Like UD, UDL aims to achieve the highest level of functionality and user-friendliness for as many people as possible. It involves the purposeful design of course outcomes, materials, and assessments in ways that promote equal access and a positive experience for all students.
The history and tenets of UDL are intertwined with civil rights efforts for people with disabilities, so it is often discussed in conjunction with accessibility and accommodations. But UDL as a practice is distinct.
UDL refers to the process of making learning usable and effective for all, while accessibility refers to the ability of a device, product, service, or environment to be usable by as many people as possible. Accessibility is an important aspect of UDL, and they often go hand in hand. But UDL extends beyond accessibility to addressing learner preferences and other characteristics.
Institutional accommodations, such as those provided through Student Life Disability Services, can and should complement UDL. But while accommodations happen on a case-by-case basis per legal requirements, UDL is a holistic course design framework.
Effective UDL requires forethought and strategy in all areas of course planning and design. But the end result allows students to access, learn, and interact in a variety of ways, addressing the needs and preferences of a wide range of learners. Sheryl Burgstahler and Rebecca Cory (2009) identify the following key principles of UDL.
- Equitable use: Design is appealing and usable for all.
- Flexibility in use: Choice in methods of use and consideration of preferences is part of the design.
- Simple and intuitive use: Consistency and ease of use are considered.
- Perceptible information: Information is clear, well-organized, and presented in several ways to accommodate various learner needs.
- Tolerance for error: Guidelines and instructions help to steer the learner away from errors or hazards.
- Low physical effort: Navigation is clear and requires no unnecessary redundancies.
- Size and space approach and use: Appropriate space to accommodate various learner needs is made available.
Importantly, UDL builds on good backward design. Backward design centralizes course goals when designing assessments and selecting content. In practice, this means articulating connections between
- Outcomes: What can students do by the end of this course?
- Assessments: How will I know students have achieved the goal?
- Content: How will I guide students toward achieving the goal?
Well-designed courses empower students to achieve learning goals without unnecessary constraints. As CAST reminds us, "Always keep in mind the learning goal. Get rid of barriers caused by the curriculum and keep the challenge where it belongs!" (CAST, 2010). Along this line, UDL adds a fourth consideration to traditional backward design:
- Access: What barriers prevent students from achieving the goal?
The proactive approach to preventing barriers to access is an essential component of UDL.
Despite its benefits, UDL is sometimes met with skepticism. After all, full accessibility for all learners sounds like an impossible task. Some educators may feel overwhelmed or unsure how to start, while others may fear that UDL will sacrifice the quality of the whole for the benefit of a few. But in practice, UDL can streamline instructor labor by providing an intentional framework for course planning and by reducing the need for later remediation. Moreover, UDL goes beyond providing equitable access to marginalized students to enhancing the learning experience for everyone. Mindful tactics such as sharing study resources and providing assignment options offer all students meaningful support and ownership in their learning.
At its core, UDL is about anticipating and meeting unnecessary barriers to student learning with compassion, understanding, and reasonable flexibility. As disability studies scholar Jay Dolmage writes, UDL is "not a tailoring of the environment to marginal groups; it is a form of hope, a manner of trying" (2017).