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Universal Design for Learning - Improved Access for All

Learn about a cutting-edge classroom approach, based in computer technology, that helps all kids learn better.

By Nancy Firchow, M.L.S.

The goal for every student is to learn, but not every child learns in the same way. Kids with disabilities may have an especially difficult time with traditional classroom materials. Today, your child's teachers compensate for variation among their students by adapting how they present information, structure assignments, and test for understanding. In the future, the adaptations may be built into the curriculum materials, thanks to Universal Design for Learning* (UDL). UDL uses computer technology to create an educational environment that allows all students, including those with learning disabilities, to succeed in general education classrooms with minimal use of assistive technology (AT).

Universal Design has its roots in architecture and urban planning. Ramps, automatic doors, and curb cuts were created to provide access to people with physical disabilities but actually ease access for everyone. Think of the last time you pushed a stroller or luggage cart and the broader value of ramps is instantly apparent.

UDL embraces the concept of improved access for everyone and applies it to curriculum materials and teaching methods. Rather than rely on AT to bridge the gap between the material and the student's learning needs, materials designed using UDL concepts have built-in accommodations. Add-on technology is less often needed to translate the material into a mode that enables learning.

Principles of UDL

UDL stretches beyond accessibility for the disabled, however. A teacher's goal is for students to learn skills and understand the subject. Traditional curriculum materials tend to offer only limited flexibility for meeting that goal - often requiring students to adapt to the curriculum. Universally designed curriculum overcomes limitations by incorporating three principles of flexibility into the design:

  • Multiple methods of presentation
  • Multiple options for participation
  • Multiple means of expression

This built-in flexibility provides into a wider range of options for students to choose from - meaning the curriculum adapts to the student, rather than the other way around.

Let's consider each of these principles and the impact they could have in your child's classroom.

Multiple Methods of Presentation

Flexibility in presentation allows the same concepts to be taught using a variety of methods, media, or materials. How would this look in a classroom?

  • Content could be presented using multiple media, such as oral lectures, textbooks, charts or diagrams, audio tapes, and videos.
  • The same content could be changed from one medium to another, such as oral output for students with reading difficulties or pictures and illustrations for students who need a visual image.
  • Materials would have adjustable presentation characteristics - changeable font style and size, highlighting of main concepts, or variable volume and speed controls.
  • Material could be adjusted to match students' cognitive styles. For example, students who prefer sequential, factual information might learn a history lesson from a timeline-style presentation. Students who learn better with a base of broader concepts might choose to have the same lesson presented from a big picture, or cause-and-effect perspective, with dates and facts filled in later.

Comments from readers

"I think that UDl is great. It creates inclusiveness for all types of learners. It gives the terms inclusionary setting real meaning."