About Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning is a set of principles for course and curriculum development that supports a more inclusive and accessible learning environment for all learners. It is an approach that allows us to recognize and address diversity of learners and reduce barriers to learning.

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

The UDL framework was conceived by researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) in the late 1980s as the result of the alignment of three conceptual shifts: advancements in architectural design, developments in education technology, and discoveries from brain research.

UDL mainly derives from the Universal Design (UD) movement in the field of architecture that aimed to create physical environments that are barrier-free and accessible to as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. For example, sidewalk ramps were originally created for wheelchair users, but more people, from people pushing a cart carrying a heavy equipment to people using a stroller, can benefit from them. Creating sidewalk ramps from the beginning is more efficient in terms of time, cost, and the number of people served than creating curbs first and then adding ramps afterwards. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that — (A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008

Universal Design for Learning has three principles:

  1. Provide multiple means of Engagement
  2. Provide multiple means of Representation
  3. Provide multiple means of Action and Expression

This short video, UDL at a Glance, provides an overview of UDL and explains how it can benefit all learners.


Why is UDL important?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an important framework for educators because it helps to ensure that all learners can access and participate in the learning process. It provides a flexible approach to curriculum design that accommodates the needs of diverse learners, including those with disabilities and other special needs. By using UDL principles, educators can create lessons and activities that engage and motivate all students, leading to better learning outcomes. 

UDL has gained increasing importance in education for a number of reasons:

  1. Inclusion of all learners: UDL is important because it ensures that all students, regardless of their abilities, backgrounds, or learning styles, can access and participate in learning. This creates a fair and inclusive educational environment.
  2. Promoting engagement and motivation: UDL promotes student engagement and motivation by giving them options for how they learn and show what they know. This leads to more motivated and engaged students.
  3. Better learning outcomes: UDL has been shown to improve learning outcomes for all students, including those with disabilities and special needs. By offering multiple ways for students to learn and show their understanding, UDL helps students build on their strengths and overcome challenges.
  4. Compliance with laws and regulations: UDL is important for compliance with laws and regulations that require accommodations for students with disabilities and special needs. This ensures that all students have equal access to education. In British Columbia, the BC Accessibility legislation is an example of such laws.

In British Columbia, there are laws and regulations that require educators to accommodate the needs of all learners. The BC Accessibility legislation, also known as the Accessible British Columbia Act, aims to make BC a more inclusive and accessible province by removing barriers to participation and ensuring equal access to goods, services, and facilities. UDL can help educators comply with this legislation by providing a framework for creating inclusive learning environments that support the needs of all learners. The UDL guidelines can help us reduce environmental and curricular barriers by bringing flexibility and options into learning design from the outset.

This short video, UDL to Change the World, shows why instructors are using UDL in different parts of the world.

Overall, UDL is important because it recognizes the diversity of learners and provides a flexible approach to education that can accommodate the needs of all learners and help educators to remove the systemic barriers in teaching and learning.

What are systemic barriers in teaching and learning?

UDL recognizes systemic barriers in teaching and learning settings. Systemic barriers are policies, procedures, or practices that can prevent individuals from having equal access to a service and fully participating in a situation. They are often put into place unintentionally, and yet they can have negative impacts. Systemic barriers in teaching and learning can take many forms. These are obstacles that prevent students from accessing and participating fully in the learning process, regardless of their backgrounds and abilities. 

Here are some examples of systemic barriers that UDL aims to address:

  • Using colours to deliver information: Using colours to convey information might be barriers to those who are colourblind.
  • Unclear learning outcomes: Having unclear learning outcomes or objectives for a program, a course, or a learning activity can be a barrier for learners. Lack of transparency can make the learning process difficult for some students, such as those who are not familiar with implicit academic expectations and norms, and those who need support to stay focused on learning goals in face of distractions.
  • One-size-fits-all curriculum: A curriculum that is designed with a single approach can create barriers for some students who may struggle to learn using the standard approach. UDL seeks to offer multiple ways to present and express knowledge, allowing students to learn in ways that work best for them.
  • Limited access to technology: Students who lack access to technology or internet connectivity may find it difficult to participate in online or blended learning environments. UDL aims to provide students with multiple options for technology-based tools, and to ensure that technology is accessible and inclusive for all learners.
  • Lack of cultural responsiveness: Curriculum and teaching practices that are not culturally responsive can create barriers for students from diverse cultural backgrounds. UDL aims to address this by offering a range of cultural perspectives, and providing a flexible approach to learning that accommodates different cultural backgrounds.
  • Physical barriers: Physical barriers in the classroom, such as inaccessible classrooms or inaccessible course materials, can create barriers for students with disabilities. UDL seeks to remove these barriers by designing courses and learning environments that are accessible and inclusive for all learners.

How can you integrate the UDL principle into your teaching and learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for designing and delivering instruction that provides equal access to learning for all students, regardless of their abilities, learning preferences, or backgrounds. Here are some ways instructors can integrate UDL principles into their teaching:

  • Provide multiple means of representation: Provide information in a variety of formats (e.g., text, images, audio, video) to accommodate diverse learners. For example, you can provide transcripts or captions for videos, use visual aids like diagrams and charts, and provide accessible versions of text materials (i.e., accessible PowerPoint).
  • Provide multiple means of expression: Allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and of course content in different ways. For example, you can offer a choice of assessments (e.g., essay, presentation, infographic) or provide opportunities for students to express themselves through different mediums (e.g., writing, art, video).
  • Provide multiple means of engagement: Engage students in different ways that are relevant and meaningful to them. For example, you can provide opportunities for students to collaborate with peers and incorporate their interests and passions into coursework.
  • Use inclusive language and visuals: Use language and imagery that is inclusive and respectful of diverse backgrounds and experiences. For example, you can avoid gendered language and stereotypes, and use images and examples that represent a variety of cultures and identities.
  • Create a supportive and accessible learning environment: Ensure that the physical and virtual learning environments are accessible to all students. For example, you can provide accommodations for students with disabilities, ensure that learning materials are accessible to students with different technological needs, and create a safe and inclusive classroom culture.

If you are interested in applying UDL principles into your course and need support and resources, please contact your faculty or unit for UDL support.