Academic journal article Adult Learning

Universal Design for Learning: Guidelines for Accessible Online Instruction

Academic journal article Adult Learning

Universal Design for Learning: Guidelines for Accessible Online Instruction

Article excerpt

Abstract: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for the teaching-learning transaction that conceptualizes knowledge through learner-centered foci emphasizing accessibility, collaboration, and community. Given the importance of access to achieving social justice, UDL is a promising approach to meeting all learners' needs more effectively. In this article, the history and philosophy of UDL are discussed and elaborated, followed by an explanation of how the principles of UDL were used to improve an existing online course offering for adult learners.

Keywords: UDL, accessibility, online learning, epistemology, adult learners


The use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is effective in enhancing a learner's ability to acquire, generate, and use new knowledge. Its coincidence with technological developments and advances has afforded the opportunity for greater inclusivity. Despite the possibilities presented by online education and new technologies, students with disabilities, language barriers, and low socioeconomic status are often less successful in school than students from the dominant culture (Aronson, 2008; Gregg, 2007; Kanno & Kangas, 2014), in part because one-size-fits-all education does not work. Merely applying technology tools is not enough; educators in all sectors--from higher education to community-based education, from formal settings to nonformal settings--need to change their ways of thinking. By following the well-established, but seldom utilized, principles of UDL, adult educators are able to reimagine the ways learning occurs and is assessed in the online classroom. More than simple indicators of best practices or lists of possible accommodations, UDL offers an epistemological shift that facilitates design for all learners within a holistic framework. The application of this epistemological shift helps address significant practical and justice concerns.

David Rose, Anne Meyer, and colleagues at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) are credited with originating the term UDL. It applies Ronald Mace's universal designs in architecture to teaching and learning. UDL has been used with "students with atypical backgrounds in the dominant language, cognitive strategies, culture, or history of the average classroom who, therefore, face barriers in accessing information when presented in a manner that assumes a common background among all students" (Rose, Harbour, Johnston, Daley, & Abarbanell, 2006, p. 3). A useful metaphor for UDL, offered by Edyburn (2010), is the fairy tale of Goldilocks; educators should offer students the chance to "try multiple options to determine which option is 'just right' for ensuring their performance is acceptable to meet high standards" (p. 39). With UDL, there is a focus on learning relevance, value, and authenticity in terms of learners' needs and desires through the inclusion of real-life tasks and an understanding of the importance of flexibility. By shifting to a learner-centered education and emphasizing collaboration and community, students become motivated to meet high expectations (CAST, 2015). Returning to the Goldilocks metaphor, designing courses with the intention of helping each student find the approach to acquiring, generating, and using new knowledge that is just right for him or her represents a different set of priorities than is traditionally the case. It is a different way of framing the teaching-learning transaction.

The need for this kind of epistemological and priority shift is increasingly evident. Distance and postsecondary education instructors face increasingly diverse students with disabilities, language and cultural barriers, and significant skill deficiencies (Bates, 2005). In spite of this demographic diversity, the type of education delivered has not significantly changed (Baggaley, 2008; Lee, 2017). Individual accommodations are often applied, but the structure and culture of higher education, and the nature of what constitutes knowledge, its acquisition, and its expression in practice, have not responded. …

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