UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING (UDL)
Prof. Dr. Nasir Sulman
Department of Special Education
University of Karachi
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a particular framework that applies to education. More specifically, UDL is an approach that can guide curriculum reform. A universally-designed curriculum includes multiple means of representation (to allow various ways of acquiring information and knowledge), multiple means of expression (to allow alternatives for demonstrating knowledge), and multiple means of engagement (to challenge appropriately, to motivate, and to allow learners to express and participate in their interests).
Origins of Universal Design
Architecture reveals the extent to which humankind can establish dominion over the natural environment by harnessing resources that it has to offer. Architectural design can be subjected to all manner of criteria, including beauty, convenience, utility, durability, safety, and even exclusivity. Only in recent times has the criterion of exclusivity been successfully challenged. As populations grew, built environments afforded travel and facilitated commerce. The need for standards in architectural design became apparent as built environments became interconnected. Architects needed to consider the preferences and capabilities of those who would access built environments. In more recent times, users of built environments were living longer and, therefore, functioning with less mobility and stamina. Notions of democracy and community were transforming views of belonging and participation. During the 1960s, social movements that began in Europe around such concepts as normalization, deinstitutionalization, and communitization were beginning to have a profound impact upon those who would advocate for the disabled. Thus, the needs of people who would potentially access the built environment were beginning to be understood as complex and diverse.
Like the dream of building inclusive communities for all to enjoy equally, universal design is an ideal with a process to ensure maximum participation for all. The challenge of removing physical barriers and retrofitting solutions to barriers proved to be a costly and cumbersome process, often yielding unsatisfactory results. Universal design sought to embed solutions into features at the design level—features that would benefit all, not merely accommodate the few.
Accessibility standards, while necessary for guidance and compliance monitoring, can appear onerous or threatening in light of the fact that they are government regulations, particularly when coupled with the public’s misperceptions regarding disability. Universal design is intended to promote the design of products and environments that would appeal to all. Principles of Universal Design are listed below in brief form (without associated guidelines):
PRINCIPLE ONE (Equitable Use): The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
PRINCIPLE TWO (Flexibility in Use): The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
PRINCIPLE THREE (Simple and Intuitive Use): Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
PRINCIPLE FOUR (Perceptible Information): The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
PRINCIPLE FIVE (Tolerance for Error): The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
PRINCIPLE SIX (Low Physical Effort): The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
PRINCIPLE SEVEN (Size and Space for Approach and Use): Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.
Application of these principles has established a framework for developing design standards in architecture, as well as for creating consumer products, that permit the greatest degree of access and usability for the widest possible range of individuals. Today, especially in the developed countries, millions of persons with disabilities enjoy access to buildings, restaurants, movie theatres, sporting events, transit properties, walkways, commercial vehicles, and bank teller machines—to name only a few venues that were once inaccessible to them. Wheelchair users, once limited to home instruction or restricted to special school buildings, now attend their neighborhood schools alongside their non-disabled age mates.
However, although physical access to classrooms and other education facilities is an important first step toward educational equity for the disabled, it is not sufficient to ensure that all students with disabilities have equal access to the general curriculum or enjoy comparable opportunity to derive benefit from what school curriculum has to offer. Additional changes in the classroom environment and in the curriculum itself are also required in order for full equity to be achieved.
Universal Design in Education
Universal design in architecture recognized the importance of building environments that were more in line with the needs of an aging population and the requirements of those persons with disabilities who were being welcomed into the general community. In education, the curriculum itself must be examined and re-designed from a fresh perspective, much in the same way that buildings, environments, and products were critically examined by the original advocates of universal design in architecture resulting in important and lasting changes in building standards.
Calls for critically examining curriculum from a universal design perspective have come from many quarters. Currently, typically taught curriculum in schools is a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum, best exemplified by the ubiquitous textbook. It generally lacks flexibility in how it presents information to students, how it permits students to respond, and how it engages students in the learning process. In order for typical textbooks and other curriculum materials to become accessible to many disabled students, they must undergo numerous time-consuming transformations and interpretations, to the extent that the student’s participation in classroom activities is often fragmented or delayed.
Over the years, many proposals have emerged to counter the old factory model approach to mass education with graded education. Approaches to individualized, personalized, or otherwise differentiated instruction have made enormous contributions to thinking about teaching and learning processes. What might distinguish UDL from other efforts to improve instruction in general—or other perspectives on universal design in particular—is that UDL establishes a framework for curricular reform in education yet also recognizes the need to maintain a balance between curriculum and instructional practice. Moreover, a UDL framework provides a perspective for collaborative teams of special and general education personnel to provide access to the general curriculum while addressing disability-specific needs in multi-level or inclusive classroom situations.
While UDL anticipates the coming digital curriculum with its inherent potential for flexibility and built-in options, it is not wholly reliant upon technology. UDL can ensure accessibility with new media and technology tools, but it depends upon the application of evidenced-based teaching practices to yield desired results.
To achieve these results, a UDL framework relies upon three guiding principles—multiple means of representation, multiple means of expression, and multiple means of engagement—for the development of flexible teaching approaches and curriculum resources. These principles emanate from analyzation of available research on the brain and new conceptualizations of how neuroscience informs our appreciation of learning and knowing. Areas in the brain that contribute to learning can be grouped roughly into three interconnected networks, each with a fundamental role in learning: (a) “recognition” networks, specialized to receive and analyze information (the “what” of learning); (b) “strategic” networks, specialized to plan and execute actions (the “how” of learning); and (c) “affective” networks, specialized to evaluate and set priorities (the “why” of learning).
New insights into neurological systems working within these three regions of the brain connected with learning has led to the formulation of the three guiding principles of UDL:
- To support diverse recognition networks, provide multiple, flexible methods of presentation. For example, when introducing students to a new concept or unit, a teacher may provide multiple structures to present that information, such as a lecture, a digitized text, an activity-based exploration, a demonstration.
- To support diverse strategic networks, provide multiple, flexible methods of expression and apprenticeship. For example, when a teacher requests student responses to demonstrate understanding and knowledge, he or she could provide a range of tools that allow students to respond in various formats, such as in writing, orally, with a slide show, with a video, with a drawing.
- To support diverse affective networks, provide multiple, flexible options for engagement. Allow students to select an area of interest within a topic or concept to research or study. For example, allow students to select one of the natural resources in a geographic area under study to research rather than assigning resources.
UDL also establishes a framework for providing access to, participation in, and progress within the general curriculum. There are four main components of the general curriculum:
1. Goals and milestones for instruction (often in the form of a scope and sequence),
2. Media and materials to be used by students,
3. Specific instructional methods (often described in a teacher’s edition), and
4. Means of assessment to measure student progress.
Each component can be transformed for accessibility and participation by all students by adherence to the principles of UDL.
UDL offers new ways to think about teaching and learning. Students with sensory challenges, for example, require curriculum that contains alternative approaches for presenting information. Students with motor challenges, on the other hand, may require curriculum that provides alternative ways of expressing what they know and can do, while students along the autism spectrum may require curriculum that contains alternative ways to become engaged in or connected with the learning process. Broadly stated learning goals may allow students who are cognitively challenged to enter the curriculum at points where appropriate levels of challenge and support can yield both tangible and measurable results. Methods and materials with designed-in supports may permit wider access and greater participation in the general curriculum by all students, including those with disabilities. Instructionally embedded assessments may provide more immediate feedback and more frequent data points for progress monitoring and instructional decision-making. These are some of the promises of UDL.