Good Digital Parenting
Blog | Oct. 4, 2013

Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Facilitating Access and Participation for All Students

UDL—Universal Design for Learning—is an approach to creating digital tools or learning environments that are accessible to an audience that includes, but is not limited to, people with a range of abilities. The idea is to use design techniques and strategies to open access to information, experiences, and ideas to all people, with and without disabilities. Consider the following two approaches to a reading assignment in a middle-school science class.

Scenario 1

A seventh grader enters his science class. The teacher is telling students to open their textbooks and to read two pages about photosynthesis. She writes the word photosynthesis on the board and asks someone to say what the word is, and she writes down the definition so that others can read it.

Scenario 2

A seventh grader enters his science class. The teacher is telling students to open their textbooks and to read two pages about photosynthesis, and has projected the pages onto a large screen using an overhead projector. She reads along with the class through the key headings and highlighted paragraphs on two pages of text. She points out the word photosynthesis, asks a student to provide a definition, and then shows a brief animation that simulates how sunlight and water interact in the photosynthesis process.

What is going on in these different scenarios? Where is the UDL, and what is it doing?

An example of universal design in architecture is using ramps instead of stairs to access buildings: Everyone—walkers, wheelchair users, people pushing strollers, etc.—can use a ramp, while only some— people who can walk with relative ease—can use stairs. When planning accessible lessons, teachers are working to develop the equivalent of the ramp for classroom learning experiences. Often this implies using not just a single method to help students achieve specific learning goals, but rather offering multiple flexible approaches to do so. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a leading proponent of UDL, recommends that teachers use multiple means of representing information, give students multiple means for expressing their ideas, and offer them multiple means of engaging in content.

The scenarios above show how a simple set of activities—reading two pages from a textbook and reviewing the meaning of a vocabulary word—can be designed to invite just some students to participate, or all students to participate. The student who has limited hearing or sight, has difficulty with reading or processing auditory information, is unable to focus in a busy room, or has limited vocabulary knowledge, will struggle to keep up with the content that is covered in the first scenario. In the second scenario, this student may benefit from visual and auditory information, may be more able to focus attention on a large projected image of text rather than the small print in a book, may benefit from hearing the teacher read over key text while projecting it, or may benefit from hearing and seeing a new vocabulary word, hearing and seeing a definition, or seeing a brief animation that can provide an explanation or context for the new word using a medium other than text. The teacher in the second scenario is infusing UDL into her instructional approach, and she has broadened the reach of her teaching by inviting students with a range of abilities into her instructional activities.

Implementing UDL in the classroom does not mean that teachers simply replace traditional teaching strategies with newer techniques. Instead, it requires teachers to think about individual students’ strengths and needs and the goals of specific learning activities, and to carefully select instructional strategies that meet these needs and build on strengths while also maintaining the rigor of targeted learning goals. Teaching thus becomes a process of problem-solving and decision-making, rather than simply the implementation of one-size-fits all procedures. The more teachers know about individual students’ strengths and needs, the better they will be able to implement UDL by selecting instructional strategies that build on students’ strengths and needs.

Collaboration among teachers, parents, and students is essential for making UDL work well in classroom settings. Parents can play an important role by helping teachers to more deeply understand their students. Parents know their children in different ways and in different contexts than teachers do, and sharing this knowledge can help teachers to be more effective in reaching their children. Similarly, it is important for students to advocate for themselves and to share with their teachers what is easy and what is difficult for them, what interests them and what bores them, and what supports they might require to be successful. In a classroom environment where differences are expected, welcomed, and provided for, this will easily become second nature to them.

What does UDL look like in digital tools?

Digital games, activities, and productivity tools such as word processors often include features that can go a long way to supporting access to information for a broader range of users. Here are some things to look for:

  • Text-to-Speech can be a huge benefit for some students, and is available in some programs as a standard element.
  • The ability to change font size can be helpful for struggling readers or low-vision readers.
  • Games or activities that provide instructions or feedback to users in both text and audio are more accessible than those that provide only one or the other.
  • Programs with links to dictionaries or to visual information to support understanding of text can be very helpful to students who may lack background knowledge about a subject, or who may have difficulty with reading complex text.

For more information about our work with UDL, please visit the CCT website:

Cover image courtesy of Flickr

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