What is Universal Design for Learning?

  • 3 Min Read

UDL in learning is about designing learning environments that are accessible to and effective for everyone.

Every person on this earth is unique: no two finger prints are alike; no two retinal scans are identical. Likewise, every learner is different and there is no such thing as “the average student.” Learning styles and learning needs are as diverse as humanity. When curriculums and pedagogy are designed to meet the “average,” they result in invisible barriers to learning, which create a difficult climate for fostering student success.

Traditionally, most education systems comprise rigid curriculums and standard teaching methods governed by personal abilities of instructors. Fortunately, the advent of educational technology has opened up immense possibilities. One size does not have to fit all anymore. On the contrary, it is possible now to create one-size-fits-one solutions through personalization of learning to engage every learner. Using inclusive design principles, it is possible to design an integrated learning platform that is accessible to, and operable by, every learner. It is also possible now to empower instructors to create accessible learning content that is represented in different forms appealing to learners of diverse abilities. Technology, thus, enables the practice of universal design for learning.

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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles based on scientific insights into how people learn, which helps in designing learning environments that are accessible and effective for all. The three basic principles of UDL, all of which are aimed at catering to diversity, stress the use of multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

  1. Using multiple means of representation of learning content gives learners diverse ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  2. Enabling multiple means of action and expression provides learners with alternative avenues for demonstrating what they know.
  3. Fostering multiple means of engagement and collaboration helps in tapping into learners’ interests, offering appropriate challenges, and increasing motivation.

UDL, simply put, is about creating learning opportunities for everyone. UDL principles help schools in improving and optimizing learning for all students, while keeping learning goals top of mind. The goal of UDL is, thus, to ensure that the same learning occurs, despite individual differences.

Learning, of course, does not stop with school but continues into work and influences outcome at work. Companies that measure the impact of investments into corporate learning recognize the ROI and enable better learning in their organizations in collaboration with industry-leaders in educational technology who can assist in promoting UDL. This is important to ensure non-discrimination in workplace learning so that all employees have an equal opportunity for success. There is also non-discrimination legislation such as, section 188 of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in the U.S, that requires employers to respect employee learning needs.

UDL’s principles also align with, and promote, the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0), which form a global standard for digital accessibility. The first three principles governing WCAG are that content must be Perceivable, Operable and Understandable. These principles connect with UDL in the following ways:

  1. Using multiple means of representation makes learning content more perceivable.
  2. Enabling multiple means of action and expression makes the learning system more easily operable.
  3. Fostering multiple means of engagement and collaboration makes the learning system and content more understandable.

Thus, UDL and WCAG 2.0 not only augment each other, they speak the same truth — that learning is a universal human right. Digital learning platforms need to adopt both UDL and WCAG 2.0 to reach every learner.

Learn five ways you can affect the accessibility of your online course content


Here’s how the new Accessibility Checker in the Brightspace HTML Editor works:

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