College students sitting at a table with laptops open

Universal design for learning: 3 aces up our IT sleeves

By implementing UDL, higher-ed IT leaders can have a profound, quiet, positive (dare we say, sneaky?) impact on learner persistence

[Editor’s note: This article is reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher. “Universal Design for Learning: Three Aces Up Our IT Sleeves” was originally published in EDUCAUSE Review on February 4, 2019.]

A very short digression about cards

To become top-ranked poker players, aspiring superstars need to develop a core group of card-playing skills that go way beyond “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” Experts learn the various combinations of cards that rank higher or lower, as well as how rarely such combinations occur in the game. They understand how various factors influence their confidence in the cards they have been dealt—the number of players at the table, the number of cards that have already been played, how other players are betting, checking, raising, and calling. They can bluff and indicate that they have great cards when really they don’t. All of these ideas and tactics are part of playing the game at an expert level.

Another strategy that you’ve probably seen in movies about the Old West is to hide aces—the best cards—up your sleeve and hope that no one else sees you employ them to put together winning hands. Of course, that’s cheating, and it could get you beat up (or worse).

But in colleges and universities, marshaling resources from unexpected sources isn’t cheating. It’s an expert-level practice. Let’s explore how to find some aces “outside our game” and bring them into our IT work for maximum impact. I promise that almost no one will challenge you to a shootout at high noon.

Aces up our sleeves

College and university information technology (IT) leaders are often in situations analogous to our poker-playing friends. Our goals are to serve student, faculty, and institutional needs through the tools and systems that we adopt. Decisions that we make can hinder or enhance access across the curriculum and interactions among all of our users.

On the yearly EDUCAUSE list of Key Issues in Teaching and Learning, “accessibility and universal design” jumped from 12th place in 2015 to second on the list in 2018 and is 5th on the list for 2019. Most of the advice for IT leaders in this area has focused on accessibility—making sure systems and tools meet the legal requirements for serving users with disability barriers.

That approach allows us to “check the box” to meet requirements, but it seldom moves the needle on the bottom-line concerns of our presidents, provosts, and chancellors: learner persistence, retention, and satisfaction. The concept of universal design for learning, or UDL, applied from an IT perspective, gives us three “aces” that we can use to make those strong public signals and stretch limited IT resources to have an outsized positive impact for our learners and colleagues.

Related: The Bare Bones Basics of UDL: Universal Design for Learning

Ace #1: Interface design

Based on the neuroscience of learning, UDL offers learners three main benefits: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of taking in information, and multiple means of taking action. UDL goes way beyond disability-based accessibility, responding to all sorts of barriers that learners face in whatever interactions they have, not only with content but also with each other, instructors, support staff, and the wider world. Outside in-person conversations, the way that learners engage with colleges and universities is through our web sites and learning management systems (LMSs)—most often on their mobile devices.

One concrete strategy that IT leaders can implement is to adopt consistent navigation elements across systems such as web pages and the LMS. This lowers a barrier of having to learn new “look and feel” elements for each system supported by the institution.

eSchool Media Contributors