Instructional Design / Pedagogy

Introduction to UDL

UDL stands for Universal Design for Learning. It’s a key term in education, but what does it really mean?

Opening Doors with Universal Design

Open door leading into school

Universal Design originated in architecture as designers sought ways to make their buildings more accessible to anyone who might use them. Consider the traditional doorknob. This device was in virtually every home for generations. But problems arose constantly. Wet hands or freezing cold hands or thick gloves/mittens in winter made it hard to open. Young children had a hard time turning doorknobs. So do some elderly people or people with arthritis. Not to mention people with their hands full. Or people who only have one hand or no hands. Doorknobs were built for the average person to be able to operate.

Eventually, alternative devices for opening doors were created. Lever handles, push-bars, and even button and sensor-operated automatic devices. When these devices replace traditional doorknobs, they do not present a disadvantage to anyone who is familiar with or capable of using doorknobs. In fact, they make it easier for everyone to open doors.

This example underscores the basic principle of Universal Design: To remove barriers.

Universal Design Applied to Education

Universal design is not about making a solution to a specific problem. It is about removing barriers that could affect anyone. When applied to education, then, UDL is not about “retrofitting” assignments and materials to address the needs of a specific student or group. UDL is a proactive principle of creating “a rich learning environment that is designed around the needs of all students, not just those with identified needs.”

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational practice that works in unison with differentiated instruction. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning (2014), UDL is, “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.”

UDL Guidelines

“The UDL Guidelines are a tool used in the implementation of Universal Design for Learning, a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.”

The three principles of UDL, below, suggest ways in which teaching and learning can be made inclusive and equitable.

  • Provide multiple means of Engagement. Affective networks. The WHY of learning. Stimulate interest and motivation for learning.
  • Provide multiple means of Representation. Recognition networks. The WHAT of learning. Present information and content in different ways.
  • Provide multiple means of Action and Expression. Strategic networks. The HOW of learning. Differentiate the ways that students can express what they know.

UDL Guidelines from CAST
UDL Guidelines from CAST

  Visit to learn more about the framework and find the visual UDL guidelines matrix.

How UDL and ADA Accessibility Work Together

As you learn more about UDL, you will see that equity is at its core. This is something UDL has in common with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it applies to education. The notion of a barrier-free learning space is a goal that both share.

When you present content to students, decide on the parameters for assignments and assessments, and even choose the communication tools you use, you can be choosing a barrier-free strategy.

Example: Closed Captions

One example of necessary ADA accessibility is the requirement that audio and video media include closed captions. This clearly addresses the needs of the hearing-impaired (ADA accessibility).

Closed captions also remove barriers, and even present new opportunities, for all students. Here are some examples of how closed captions create a more equitable learning environment:

  • reading captions can be more effective for visually oriented learners than just listening
  • captions allow users to view a video with the sound off when they need to not disturb others (sleeping baby or significant other) due to their unique schedule

How Online Learning Can Help

Online Learning provides an HTML template for courses in Blackboard. We designed this template to optimize UDL and ADA principles and requirements.

Online Learning can also help you develop your class activities to make sure they are free from recognized barriers.

For example, the recognition that students have different devices (computers, Chromebooks, smartphones) and varying access to good Internet connections can be a factor in the expectations for activities and participation.

Reach out to any of the instructional designers in Online Learning for help or advice.

Explore More

  Explore the UDL Guidelines in depth using the visual organizer at

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