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Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

Universal Design

Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation of specialized design. The concept was coined by Ron Mace, an architect and faculty member who realized that in many cases, retrofitting a building or environment to be accessible could be eliminated if the full range of human diversity was taken into account in the design stage. Things like curb cuts, large, color contrasting fonts, and sloped entrances are all examples of universal design.


Examples of Universal Design

- Information/materials provided in multiple forms (Standard, electronic, large print, Braille)

- Height-accessible service desk

- Accessible websites

- Captioned videos

- Door handles that do not require a grip

- Diverse individuals featured in publications

- Statement of accommodation process in publications

- Choose color and fonts carefully (High-contrast color)

- Large print

- Offer multiple ways to participate in programs

- Include Disability Services staff/students with disabilities on planning boards.

- Use multiple teaching methods

- Class outlines/notes are available for all students on accessible websites

Universal Design for Learning

Universal design for learning (UDL) is a set of guiding principles for course development that helps instructors to make their courses accessible for all students, regardless of learning differences. At the core of UDL is the provision of multiple means of representation action and expression, and engagement.

Click here to view a poster summarizing UDL's guidelines:

Precollege and college students come from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. For some, English is not their first language. Also represented in most classes are students with a diversity of ages and learning styles, including visual and auditory. In addition, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are included in regular precollege and postsecondary courses. Their disabilities include blindness, low vision, hearing impairments, mobility impairments, learning disabilities, and health impairments.

Students are in school to learn and instructors share this goal. How can educators design instruction to maximize the learning of all students? The field of universal design (UD) can provide a starting point for developing a framework for instruction. You can apply this body of knowledge to create courses that ensure lectures, discussions, visual aids, videos, printed materials, labs, and fieldwork are accessible to all students. Specifically, CAST defines Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as "a framework for designing curricula that enable all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. UDL provides rich supports for learning and reduces barriers to the curriculum while maintaining high achievement standards for all." UDL calls for multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement.

Why not just provide accommodations for students with disabilities?

Courses that are created or revamped with UDL in mind are customized for all learners by design, virtually eliminating the need for retrofitting that is common with less flexible, “onesize-fits-all” courses.

"The goal of UDI is to maximize the learning of students with a wide range of characteristics by applying UD principles to all aspects of instruction (e.g., delivery methods, physical spaces, information resources, technology, personal interactions, assessments)."

UDI Principles

At the Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established seven principles of UD to provide guidance in the design of products and environments (Connell, et al., 1997). The CUD's principles of UD are listed below. They are followed by an example of application in instruction.

1. Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Example: A professor's website is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and using text-to-speech software. LISTEN?

2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Example: A museum, visited as a field trip for a course, allows each student to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents of display cases.

3. 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. Example: Control buttons on science equipment are labeled with text and symbols that are simple and intuitive to understand.

4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. Example: A video presentation projected in a course includes captions.

5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Example: Educational software provides guidance and background information when the student makes an inappropriate response.

6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. Example: Doors to a lecture hall open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics.

7. Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility. Example: A flexible science lab work area has adequate workspace for students who are left- or righthanded and for those who need to work from a standing or seated position.

UDI Guidelines and Examples

Universal design principles can be applied to many products and environments. Using the CUD format, UDI can be defined as the design of instruction to be usable by all students, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Universal design principles can be applied to the overall design of instruction as well as to specific instructional materials, facilities, and strategies (such as lectures, classroom discussions, group work, web-based instruction, labs, field work, and demonstrations). Universally designed curriculum provides students with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. Listed below are examples of instruction that employ principles of UD. They are organized under eight performance indicator categories, with a goal statement for each (Burgstahler, 2007).

1. Class climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness. Example: Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs.

2. Interaction. Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants. Example: Assign group work for which learners must support each other and that places a high value on different skills and roles.

3. Physical environments and products. Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations. Example: Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users.

4. Delivery methods. Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners. Example: Use multiple modes to deliver content; when possible allow students to choose from multiple options for learning; and motivate and engage students-consider lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, Internet-based communications, educational software, field work, and so forth.

5. Information resources and technology. Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students. Example: Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the course begins. Allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as books in audio format.

6. Feedback. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis. Example: Allow students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project is due.

7. Assessment. Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly. Example: Assess group and cooperative performance, as well as individual achievement.

8. Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design. Example: Know campus protocols for getting materials in alternate formats, rescheduling classroom locations, and arranging for other accommodations for students with disabilities.

Employing UDI principles does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. For example, you may need to provide a sign language interpreter for a student who is deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning ensures full access to the content for most students and minimizes the need for special accommodations. For example, designing web resources in accessible formats as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student enrolls in the class.

UD benefits students with disabilities but also benefits others. For example, captioning course videos, which provides access to deaf students, is also a benefit to students for whom English is a second language, to some students with learning disabilities, and to those watching the tape in a noisy environment. Delivering content in redundant ways can improve instruction for students with a variety of learning styles and cultural backgrounds. Letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments on a web site benefits students with disabilities and everyone else. Planning ahead saves time in the long run.

Of course, there will be situations in which individual accommodations are necessary. For example, a student who is D/deaf or Hard of Hearing may need interpreting or transcription services, and a student who is blind may need written materials converted to Braille. In any case, Student Life Disability Services is always available for consultation and collaboration.

Whether you’re new to the concept of universal design or looking for new ways to implement UDL in your classroom, you can always email the Center for Access & Success for more resources.






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