Universal Design for Learning


Logo by Christy Blew of the University of Illinois for Educause, 2012


Universal design (UD) refers to the consideration of the needs of persons with disabilities in regard to physical spaces, objects, and tasks (The Center for Universal Design, 1997). This concept has since grown into an initiative for education called the universal design for learning (UDL). The original Principles of Universal Design (1997) are equitable use, the flexibility of use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for appropriate use. See the UD poster. The Center for Universal Design described it as a design that doesn’t need adaption for persons with disabilities in perceiving the content or operating the program (1997).

UDL Framework

The UDL framework recommends that educators provide multiple means of engagement (why), representation (what), and action and expression (how) (CAST, 2018). The ‘why’ addresses the affective domain of learning (i.e., attitudes, emotions, & feelings) to sustain students’ interest and subsequent persistence; CAST refers to this as ‘affective networks’. The ‘what’ addresses the information processing of content for the cognitive domain for learning (i.e., knowledge & intellectual skills) for comprehension; CAST refers to this as ‘recognition networks’. The ‘how’ addresses affective, cognitive, and psychomotor domains; CAST refers to this as ‘strategic networks’.

Multimodal content adaptation is key to equal access to education to avoid having a student wait weeks while you provide a specific accommodation such as closed captioning to a video lecture. Instead, be proactive and have your first introductory video captioned (or audio transcribed) in advance of your course start date. I recently attended a webinar by Dr. Tobin in which he recommended these instructional strategies for UDL:

  • Start with the text. It can serve as the script.
  • Make alternatives available such as a PDF instead of Microsoft Word so they can use the feature in Adobe products to read aloud the text.
  • Allow students to select their type of assessment choice.
  • Break information into small chunks and provide still images for illustration when possible.
  • Set content free. By this, he means to make sure it’s shareable and not tied to your choice of tool/software. Ex. Use an MP3 audio file as the output instead of an Audacity file that students would have to know how to use to play.

Another UDL educational correlation with the UD principles is providing mastery test options or dropping the lowest grade for a tolerance of error in the course. In this way, UDL strategies reduce obtrusive affective filters (e.g., test anxiety) for all learners. It can also reduce cognitive load with the aforementioned scaffolding of content and multiple means of representation.

Universal Instructional Design

There are several efforts to design education with UD in mind. Palmer and Caputo (2003) proposed seven principles for universal instructional design (UID): accessibility, consistency, explicitness, flexibility, accommodating learning spaces, minimization of effort, and supportive learning environments. The UID model recognizes those needs for course design. Its main premise is equal access to education and extends this to all types of learners. For example, all learners can benefit from multi-modal lessons. See my blog on the Online Course Design for Active Learning within the UDL Framework.

The instructional design for the UDL requires out-of-the-box thinking such as the exploitation of intended tool design to maximize learning for all. The following tweet from a UDL advocate provides a specific example of how adaptive technologies designed to accommodate a specific disability can be used by those with other disabilities, anxieties, or temporary health issues.


World Wide Web

UD for the web isn’t only for education. Legal aspects include the web design standards created by the WWW Consortium (W3C) for information technology. They produced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG), which are promoted globally. I use their Web Accessibility Initiative website, as a reference at work. Additionally, US federal laws include policies for equal access to Web-based information and technologies such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Access Board standards. These standards are based on the WC3’s priority checklist.


Here are a few resources on UD and UDL:

Review your knowledge of the UDL with an H5P interactive reader designed by UCLA Librarian, Douglas Worsham (Attribution: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Palmer, J., & Caputo, A. (2003). Universal instructional design: Implementation guide. Guelph, Ontario: University of Guelph.

The Center for Universal Design (1997). The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.


Thanks for visiting my blog! Please leave a message.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.