Q&A: Making Sense of Universal Design for Learning

The concept applies to more than just disability issues. A new book helps contextualize the growing educational approach and offers a road map to adoption even skeptics will appreciate.

November 28, 2018
 
West Virginia University Press

Questions of accessibility, broadly defined, are everywhere in higher ed. Administrators want to widen opportunities for potential students, and instructors want learners to have all available tools to succeed.

The universal design for learning (UDL) framework posits a set of solutions to those questions -- and it's gaining steam at institutions nationwide. In Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (West Virginia University Press), UDL proponents Thomas J. Tobin and Kirsten T. Behling examine the history of the framework and unpack its implications in the context of broader societal and technological change. The book's last section points to real-world applications of UDL currently under way, as well as resources and guidelines for readers who feel inspired to undertake similar efforts.

"Inside Digital Learning" asked Tobin, faculty associate on the Learning Design, Development, & Innovation (LDDI) team in the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Behling, who co-founded the disability services in higher education graduate certificate program at Suffolk University and serves as director of student accessibility services at Tufts University, to reflect on their experiences entering the UDL world and helping bring others along.

Q: When did you first learn about the concept of universal design for learning? What was your first reaction?

Tom TobinTobin: Back in the late 1990s I was working for a two-year college in Pennsylvania, helping set up its first online and technology-enhanced courses and programs. One of our business faculty members wanted to teach online but had lost his sight in adulthood due to undiagnosed and untreated diabetes. I was new to the profession, and I told him that I could help him -- and I was hoping that there would be something in the scholarly literature that would help me. I was dismayed to find that there was no such scholarly literature. I got lucky and connected with Norm Coombs, a blind faculty member at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who advised me on some basics and told me about David Rose at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Boston. The neuroscientists at CAST had developed the universal design for learning framework, and it was being adopted widely in K-12 education at the time.

My first reaction was relief that I had found resources to help me support my faculty colleagues. I had a lot to learn, though. UDL is all about designing interactions to give learners different ways to be engaged, take in information and demonstrate their skills. I was just making an accommodation: one change, one time, for one person. And I did it poorly. My faculty colleague ended up teaching an online course; our solution was to provide him with graduate students from a local university to act as his eyes and keyboard hands. That worked very well for three offerings of the course, until we realized that we were violating student-privacy laws.

That failure, though, got me to look around and ask who else we were serving poorly, or maybe not at all. I started thinking about how we could reach out to learners with family, work and military responsibilities; people in traditionally underserved populations; and first-generation and rural learners. UDL was a powerful framework for broadening access for everybody.

Kirsten BehlingBehling: I began my career in higher education working for the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. At the time, we had a grant from the U.S. Office of Postsecondary Education around teaching faculty about reflective practice. Our goal was to use reflective practice to provide faculty with tools to educate increasingly diverse populations. When we mentioned supporting students with disabilities, the nearly universal response was, “There is an office that supports those students.” We realized we needed to broaden the scope of our work to reflect the diversity of students.

At the same time CAST was doing excellent work around inclusive teaching and the diverse learner in the K-12 environment. My project team members and I decided to visit CAST to figure out how we might translate this concept into higher education. I was an adopter right away. It made so much sense to me to turn an accommodation for one student into an access path that any student could choose to access no matter their learning needs.

Q: When you talk to the uninitiated about UDL, what kinds of responses do you typically get? What accounts for those responses?

Tobin: People who aren't familiar with UDL often make an easy-to-understand mental mistake, and it's the same one I made when I first encountered UDL.

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UDL is all about inclusive design to benefit everyone involved in learning interactions. But most people aren't familiar with design theories, so they confuse UDL with making accommodations for students with disabilities. When colleagues get "that piece of paper" from students who are requesting accommodations, they sometimes get mad at having to do unexpected extra work just for one student, or suspicious about whether the student "really has a disability," especially if the learner's barrier is invisible, like with learning disabilities.

Now, give our colleagues credit: they almost never say these things to students who are asking for accommodations. But that negative emotional response makes UDL conversations nonstarters, so one of our most important tasks as UDL advocates is to do some myth busting. It's not just about students with disabilities, and it's a way to reach out to every student to give them more options for study, motivation and choices in their learning.

Behling: Honestly it depends on whom I am talking to. Disability service professionals, like myself, buy in to it immediately. For us it makes a lot of sense and we are excited about the idea that accommodations may be naturally built into a course from the start and made available to everyone.

When I work with faculty, I may take a different approach. If faculty perceive that their course is going well and students are engaged, they may be less likely to want to chat. We often highlight the great work that they are already doing and make a plus-one suggestion for adding yet another flexible learning path to their course. For faculty who are resistant to change, they may initially like the idea but worry about the amount of work needed to fulfill it. In these cases, we work with them to identify colleagues across campus who can help -- instructional technology, the library, multimedia professionals, etc. The goal is to help them see the benefit of the additional strategy with the hopes of long-term buy-in. We have seen this work repeatedly.

Q: How do you (concisely) explain UDL to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Tobin: The official definition from CAST relies on neuroscience that shows that we need a "why," "what" and "how" whenever we learn anything, whether we're 6 years old or 60. That translates into three different brain networks being activated, and having choices about how to trigger those brain networks is the key to UDL. The "why" means multiple ways of keeping people engaged. The "what" is multiple ways of representing information. The "how" is giving learners multiple ways to demonstrate action and expression.

But even that is not the simplest way to explain UDL. In our book, we advocate for the idea that UDL is really just "plus-one" thinking. For every interaction that learners have now -- with the materials, yes, but also with each other, with instructors and with the wider world -- provide one more way for that interaction to happen.

The plus-one approach helps to take what otherwise might look like an insurmountable amount of effort and break it down into manageable, approachable chunks. It also helps people to determine where to start applying the UDL framework so they can address current challenges and pain points in their interactions.

Behling: When talking about UDL broadly, I ask them whether they watch TV with captions on. If so, I ask why and when they do this. Some tell me that they watch captions while working out at the gym, or meeting friends out for drinks after work. Some explain that they prefer to read the content as oppose to listen to it. Some say they like to do both.

We talk about how this accommodation, designed for the deaf and hard of hearing, is being used by people without a disability to fulfill a preference and in some cases a need, even if just momentarily. I then ask them to look around and identify one or two things in their environment that might have universal use, even though they were designed for people with disabilities (curb cuts, automatic doors at the grocery store, the ability to dictate a text message while driving, Alexa, etc.). I then translate it to the classroom.

Q: How do you (concisely) attempt to change the mind of someone who doesn’t believe UDL is worthwhile?

Tobin: Early in my career, I spent a lot of time trying to convince all of my colleagues of the usefulness of the UDL approach, and I encountered a number of people who responded from an academic freedom or that's-too-much-work perspective. I have stopped trying to convince them, frankly. What I do now is to work [with] those colleagues who have implemented some UDL strategies into their teaching or interactions with students, asking them to share their results in their staff and faculty meetings. Just saying, "I made one change and now I don't have to reteach this difficult concept" makes others -- especially people resistant to the social justice and it's-the-right-thing-to-do arguments -- take notice. And that starts the UDL conversation on the right track: addressing a perceived problem or challenge.

Behling: With faculty, I start by asking the question, “Who are you teaching? Describe them to me.” This tends to elicit generic demographic information at first, and then when we dig deeper, we hear things like, “students who are always on their phones,” “students who don’t attend office hours,” “students who ask me what we are covering even though I clearly put it in my syllabus.”

By allowing folks to self-realize who they are teaching and the diversity in their classroom, we then follow up with, “How do you teach all of those different types of learners?” to which we get many harried looks and responses. The UDL plus-one approach that we developed is designed to make UDL easy. It allows faculty the chance to meet their students on the diversity path with an alternative option that is not time-consuming nor scary.

Q: Which of the criticisms of UDL (its practicality, for example, or something else) strike you as most reasonable?

Tobin: The part of UDL that we can't sugarcoat is the fact that it takes effort and work to implement. It is easier to do when designing interactions from the beginning, as opposed to retrofitting existing interactions, but even then, the UDL process requires intentional and planned effort. It is also scary to some people that the goal of expert-level UDL goes beyond just providing choices for learners. The goal of UDL is to create expert learners, where we hand control over to the learners themselves. A common saying in our field is that "students are assessed by their instructors; learners assess their own progress."

Q: What’s your sense of how widespread and well-known UDL is as a concept? Would people at most institutions recognize the acronym and know what it means? What will it take for the term to gain more mainstream recognition?

Tobin: Over the past five years, the term "UDL" has started to gain recognition among higher education colleagues. The term itself is starting to be buzzworthy, and few of our colleagues have a clear understanding about what it means or how they might apply it to their own situations. We are in a myth-busting phase right now, where the biggest challenge is differentiating UDL from disability-accommodation work. UDL actually started as research into how best to reach young learners with disabilities, so it's not surprising that UDL researchers in higher education are focusing on moving beyond the disability-services community and into the larger consciousness of our colleges and universities. To really get better traction for the UDL framework, Kirsten and I tried to simplify the concept into a set of ideas and practices (like "plus-one" thinking) that most faculty members, support staffers and campus leaders could understand, see themselves using and want to try in order to address challenges that they themselves define.

Behling: Coming from the disability world, I can tell you that most of my colleagues are familiar with the concept of UDL because for us it increases access for all students including those with disabilities. We are active supporters of the concept and are frequently offering workshops and one-on-one meetings with faculty to help promote it.

I think it has more value coming from the academic side of the house. Faculty need to hear about UDL from other faculty who can share success stories and ideas, and offer support. I have had wonderful success partnering with our teaching and learning centers so that the value of the workshop actually comes from them in their central role versus me in my more specialized role. Tom and I recognize this and tried to create easy-to-swallow strategies for anyone to use.

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Q: You mentioned several examples of successful UDL implementations in the book. Want to highlight one that stood out?

Tobin: I have to highlight what our colleagues in Canadian colleges and universities are doing in the UDL space without having a national accessibility law as a last-resort lever to compel action. Without a you-must-comply rationale for UDL, places like McGill University in Montreal and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver are making great strides by incorporating UDL into their overall identities as open, diverse and equitable institutions.

Behling: That’s like asking which child is my favorite! For me, I really enjoy seeing the adoption of UDL as part of a larger universitywide systematic change. When a university buys into the concept, as seen at Temple University, South Dakota, Northern Essex Community College and others, there’s a lasting impact on students and faculty -- the school community as a whole.

Q: What’s the end goal of UDL activism? At what point has it achieved its goals?

Tobin: Speaking up for UDL is just part of what I do. I am an advocate for lowering barriers of all kinds in higher education, and my goal is to identify those whom we have traditionally served poorly, or not at all, and understand how we can reach out to them to give them opportunities to succeed. That goal of everyone being included is perhaps impossible to put into practice, and I don't think I will ever wake up one day, able to say, "Yesterday, we achieved peak UDL, and today I can rest." Because UDL is not a set of specific practices -- it's a mind-set, an approach and a framework -- we can always come back to the interactions that we have with our learners and provide them with more ways to be engaged, more ways to get information and more ways to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. I am looking forward to what comes next!

I am always eager to hear people's stories, and to help where I can. I encourage your readers to connect with me via my website, thomasjtobin.com, and to share their ideas and questions in the comments discussion below this article, as well.

Behling: Ideally, all faculty are embracing UDL, and universities as a whole support both faculty and staff as they incorporate it into their work. However, I also think of UDL as a fluid concept that allows for minor tweaks and changes as student diversity and learning needs change. I like thinking of UDL as Lego bricks. A kiddo or an adult can build one structure at a time, changing it as they change, tweaking it as their likes/dislikes change, adding new bricks so others can play and changing the layout to accommodate all.

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