary education sectors was new. Including all students in learning experiences and promoting inclusive education in remote teaching became necessary concerns.

The abrupt nature of the change to learning caused challenges. For example, educators’ own competence with digital course design and delivery, and maintaining equity and access for all students.  

A student’s readiness for online learning, and their technical capacity at home impacts their ability to access the teacher’s information. Luciano Frumos explains these and other challenges in her article Inclusive Education in Remote Instruction with Universal Design for Learning. 

Frumos also notes that while students are different in the traditional classroom, school closures and distance learning have a disproportionate effect. This is especially the case for students with learning difficulties or disability. 

Two models

In her article Frumos draws on the 2011 work of Florian and Black-Hawkins to introduce two approaches for at-risk learners:

    1.  the additional needs approach that focuses only on the student who has special educational needs and the demand for additional support
    2. the inclusive pedagogical approach that focuses on all the students of the classroom

Frumos argues that the online remote learning environment provides a backdrop that is flexible enough to focus on an inclusive pedagogical approach. This means the learning design supports the learning of ALL students, not only those with learning difficulties. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is one approach to support inclusive education in remote teaching.

The UDL approach is aimed at reducing barriers to students accessing learning, engaging with their learning and representing what they learn. The framework has many checkpoints that can be used to promote access, engagement and expression, which can be implemented readily in the online learning environment.


    • CAST (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org/ 
    • Florian, L., & BlackHawkins, K. (2011), Exploring inclusive pedagogy. British Educational Research Journal, 37(5), 813-828. https://doi.org/10.1080/01411926.2010.501096
    • Frumos, L. (2020). Inclusive Education in Remote Instruction with Universal Design for Learning. Revista Romaneasca pentru Educatie Multidimensionala, 12(2Sup1), 138-142. https://doi.org/10.18662/rrem/12.2Sup1/299

Lockdowns and Learning

iPad showing a video with closed captions
Online learning must be accessible to all students.

At the time of writing, much of Australia’s population is in lockdown, and debate rages over the merit and safety of Year 12 students returning to face-to-face lessons. Consequently, much thought is being given to lockdowns and learning. However, there are some practical strategies to help with accessible online learning.

In Sydney, much of the related discussion in the media surrounds the safety of both students and teachers. Teachers at all levels, primary, secondary and tertiary education, are impacted by lockdowns. They have faced many challenges – adapting to classes online, and ensuring students have devices and the skills and software to use them. Other issues are reaching students who are not online, supporting students of essential workers in person whilst also teaching online, to name a few.

The experiences of primary and secondary school students are those that make media headlines. But what of university and other tertiary students? Their career preparation requires specific practical experience to develop required skills. How do lockdowns and learning work for them? And how to ensure equity and access for all students when learning turned ‘remote’?

A recent report by Levey et al. explains that teachers of nursing and other healthcare courses found great challenges in ‘pivoting’ to provide all their courses online. This was especially the case for those that require clinical hours and therefore, required virtual simulation programs to be implemented. The authors reported that due to the rush to post their courses online, educators may inadvertently have excluded some students. This was due to them not giving enough consideration to accessibility. The title of the report is,COVID-19 Pandemic: Universal Design Creates Equitable Access.  

Practical Strategies

The authors discuss Universal Design for Learning as a framework that guides educators to overcome this issue. They reference 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course, by Burgstahler which includes the following recommendations.

    • use clear, consistent layouts and organization schemes to present content; use descriptive wording for hyperlink text (e.g., “UD video” rather than “click here”)
    • provide concise text descriptions of the content presented within images;
    • use large sans serif fonts on uncluttered pages with plain backgrounds; (d) make it unnecessary for a student to distinguish between colours;
    • caption videos and transcribe audio content, and
    • use digital tools that are accessible to students with disabilities; and
    • provide multiple opportunities for students to learn, such as using a combination of text, video, audio, or image speaking aloud all content presented on slides in synchronous presentations;
    • offer multiple ways for students to communicate and collaborate;
    • provide multiple ways for students to demonstrate what they have learned, such as using different types of test items, portfolios, presentations, single-topic discussions;
    • offer outlines and other scaffolding tools to help students learn. Writing tips include addressing a wide range of language skills (e.g., use plain English, spell out acronyms, define terms, avoid or define jargon), making instructions and expectations clear for activities and discussions, and using examples that are relevant to learners with a wide variety of abilities and interests

There’s more on lockdowns and learning in Return to Online Learning that includes a quick start guide, and Online Learning Technologies and UDL

Access to the Right Tools for the Trade

An astronaut in space.
The right tools for the job, and the right support to use those tools, support access to learning. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay.

In March 2019, another historic moment for space travel and exploration was scheduled – the first all-women spacewalk, due to take place at the International Space Station. However, days before the scheduled departure, it was discovered that a properly fitting spacesuit was not available for one of the astronauts. Without this essential tool, a tool that prevents astronauts from excessive fatigue and from potential harm being caused to their body, one of the women could not participate in the space operation. This illustrates the UDL principle of optimising access to tools and technology. 

According to a report in National Geographic, the spacesuit debacle was more complicated than just sexism: it raised a very real issue for women in all fields traditionally dominated by men. The tools weren’t initially designed with access to all potential astronauts in mind. A lack of access to the right tools served as a barrier to access for the astronaut, Anne McClain.

Originally spacesuits were designed as one-offs for each individual astronaut. Eventually, NASA required reusable suits. At first, these were based on a modular design in which the different parts, including the arms, legs, and torso, could be swapped out. It was around the same time, in the late 1970s, that the first American women were accepted into the astronaut training program. And it is also when the fit of spacesuits became especially challenging—and the differences between men’s and women’s bodies became an important factor. However, despite this becoming apparent more than four decades earlier, the barrier that Anne McClain faced was still not overcome.

In the last couple of years, redesigns of spacesuits include components that will support both men’s and women’s body sizes offering more comfort to what is an uncomfortable physical experience and allow for the broadest range of motion.

This illustrates that despite having the knowledge and understanding required to participate in a task, without access to the right tools, or the right support when tools are supplied, unnecessary barriers are created. This relates to UDL Checkpoint 4.2.

UDL Checkpoint 4.2: Optimise Access to Tools & Assistive Technologies

CAST explains that providing a learner with a tool is often not enough. We need to provide the support to use the tool effectively. Many learners need help navigating through their environment (both in terms of physical space and the curriculum), and all learners should be given the opportunity to use tools that might help them meet the goal of full participation in the classroom. However, significant numbers of learners with disabilities have to use assistive technologies for navigation, interaction, and composition on a regular basis.

It is critical that instructional technologies and curricula do not impose inadvertent barriers to the use of these assistive technologies. An important design consideration, for example, is to ensure that there are keyboard commands for any mouse action so that learners can use common assistive technologies that depend upon those commands. It is also important, however, to ensure that making a lesson physically accessible does not inadvertently remove its challenge to learning.

Practical Strategies

    • Provide concrete materials/manipulatives for tasks
    • Use scaffolding as tools to guide tasks
    • Provide options to use educational apps and websites
    • Offer Screen reading services
    • Provide access to alternative keyboards
    • Customize overlays for touch screens and keyboards

See more in this latest collection of posts, where illustrations of universal design (the design for ease and accessibility in the community) are shared. The goal to connect these to ways we can consider the design of teaching strategies to ensure access to learning for all students.

Accessibility Toolbar