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Universal Design for Learning is a Philosophy—Not a Practice

  • 6 Min Read

Think UDL is just about accommodation and means more work for educators? Think again.


Throughout his education, Thomas Tobin, the Coordinator of Learning Technologies at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) always knew he wanted to pursue the fields of teaching and research. Lucky for us he was successful in fulfilling his ambition; the story of how he got here is an inspirational one.

On the way to achieving his PhD in English literature, Tobin took it upon himself to learn HTML so he could code a bibliographic database for his research. He was then hired by a two-year college to help set up their online programs. Four years later, he had successfully rolled out eight certification programs and four associate degrees completely online. But it wasn’t this success that pushed him to do more. It was what he describes as a failure at this college that motivated him to pursue the field he’s in today.

Using Failure to Fuel Success

A fellow faculty member wanted to teach online business courses. Unfortunately, due to complications from diabetes, he had lost his sight. He didn’t know how to use a support cane, nor could he touch type or read braille. “He was a sighted guy who had lost his sight in his adult life,” explained Tobin. “This was far before the advances of text-to-speech and voice-recognition technology. So I turned to the Internet, because surely someone must be an expert or have published something on how to help him out – but there was nothing.”

It was this failure of not being able to come up with a long-term solution for his colleague that lead Tobin to take a step back and consider other populations of both educators and learners who weren’t being served very well. This could include people who live far from campus, active duty military learners, or adults with varying schedules who have full-time jobs and family responsibilities.

“How can we help them find more hours in the day for studying? How can we ensure there’s quality in the courses we’re creating for our learners?” asks Tobin. “And how can we help them be flexible in how they’re approaching learning?” This realization pushed him to specialize in four different areas of research: copyright laws, academic integrity, evaluating online teaching, and the one that ties these all together, universal design for learning.

Who Benefits From Universal Design for Learning?

“Every faculty member has had the experience of working with learners with disabilities who need accommodation,” shares Tobin. So this is what people think of when we talk about universal design for learning – although the two are not the same. Even if educators haven’t put UDL principles into practice, many have had the experience of students who need time-and-a-half on a test, software to read questions out loud, and someone present in case they have questions. “Now for most faculty members, we all know what our answer should be (yes, I’ll help you), and most of us will try to make it work.” But how do faculty members feel in the moment? Tobin says it can range from “confusion, uncertainty of where to start or what to do with this information, all the way up to a little bit of frustration of now having to do more work on top of everything else.”

Educators may never voice these feelings. However, if the emotions that underlie accommodation requests have negative connotations to them, people will begin to think of UDL as extra work that benefits only those who need accommodations. One of the things Tobin is most passionate about is refuting this myth.

“Let’s not talk just about people with disabilities when we talk about universal design for learning. Let’s talk about the people whom we are serving poorly or not at all. Let’s talk about our learners who don’t have computers at home but do have smart phones, or students who have work and family responsibilities – how do we help them find more time for study during the day?” It’s those who need time that truly benefit from universal design for learning.

“I love getting paid for my job, but what gets me out of bed every morning is the social justice angle of things. It’s seeing that what I am doing has a direct impact on students being more successful or better able to move towards their goals.”

Accommodation vs. UDL

Tobin wants to make one thing clear – “universal design for learning is not a means of accommodation.” He explains that “accommodation is when we make a specific change for a specific person.” UDL, on the other hand, is not about making a change that benefits one person. “It’s about making changes that benefit a broad range of people. In fact, if you’re doing it right, you’re making changes that benefit everyone in class, including you as the educator.”

So how do you get overworked and overwhelmed educators to see universal design for learning outside the scope of accommodation? You can either go all-out by making several audio, video, and text versions of everything in your class – or you can take the less daunting approach.

According to Tobin, universal design for learning at its core is really just “plus one thinking.” Start by choosing one or two different areas in your course where students always have difficulty or questions, and add just one more way that provides additional information or choices in how they can submit their answers. “For example, if I have 45 of my students writing three-page essays, by about essay number 23 I’m kind of regretting that I can’t keep a bottle of scotch in my desk drawer,” he jokes. “So if I provide an alternative option of submitting a five-minute video, and as long as the objectives of the assignment are not tied to the format, I can grade both of those mediums using the same rubric.”

Adopting the Right Mindset

The number one bad practice of UDL is not doing it at all. “By ignoring the +1 mentality of providing just one more version of learning materials, you’re depriving your students the access to better learning and the ability to stick with you,” says Tobin. “Adopt UDL, and you’ll have more students who finish the class, more students who stay with the institution, and more who are satisfied with their experience.”

The most important piece of advice he can offer to those thinking about getting started is to adopt universal design for learning “as more of a mindset, rather than a series of practices. Think about UDL as an approach to the design of the interactions in your course that will allow people to have more than one way to demonstrate their skills,” he says. “It’s also a means of keeping people engaged and encouraged.”

In Tobin’s experience, most people approach UDL from the perspective of either captioning, text transcripts, or specific practices and technologies. “I think that’s the wrong end of the telescope to be looking through, because that’s at the end,” he explains. “The beginning of universal design for learning is about creating the right interactions with our students. Interactions should be easy to access, easy to respond to, and be motivating without watering down the content or sacrificing academic rigor.” UDL is a mindset about designing interactions; “it’s not a way to give someone an easier way to go through our courses,” he says. “In fact, if we’re doing it well, it’s as rigorous and as challenging for our students, and it allows us to have a little bit more freedom and fun teaching our courses.”

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Table of Contents

  1. Using Failure to Fuel Success
  2. Who Benefits From Universal Design for Learning?
  3. Accommodation vs. UDL
  4. Adopting the Right Mindset