Universal Design for Learning is a Philosophy – Not a Practice | D2L Middle East & Africa
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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. Northeastern Illinois University’s Thomas Tobin busts some myths about universal design for learning, and explains how to get the most out of it.

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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Fueling up:

Upskilling to grow careers

Name: Zaria
Age: 27

Policy prescriptions: Invest in a Learning-Integrated Life; Transform the learning of today with new partnerships; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Zaria has five years of work experience and is ready to change jobs and enter a field that has high growth potential in her region. The national government has been investing in collecting better skills-based labour market information for years and has developed a public platform to offer individuals specialized tools to assess their skills against current market needs, and to locate employers that are currently hiring.

On the employer side, the human resources team is closely examining a recent internal skills audit done at their organization and determines that the organization needs additional digital marketing specialists. They initiate a search for individuals with the skills they will soon need and spot a strong candidate in Zaria who requires only light training on regulatory issues regarding the sale of electric vehicles, along with some formal skills development courses on social media marketing strategy. After a successful interview, Zaria is offered the job.

Upon joining, Zaria will receive an educational benefits stipend from the company, and access to a company-provided platform of curated programs for skills building from approved providers. Upon completion of a set of courses, Zaria will receive a credential from a company approved program verifying her technical knowledge and marking the end of her probationary period at the company. To ensure she continues to build her skills, she will move into a formal mentor program with one of her colleagues to receive continual peer-to-peer feedback on her demonstration of skills and knowledge. information

This affordable and accessible learning through employer-funded training has enabled Zaria to begin working while also upskilling to ensure her long-term success in the company and growing industry. The employer is investing in its employees, and company leaders are thinking further into the future about the skills the company needs, and the types of job candidates who will succeed. This match, based on skills potential, was made possible because of government investment in high-quality labour market information and a national platform that matches job candidates with career opportunities based on the candidates’ skills and the identified skill needs of a given job.

Taking the road less travelled:

A networked postsecondary education

Name: Sam
Age: 18

Policy prescriptions: Transform the learning of today with new partnerships

Sam is a prospective postsecondary student who has always been interested in pursuing a global and interdisciplinary education. Sam’s siblings have all instilled in her the importance of studying abroad, having spoken fondly of their academic exchange semesters, field research trips, and intensive language immersion programs. She is inspired, but unsure whether this pathway will be available if she chooses not to complete a four-year degree at one institution.

Sam is interested in understanding how emerging technologies can be used to modernize and improve government services—an area in need of talent not only in her home country of Canada but also abroad. She could take on a general political science, public administration, engineering, or computer science degree at the university close to her home, but none of those degrees feels like the right fit to build the skills she needs to pursue this career interest.

While researching options, Sam learns of a new degree completion pathway that allows students to take courses from a network of universities, colleges, and polytechnic institutions throughout Canada and stack them for skills-based  credentials that are recognized by major Canadian employers. A set of four of these credentials grants an individual a degree-equivalent endorsed by each institution. Sam identifies the skills and knowledge she wants to work towards and charts out four credential pathways:

  1. Service delivery design
  2. Change management
  3. Applications of emerging technologies (e.g., artificial intelligence)
  4. Machinery of government

With this customized learning pathway, Sam has full flexibility to decide how she wants to structure her courses, the institutions within the network she will study at, and the format and model of courses she prefers—whether live in-class instruction or online courses.

Cost flexibility is built in as well—students pay a standard fee based on the number of competencies they intend to learn rather than the normal standard of ‘credit hours’. The province in which Sam lives has endorsed this networked model of  postsecondary education and adjusted its financial assistance program to better support students. Grants and other non-repayable assistance take into consideration the number of courses the student is taking across all institutions when assessing financial need. Previously, Sam would have been required to be a full-time student at every institution to receive support.

Sam also has the option of starting with foundational courses or applying for Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) information so her existing knowledge and skills can be tested and she can move on to more advanced topics.

Sam completes her first three credentials in three years and uses her certifications to apply for a one-year work-integrated learning experience with the federal government in Germany where she can learn first-hand about the applications of artificial intelligence in government. When she returns home, she applies for PLAR to certify her learning on the machinery of government and is granted a degree acknowledging her four-part customized education.

The collaboration between universities, polytechnics, and colleges to create a networked approach to degree completion, and its endorsement by the provincial government, allowed Sam to graduate as an alumnus of multiple postsecondary education institutions. Her exposure to different thought spaces and networks was highly valuable for ensuring she was engaged throughout her education and set up for post-graduation success. In the rapidly evolving field she has chosen, she understands how important it is to continuously upskill, and is prepared to return to formal education for more stackable credentials as she continues throughout her career.

Route guidance:

Personalized professional development

Name: ZheYuan
Age: 33

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

ZheYuan is about to join Marama’s school as a new secondary school teacher. He completed his professional teacher education a decade ago, and teaching looks a bit different today than it did when he was studying. With the incorporation of learning technologies in the classroom, and expectations of teachers delivering competency-based education information, he needs personalized professional development to feel comfortable and supported in this new opportunity.

The school district has been on its own learning journey since shifting to a competency-based education model, and has had some growing pains. Over time, the district has come to recognize that success depends on school administrators working closely with teachers to co-create systems of instruction, and pathways to professional development. The district has its own online learning management system (LMS) for teacher professional development, with a catalogue of content covering a range of subjects including:

  • Strategies for student-centred instruction
  • Design thinking—how to prototype and iterate on solutions to test new approaches
  • Online content—using learning management systems to advance competency-based education
  • Data analysis—interpreting student progress

ZheYuan is excited that he can take on professional learning to suit his needs on his own schedule. He recalls an earlier time when he had to spend nine hours a month in-person taking the same professional development courses as his peers who were teaching very different subjects and had varied skill levels and pedagogical needs than him, which was less than effective.

ZheYuan can also take advantage of his teacher community in the LMS, connecting both in asynchronous chats and in live discussions with other teachers and experts from across his region to ask questions and share his experiences. He sees some upcoming dialogues hosted by his school district to share learnings and signs up for those sessions, knowing he will get a valuable peer perspective from other teachers. ZheYuan is thankful that his school leaders recognize and value professional learning and provide the supports and the time needed for improvement.

D2L Whitepaper Contributors

Lead Authors:
Malika Asthana, Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs
Joe Pickerill, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, International

Jeremy Auger, Chief Strategy Officer
Mark Schneiderman, Senior Director, Future of Teaching and Learning
Brendan Desetti, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, United States
Mike Semansky, Senior Director, Strategy and Public Affairs, Canada
Nia Brown, Senior Manager, Strategy and Public Affairs

In the driver’s seat:

Owning the personalized learning journey

Name: Marama
Age: 14

Policy prescriptions: Prepare teachers for their own lifelong learning journeys; Accelerate the shift to skills-based learning and hiring

Marama is enrolled in a school with a competency-based education model information. Students are responsible for owning the personalization of their learning pathways, making choices alongside their teachers in how and when they learn.iii Teachers play a central role in guiding and validating all learning, regardless of where it takes place—offering formative assessments to evaluate a student’s mastery of skills and knowledge. Teachers use data from these assessments, gathered through an online learning management system (LMS), to differentiate instruction and provide targeted supports so that all students progress toward graduation. As a student diagnosed with a learning disability, Marama is supported in her education by this personalized learning pathway.

All students complete an assessment in ninth grade to identify their natural strengths as a learner. Their teachers use the results as inputs to design tailormade educational pathways with learning materials and activities that suit the individual students’ learning needs. In Marama’s case, this includes:

  1. Supplementing lecture-based teaching with structured but independent reading
  2. Shadowing professionals who work on the concepts she is learning about
  3. Taking the stories and lessons she’s learned and sharing it back with classmates by designing a creative and interactive presentation

Over the course of the school year, Marama spends a third of her time in live lectures (sometimes online) with her teacher alongside other classmates—but the rest of her time is spent learning in the ways that suit her best. She can log into her online LMS from her mobile device to access her school resources and complete on her own schedule before the assigned deadline. When Marama finds a concept that interests her, she can ask her teachers and counsellor for support in finding a working professional to speak to, or work alongside for a couple weeks, from the network her school has curated over time. And when she has learned something, she is encouraged to reinforce her learning by applying her skills and developing content to share back with her classmates.

Marama’s personalized learning journey empowers her to own her education by learning in ways that are effective for her, with the support that allows her to be successful. Her teachers have high-quality data about student strengths and performance they can share with her parents to show them how she is mastering specific skills, and where she may need extra support. Her school experience empowers her to embrace her subject interests very early on, and she advances to deeper topics quickly as she submits evidence of learning that demonstrates her proficiency. She graduates having cultivated a mindset for self-directed learning early in her education.