Personalized Learning Opinion

Ed Tech and Universal Design for Learning: Because One Size Fits None

By Contributing Blogger — November 30, 2018 9 min read
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By Amanda Avallone, content manager for Next Generation Learning Challenges

Years before I became an educator, when I was still in college, I used to earn money for textbooks and living expenses by tutoring fellow undergraduates. I recall one student in particular, a freshman who had a degenerative eye disorder. He was losing his eyesight faster than he could learn to read braille, so his parents hired me to read his course materials aloud to him. It was a time-consuming and costly solution, but at least he did not have to withdraw from school.

Since then I have often thought of David and wondered how different his experience might have been today. Assistive technologies like text-to-speech apps, magnifiers, and audible books would certainly have made learning more seamless for him. Perhaps more important than the technological advances, however, is the way educators’ mindsets have changed.

Back then, David’s disability was perceived as his problem to solve. Learning was designed to suit a hypothetical “average student.” Learner needs that fell outside of that arbitrary norm were often framed as deficits for the learner to overcome rather than flaws in learning design.

This edition of Friday Focus: Practitioner’s Guide to Next Gen Learning explores one significant expression of a more inclusive mindset, Universal Design for Learning or UDL. Developed by CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, in the late 1980s, UDL originally focused on ways of using new technologies to provide better educational experiences to students with disabilities. Today it also serves as a key lens for learner-centered design. Based on the findings of neuroscientists, UDL is guided by three premises:

  • Learner variability is the norm, so educators should design for the fullest range of students possible

  • Learning design should incorporate multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression of learning

  • UDL benefits all learners, not just those with special needs

Letting Go of the ‘Average Student’

The idea that designing for some mathematically derived “average person” is wrong-headed—and even harmful—is not new. Greek mythology, for example, tells the story of the cruel blacksmith Procrustes, who forced his guests to fit the arbitrary length of his iron bed, with horrific results, since no traveller was ever exactly the right size. Today the word Procrustean refers to any enforced uniformity that disregards natural variation or individuality.

Some might argue that the term applies to quite a lot of learning design. Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Todd Rose, for instance, points to the ways education is built on assumptions about the so-called average student. In his eight-minute speech “The End of Average,” Rose explores new findings in brain science, discoveries that challenge the practice of looking at group averages in order to understand individuals. Traditional schooling, he argues, with its age-appropriate texts, standardized curriculum sequences, and arbitrary time constraints, still operates as if an average student exists.

In contrast, learner variability is fundamental to many next-gen learning models. Using approaches like mastery-based learning, personalized learning pathways, and opportunities for student choice and agency, educators in the NGLC network recognize the uniqueness of individuals and design learning accordingly. Such flexible, learner-centered practices align well with UDL’s focus on creating multiple access points for all learners.

Kristin Wright, director of the special education division at the California Department of Education, has long been critical of the fragmented “programs mentality” of the past. “General ed and special ed were seen as separate—your students vs. my students,” she said. “In places where we see schools and districts making strides, they really have embraced a culture of inclusion and not just for students with disabilities but as part of a core intent and mission of equity, from the superintendent and board on down.”

“If you have your mind on equity, it’s less about programs and more about opportunity and planning for the full range of learners in every classroom,” Wright said. “We are moving toward recognizing that all students are unique, so whatever is built, is built with the intention of providing access points, not just creating an extra or separate program for students with disabilities.

“Start with good teaching that plans for the edges; then adapt and complement instruction as needed,” she said. “Special education should supplement—not supplant—good first teaching.”

Designing for Learner Variability and Access

“Get rid of barriers caused by the curriculum, and keep the challenge where it belongs.”—CAST’s UDL at a Glance video.

According to CAST, the organization that developed the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, UDL provides a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. UDL takes into account the brain networks that address the why (affective), the what (recognition), and the how (strategic) of the learning process. To support learners to become motivated, knowledgeable, and goal-directed, educators who design with UDL in mind provide all students with multiple means of engagement and representation, as well as action and expression of their learning.

The learning design elements expressed in the UDL guidelines might look familiar to educators who have embraced next-gen learning. Student choice and agency, for example, is a dominant theme in both the UDL framework and in the NGLC MyWays Student Success Framework’s report on learning design. Similar to the competencies comprising MyWays’ four domains, UDL emphasizes helping learners gain expertise in a broad range of capabilities, including goal-setting, planning, persisting, and reflecting.

To support learner engagement and motivation, the UDL framework recommends recruiting learner interest by providing choices in how a learning objective can be reached, along with guidance and support in exercising such autonomy. In addition to common choices like topics or tools, the guidelines suggest providing learners with discretion about the sequence of task components or inviting them into the design of the learning experiences and assessments from the start.

In keeping with UDL’s emphasis on reducing barriers to learning, the UDL Guidelines for representation call for multiple and varied formats and modalities—adjustable by the learner—to ensure that information is equally comprehensible to all. This includes assistive technologies like text-to-speech software or variable speed recorders, but it also encompasses the broader range of how ideas and content are expressed. Making sense of unfamiliar symbols, graphics, photographs, vocabulary, and syntax may add significant learner challenges that are unrelated to the learning objective. According to the guidelines, inequalities arise when only a single form of representation is offered to all learners regardless of their background or ways of learning.

Similarly, the UDL guidelines regarding action and expression recognize that there is not one single optimal way for learners to express what they know. Composition is an essential skill, but in a world rich with media, communication includes a wide range of expression: text, speech, drawings and illustrations, music, and video. Having choice in modes of expression not only addresses media-specific barriers for learners with special needs, but it also gives all learners a varied repertoire so they can tailor communication to specific situations or audiences.

Like many next gen learning models, UDL also harnesses the potential of technology to support learner agency and access. Digital materials, for example, are readily customizable, empowering students and their teachers to choose alternative ways to access content, such as through captioning of video for the hearing impaired, adjustable font sizes and other visual displays, and on-demand translations or multilingual glossaries for language learners.

However, just as using a digital content platform is not synonymous with personalization of learning, the use of assistive technologies does not define UDL. Nevertheless, technology can be valuable for designing learning at the margins and overcoming barriers so that all students can succeed.

Building Capacity for Universal Design

To Wright, professional learning to support design “at the margins” requires a framework—like the UDL Guidelines—but also collaboration. “You have to have a framework of what it looks like,” she said, “and you have to have purposeful discourse and planning time between general and special education colleagues.”

In particular, Wright advocates for general educators and special educators to “work and train together from the beginning so that everyone is on the same page. Being able to rely on available expertise of special education colleagues,” she said, “promotes collaboration and supports general education teachers in feeling confident that they can work with any kind of learner. Teachers can harness the expertise of their special education counterparts to collaborate on classroom strategies and specialized instruction for students with disabilities rather than take students away from opportunities to access learning alongside their peers.”

In California, Wright sees “strong momentum” and evidence that more holistic and equitable approaches to meeting learner needs are in progress. California has adopted a more integrated model of preparing general and special educators, while both districts and charter schools are “flipping the approach from separating students and then gradually moving toward inclusion” to providing more accessible, universally-designed instruction to all. More broadly, Wright observed that educators at all levels and across general and special education are “joining forces to talk about one coherent system of education designed to serve all learners.” Meeting the needs of all of our learners, she says, “is not just about adding another program. It has to be foundational” to all learning design.


  • CAST’s UDL guidelines site presents the key elements of UDL in a table form, each one linked to specific examples and suggestions for learning design and classroom practice.

  • A printable note-catcher version of the UDL guidelines supports educators to collaborate in determining which options for engagement, representation, and expression are optimal for their students and the learning context.

  • The UDL Exchange from CAST is a free site (registration required) that includes resources, lesson plans, and customizable tools for implementing UDL.

  • This brief article from The Special EDge, a newsletter from California’s Department of Education, serves as a UDL primer for educators. It summarizes key elements of the UDL framework, includes case studies and links to resources, and contrasts UDL to other approaches like differentiation.

Photos, from top:

  • Students use tablets to engage with their learning independently or collaboratively. (Next Generation Learning Challenges)

  • Learning design elements, from the UDL Guidelines. © CAST, 2018. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

The opinions expressed in Next Gen Learning in Action are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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