What is universal design for learning in higher education?

Universal design for learning is receiving increased attention in higher education as an approach that could solve some of the attainment issues which face diverse groups of learners.

This approach to teaching originates from architecture and according to Rose et al (2006) ‘universal design involves designing products, buildings, or environments so they can be used readily by the widest possible range of users.’ Applying this to higher education takes us to a definition along the lines of – universal design for learning in higher education involves designing lectures, modules, courses and higher education institutions so that they can be accessed readily by the widest possible range of students.

So what does this mean in practice? A good place to start are the guidelines which have been developed by CAST an organisation which has been at the forefront of the development of UDL.   These guidelines suggest three underpinning aspects of delivery which programme designers should consider from the outset in order to improve the inclusivity of their courses and modules.

Lecturers should consider how they:

Provide multiple means of representation – the what of learning;

Provide multiple means of engagement – the why of learning;

Provide multiple means of action and expression – the how of learning.

The best way I can think of simplifying this framework is to think in terms of an input/output model.

The input is the how the content (or the information) of the course is delivered. The students are the people in the middle, (who all come with their own different backgrounds, resources, strengths and weaknesses), the recipients of the information receiving this input, and the output is how the student is going to demonstrate and utilise the information. What do you want them to do with the knowledge they have acquired?

Rose et al (2006) in their seminal paper describe how they have applied the principles of UDL as they see them, to an undergraduate course. They updated this paper in 2015 in the book Universal design in higher education: Promising practices edited by Sheryl Burghstahler. I have used some of their examples to illustrate what the three aspects refer to in terms of delivery.

Representation:

This aspect isn’t primarily about what the curriculum is going to contain but rather, how are you going to allow for different ways of accessing the curriculum? How are you going to present the information so that it can be accessed by a diverse range of learners as possible. Rose et al (2006) discuss a range of ways in which they do this. For example, they video each lecture and make it available on a website, they collected notes from students and posted these on the VLE so that other students could see different ways of understanding what was relayed (but also as an informal way to check for understanding). This also had the additional advantage of reducing the need for note takers to be supplied by central disability services. They emphasise the use of Powerpoint to provide structure rather than as a textual alternative to what is being said and they place an emphasis on the use of visual elements to act as supplements to the verbal content.   

Engagement:

For me this element is essentially about the student, but importantly how do we motivate them to engage with the information that is presented throughout the course. The student body is increasingly diverse and have a broad range of motivations and socio-cultural resources. It is imperative that we design learning opportunities that allow for this broad range of difference so that we get the best of them. Rose et al (2006) say that this element of UDL was met through the range of choice which was offered. Students were able to access information through a range of media, could access different types of discussion groups, had choice of what to read etc. Therefore, students were given opportunities to engage in the ways that they preferred and which they found motivating.

Expression:

What do we want our students to do with the information we present and how do we want them to demonstrate to us that they have understood what was presented? More often than not this aspect of UDL is taken to mean assessment. Of course, assessment can be formative as well as summative and teachers can assess how well students are understanding content through course delivery: asking questions as they go along, encouraging discussion etc. Rose et al (2006) moved away from traditional forms of assessment by giving students a literature review project which required them to display their findings through a website (limited to 1500 words and displayed publicly for other students to see) followed by a lesson plan based on the literature review. In this way they say that the variety of skills required allows for the varied strengths of the students to be assessed.

Burghstahler, S. E. (2013). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington.

Rose, D. H., Harbour, W. S., Johnston, C. S., Daley, S. G., & Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal design for learning in postsecondary education: reflections on principles and their application. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19(2), 135 – 151.