What is UDL?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to adopting an inclusive mindset when considering how the college is run, how classes are delivered, and how students learn. A UDL mindset promotes the idea that all students can achieve at a high level, and this is shown through flexibility, community, and active learning. Much of UDL takes place within the classroom, but it takes an institution-wide effort to support this, and all members of staff have the chance to play a role.

Watch a short video that introduces the concept of UDL

UDL Guidelines

The UDL Guidelines indicate how instructional practices, learning materials, and classroom spaces can be adapted to become more inclusive to a wider spectrum of learners. This framework can be applied in a variety of ways and in a multitude of contexts. The three principles of UDL are:

  • Multiple means of representation: This is the “what” of learning. What is being presented to students and what are students doing in class and outside of class to engage with learning material?
  • Multiple means of engagement: This is the “why” of learning. Why do students feel motivated to learn and why is what they are learning relevant to them?
  • Multiple means of action and expression: This is the “how” of learning. How are students demonstrating their understanding of learning objectives?

Watch the intro video on the Engagement Principle.

Engagement is the first pillar of the UDL framework. The aim is to create a learning environment where students feel motivated, happy, and purposeful. To do this, the guidelines call for us to consider paying attention to how we are recruiting interest, sustaining student effort, and supporting self-regulation. below are a few strategies for approaching this:

•Build community: consider how students feel in the classroom and find ways to ensure that all voices are heard

•Be personal: share your experience, its relationships that matter

•Make learning relevant

•Be transparent and consistent

•Communication on platforms students use

•Set high expectations More detailed engagement strategies can be found on the Implementing UDL Moodle page

Watch the intro video on the Representation Principle.

Our students come from varied backgrounds, have different life experiences, and have unique learning preferences and needs. The goal of providing multiple means of representation is to help each and every learner become resourceful and knowledgeable. We can aim to achieve this by building in flexibility in the way students are able to access, engage with, and use course content. Below are a few ideas of how to get started:

•Accessible documents and materials

•Multiple formats

•Use platforms that students actually use

•Use of clear language

•Clarify new vocabulary and symbols

•Pre-teach threshold concepts

•Scaffolds and modelling More detailed representation strategies can be found on the Implementing UDL Moodle page

Watch the intro video on Action and Expression in UDL.

The final pillar of the UDL guidelines is action and expression. This involves the how students demonstrate what they have learned. Providing flexibility, authenticity, and transparency in how students are assessed can lead to greater accessibility and improved learning outcomes for all students. The goal is to allow students demonstrate their learning in a meaningful way. Many assessments are restrictive and put many students at a disadvantage simply through their design. This can alienate and discourage students, and

may unintentionally send a message to them that they are incapable of learning in a subject. That is why it is important to make sure the only thing being marked in any given assignment or learning activity is what students know rather than how they demonstrate it. Below are a few suggestions to get you going:

•Set goals with students

•Provide students multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and in a way that is meaningful to them

•Make sure that assessments are measuring learning goals, and not other skills such as memorization or writing skills.

•Provide multiple opportunities for actionable feedback

•Consider providing students choice in assessment format

More detailed action and expression strategies can be found on the Implementing UDL Moodle page

Why is UDL Important in Higher Ed?

The UDL Framework is a model for proactively addressing the inherent diversity of modern third-level classrooms. We cannot assume that our students come to us with the same experiences, strengths, or learning styles. It was once expected that the average first year student in Ireland was coming directly after completing the Leaving Certificate Examination. However, it is now more common for students to enter into third-level education from alternative routes.

· English language learners

· Mature students

· Students with disabilities

· Students with different learning styles

· Students with significant domestic demands

· Students with limited resources

A UDL approach seeks to move away from didactic teaching methods based heavily on lectures and texts to methods that build partnerships and community, focus on engagement and relevance, and demonstrate flexibility. When done well, both students and teachers may find the learning process more inclusive, joyful, and meaningful. This, in turn, can lead to greater retention, higher student engagement, and more impactful learning outcomes.

Finally, courses designed with the principles of UDL will ultimately save you time as it will reduce the amount of individual accommodations necessary.

At ATU, our mission is to empower all of our students to succeed. To do this, we must understand that each student brings a unique set of skills, experiences, and needs. Our institution must reflect this by ensuring that we work to create all our learning spaces, materials, and courses with accessibility in mind. An inclusive approach requires an institution-wide dedication to equity and all members of our learning community must play a part.


Accommodations vs. Accessibility

Accommodations break down specific barriers for individuals. Accessibility focuses on providing a more inclusive learning environment for everyone.

Credit: University of Minnesota.

Inaccessible design: Excludes people from equitable access to learning opportunities.

Accommodations: Changes are made for a specific person or group that faces a barrier to accessing materials, learning experiences, or physical spaces. These changes are once-off and often require additional work for all involved including the user.

Accessible/Universal Design: Proactively anticipates barriers and seeks to make all aspects of a learning more experience at the start. This will future-proof learning opportunities and allow students with a wide spectrum of needs access materials without extra work.

A recent study of higher education in the UK revealed that “disabled students with the same qualification base on entry to the degree course were not performing as well as students without a disability, they were less satisfied and were less likely to achieve high quality employability outcomes” (Layer, 2019). Why is this the case? It may come down to how we, as an institution, view disability.

People with disabilities are portrayed in various contexts. In order to discuss accessibility, it is important to have a shared understanding of how disability is understood.

The Medical Model: This model understands disability as a problem to be solved through supports, accommodations, or interventions. People with disabilities are seen as abnormal or damaged.

The Social Model: This model understands disability as natural human diversity. People with disabilities are equal and deserving of autonomy. Disability has much to do with how society perceives it as it.

The way that much of society is currently organized does not include many people with disabilities. Therefore, much of the problem can be addressed by how we design our systems. In our institution, we have a duty to make changes to our campus, our facilities, our materials, and how our learning takes place in order to widen participation and mitigate the impact of a disability on one’s ability to access learning.

Accessibility efforts are important to meet the needs of learners with disabilities, but they will also benefit all learners. With this in mind, it is important to understand the diversity of our student body.

According to the National Disability Authority, the 2016 indicated that around 1 in 7, or 13.5%, people self-identify as having some kind of disability in Ireland. These statistics also indicate that people with disabilities in Ireland are less likely to hold higher qualifications than people without disabilities.

According to a 2018 HEA survey, 14.5% of First Year students identified as being a person with a disability. The most common disability category identified was “specific learning difficulty,” followed by “psychological/emotional condition.” Read the enrollment statistics here.

In addition, many people who have conditions that affect their abilities may not recognize or wish to disclose this. Also, you may not recognize that a person has a disability based on your interactions with them. Furthermore, many other students fall into non-traditional categories such as people who are English language learners, mature students, first-generation university students, and those who are from lower socio-economic households. Ultimately,

Accessible material will also help students using older technologies to access the internet, students in very loud or very quiet environments where speech is difficult or impossible to understand such as a bus or train, or students using mobile devices to access content.

Finally, accessibility efforts are often portrayed as impacting only people with disabilities, but this is only a part of the story. In fact, accessibility benefits all learners. It is important to acknowledge that everyone has a unique perspective, skill set, and preferences. If we create a learning environment that only caters to a certain type of student, we are inadvertently excluding many students from accessing learning opportunities and demonstrating their skills.

Ireland signed on to the UNESCO Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (1994). This statement advocates for an inclusive approach to education. This was Ireland’s first major step towards addressing accessibility and inclusion for all learners.

Ireland passed legislation in 2004 called the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs Act to address inclusion in all Irish educational institutions, including tertiary education. This bill establishes the right of people with disabilities to access an equitable education. In the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2007), it compels countries to “ensure that persons with disabilities are able to access general tertiary education, vocational training, adult education and lifelong learning without discrimination and on an equal basis with others.” It also encourages institutions to “promote access to information by providing information intended for the general public in accessible formats and technologies (Article 21).” Designing your courses, lessons, and materials with accessibility in mind helps you meet the fundamental right to information for a much broader population. National Access Plan (HEA): The National Access plan written by the Higher Education Authority clearly outlines a policy of full inclusion and equitable access for all learners. They advocate the use of Universal Design for Learning to meet the needs of an ever increasingly diverse set of learners.