How Universal Design for Learning can help the LMS reach every learner

UDL is gaining attention in colleges and universities as a way to make digital learning programs more accessible to all learners.

An exciting and well-established concept known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is gaining attention in higher education as a way to make digital learning programs more accessible to all learners, including those with a wide variety of learning challenges. Endorsed by EDUCAUSE’s Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) and the Department of Education’s Horizon Report, UDL is a framework to design learning in a systematic way to anticipate and remove barriers to student learning.

UDL isn’t about accommodating people after the fact, or just for students with physical or learning challenges–it is meant to design learning that’s engaging and effective for everyone, right from the get-go. It does this by encouraging and supporting multiple ways for students to express ideas, demonstrate knowledge and engage with their learning environments–all lofty goals that are difficult to do in practice in a traditional classroom, but uniquely enabled by technology like the Learning Management System (LMS).

By applying UDL principles through your institution’s LMS, colleges and universities can keep every student engaged and focused on mastering key concepts.

UDL has long been a fixture in the K-12 space, but respected resources are now endorsing it, including EDUCAUSE’s NGDLE (mentioned above) and the widely-used higher education blueprint, the National Educational Technology Plan. Aided by the ubiquitous use of LMSes, UDL is spreading rapidly throughout higher education.

There are three core principles of UDL that support the design of inclusive classroom instruction and accessible course materials without the need for adaptation or specialized design:

  1. Multiple methods of representation to give learners a variety of ways to acquire information and build knowledge.
  2. Multiple means of student action and expression that provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they have learned.
  3. Multiple modes of student engagement that tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately and motivate them to learn.

Each core principle has been expanded into guidelines and checkpoints that teachers, faculty and designers can apply to the curriculum; they are known as the UDL Guidelines and are maintained by CAST, a non-profit research institute based in Boston.

(Next page: Implementing UDL into your LMS)

Implementing UDL into your LMS

When you incorporate UDL principles into your LMS, it becomes a tool for enabling the most accessible digital learning platform throughout the campus and beyond.

UDL is about removing barriers to learning on a large scale–both yours and your students. With its reach and power, a well-designed LMS can amplify good learning design, and automate onerous teaching tasks–spreading the power of UDL to all students and faculty.

If UDL sounds overwhelming, keep in mind that it’s a mindset rather than a series of practices. Think about it as a way to approach the design of the interactions in a course–a design that gives people more than one way to demonstrate skills. It’s also a means of keeping people engaged and encouraged.

For example, the printed textbook is a significant curriculum barrier for many students. In a traditional study of a novel, every student is issued a paperback copy. In a UDL classroom, the professor anticipates that not all students can (or want) to access the novel in the same way. Through the LMS, the instructor can provide alternatives: an electronic copy of the novel, a film version or a summary version at a simpler reading level. In the UDL model, these supports are provided proactively rather than remedially. This is where the LMS helps too–simply having the ability for all text to be read to students gives everyone alternative ways to consume content.

As another example, students are traditionally asked to write about what they have learned to demonstrate their attainment of learning outcomes. Some students excel at this and can readily demonstrate their learning. For those who struggle with written output, however, completing a writing task may not demonstrate all they have learned during an activity. Your LMS coupled with UDL can offer alternate ways of showing learning progress, such as a spoken report or a video creation.

How to Get Started with UDL

Getting started with anything new is challenging, so start small with UDL.

A simple starting point is through captioning, for example: videos, transcripts and other learning materials can benefit from captions, which can assist every student who learns in a different way.

Below is a short list of suggestions of things to remember as you begin to embrace UDL. These come from a long list I’ve collected over years of working with teachers and faculty moving toward incorporating UDL. Their reminders can help smooth your path toward a new design in learning that engages every student on every level:

  • First, make sure your new design works on mobile devices; a large percent of students will access material this way, including those who may not be able to afford a laptop computer. Your LMS should help remove those barriers by presenting material that is universally accessible across all devices (laptops, desktops and mobile devices) without any changes on your part.
  • Second, chunk it up. Break things into small five-minute activities. That makes designing and building materials easier, and makes student access and use much easier. If you use videos to teach, are they small enough to be downloaded on a mobile device or accessible as streaming videos?
  • Third, be clear and structured in your design–in naming segments, in the structure you follow, in the voice used, in formats and placement. Which readings are required of students and why? Again, your LMS vendor can help with templates that you can download and use to enhance consistency and to support good design.
  • Fourth, be consistent. Students expect to find similar items in the same places throughout the duration of the course. Let placement of learning objects and activities reflect the logical flow of student learning within the course. Students should access materials such as readings, videos or web resources before engaging in graded or ungraded assignments; they typically engage in those activities before attempting a unit assessment activity. However you choose to sequence learning in your course, that sequence should be the same in every learning unit.

In summary, everyone is a special needs learner at some level. Our job as educators is to find ways to reach every learner–to inspire them, keep them on track for success, and help them to be successful and independent lifelong learners.

To do this, we have to understand the barriers that exist for each individual and work to make learning accessible to all. UDL helps us do that, and in conjunction with the LMS, can help us design learning materials that reach and engage everyone.

Helpful UDL Resources

Founded in 1984, CAST is a non-profit education research and development organization that acts as the governing body for UDL. CAST has built UD principles into supporting guidelines and a framework for implementing them, based on established brain science and backed by research.

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