Get on Board: Universal Design for Instruction

Alaina Beaverby Alaina Beaver, Universal Instructional Design Consultant, Office of Information Technology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

 

 

How do you learn best? How might a learning environment or experience be more useful to you?

These are questions that I often ask educators when we sit down to talk about bringing Universal Design into their instruction. What I like about these questions is that they help us focus on the bigger picture. From this conversation, we can generate a list of answers to the question “What do you want your students to learn in your course?” From there, the next logical steps involve delivery of material (“How do you want to impart this content?”) and assessment (“How do you want students to show you what they’ve learned?”). There’s one tiny catch in this planning: faculty need to make sure that their courses are in compliance with CU-Boulder’s new Accessibility Policy. That’s where Universal Design for Instruction–and consultation with me–enter the picture.

Universal Design for Instruction is a well-documented framework, but the underlying idea is deceptively simple: let’s make learning work for all people.

In practice, there are important factors to consider. First of all, faculty members need to understand what “accessible” means. The reality of accessible materials often comes down to this question: can a computer process the text, images and videos aloud so that anyone can gain access to the same information equitably, regardless of their level of ability?

In order to answer “yes” to this question, several things might need to happen:

  • Documents should be properly tagged with heading levels
  • Pictures should have alternative text associated with them
  • Audio or visual content should have appropriate transcripts or captions, etc.

Such features make digital versions of materials fully accessible to people with a wide range of learning needs, from not being able to see or hear to having a cognitive learning impairment. People with severe dyslexia, for example, often need to both see and hear text read aloud on a computer in order to understand it fully. If you’ve ever been at a gym or a noisy sports restaurant, you’ve probably benefited from the captions enabled on the TV screens there. Once you look at the wide range of people that accessibility measures benefit, the stereotypes and stigmas behind “disability” quickly break down.

Another factor of Universal Design for Instruction, though, is the understanding that there will always be cases where accommodations need to be made–and that’s okay. For example, some students with blindness or low vision may require braille notes to use during a class presentation. Because braille is a special language designed for persons with blindness, accommodations can be arranged with the institution’s Disability Services support personnel to give students what they need to be successful. I emphasize that, as the instructor of the course, it’s not your job to provide braille materials, but to plan your class accordingly so that students have ample time to prepare and acquire accessible materials themselves.

In the language classroom, Universal Design for Instruction can often be achieved by providing students with creative choices for how they express their learning. For example, in a beginning level French course, an assessment might involve looking at a picture of a room and writing down different objects in the image. Such image-based assessment provides challenges for accessibility. However, this presents a great opportunity to revisit the learning goals: do you want students to really be able to see and identify objects in the room, or do you want students to demonstrate that they’ve learned all of the items on the furniture vocabulary list?

A Universal Design for Instruction approach would be to instead ask students to imagine a room, and to describe it using no fewer than X number of words from the list. The learning goal is met and students have some creativity in imagining a room of their choice; meanwhile, the instructor does not need to worry about creating an accommodation for a vision-centric assignment.

In an ideal Universally Designed classroom, everyone learns, and no one notices that anything out of the ordinary has happened–instead, it just “feels like good teaching.” When you walk into the grocery store and the doors open for you, it’s just easy.

When I assist educators with redesigning their courses to become UD compliant, I try to emphasize the end goal. It might take some extra time to learn new skills on how to make accessible digital materials. It requires some extra brain power to think of these additional considerations.

However, the overall feedback I receive from the instructors I consult with is that it’s worth it. Faculty feel good knowing that they’re doing the right thing. They’re aligning their work not only with the institution’s accessibility goal but with the larger aim of providing equitable access to learning for everyone.

Faculty realize that accessibility, good user experience, and beautiful design are all important features of teaching, and often, many of them are already embedded in their courses. I have the pleasure of supporting their efforts, and sharing our collective successes at CU system events such as Diverse Learners Awareness Week. Riding the wave of a cultural shift at a major institution takes a little getting used to, but when we’re all on board, it’s an incredible ride.

22 thoughts on “Get on Board: Universal Design for Instruction

  • July 4, 2020 at 4:18 pm
    Permalink

    The imagine activity is easily transferable to many other topics: prepositions as someone already mentioned. Also, imagine that you are about to go on a trip. What are the X number of items (clothes and accessories) that You put in your suitcase?
    OR You have to teach a health class on the body parts. present your lesson to your students making sure that you include X number of body parts
    OR sports at a camp: list of sports that your campers can choose from.

    Great idea. Thank you.

    Reply
  • June 26, 2020 at 1:05 pm
    Permalink

    I liked the idea of imaging a room. It gives students freedom to create and learn in a more personalized and relaxing way. Thank you for the information.

    Reply
  • June 25, 2020 at 7:31 am
    Permalink

    I have always liked doing assessment where students decide how to present what they know, similar to your suggestion about imagining a room. Where I struggle is with assessment. It’s much more complicated. rubrics need to be well written to work and I don’t always get those right. Any advice about assessment of these types of activities would be awesome!!

    Reply
  • June 21, 2020 at 5:38 pm
    Permalink

    The technology tools to help with differentiated learning are much appreciated.

    Reply
  • June 18, 2020 at 11:29 am
    Permalink

    I was just talking to a colleague & friend as we were figuring out how we would teach the course we designed together several years ago and the very topic of how we would to prepositions of place came up. Your idea of having them imagine a room and describe it – is exactly something we could use. Your ideas on how to make all our materials accessible is excellent. It leaves our any embarrassing moments as you accommodate students. Thank you!

    Reply
  • June 17, 2020 at 2:45 pm
    Permalink

    Interesting concept to “imagine” what one is describing rather than “see” what one is describing. Good opportunity to teach students about the “mind’s eye.”

    Reply
    • June 29, 2020 at 2:48 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you for the useful tip!

      Reply
  • June 17, 2020 at 2:44 pm
    Permalink

    I like the freedom that comes with having students to use their imagination for writing prompts instead of using one image for all.

    Reply
    • July 4, 2020 at 4:18 pm
      Permalink

      The imagine activity is easily transferable to many other topics: prepositions as someone already mentioned. Also, imagine that you are about to go on a trip. What are the X number of items (clothes and accessories) that You put in your suitcase?
      OR You have to teach a health class on the body parts. present your lesson to your students making sure that you include X number of body parts
      OR sports at a camp: list of sports that your campers can choose from.

      Great idea. Thank you.

      Reply
  • June 17, 2020 at 1:59 pm
    Permalink

    i like the imagination idea

    Reply
  • June 11, 2020 at 6:21 pm
    Permalink

    I like the idea of having students imagine what a room looks like to assess whether or no they have learned room/furniture vocabulary- and it is creative, require critical thinking, and problem solving skills.

    Reply
  • June 10, 2020 at 8:41 am
    Permalink

    It’s great that with the help of different educational and IT tools teachers have an opportunity to create a universally designed classroom. If the Faculty while creating such a classroom really takes into consideration all the important features of teaching like learners’ needs, accessibility, good user experience, and beautiful design it will turn out to be successful and contributing process.

    Reply
  • June 9, 2020 at 1:29 pm
    Permalink

    Great to always keep the end goal in mind. As language teachers, we want the students to be able to express themselves in the TL. I need to remind myself that each of the students is going to come away from my class retaining something different, but if they can use it to communicate- that ‘s the point.

    Reply
  • June 8, 2020 at 4:43 pm
    Permalink

    Engaging student with a variety of tool is a key element while designing a course program. Students do not always know their full potential neither which tool is better or more enjoyable to each of them, therefore the more we teachers provide to our students the better way they will know themselves as well.

    Reply
  • June 7, 2020 at 7:47 am
    Permalink

    As an educator, it is our ultimate task to put premium on learning and educating ourselves to this kind of matters as what mentioned in this article so that we can accommodate and even scaffold our students according to their needs.

    Reply
  • June 6, 2020 at 12:50 am
    Permalink

    Thanks a lot. Bright ideas! It’s really great, fantastic and possible!

    Reply
  • May 26, 2020 at 1:56 pm
    Permalink

    I love the idea of using imagination to get students to be creative.
    Trying to engage every learner is the ideal goal. Tools to do so are not always available.

    Reply
  • May 1, 2020 at 12:37 pm
    Permalink

    I will gradually assimilate the ideas. Just getting used to a way of thinking .. and like the imagination factor

    Reply
  • March 27, 2020 at 1:35 am
    Permalink

    To quick thoughts of Universal Design of Instruction: Making the Lesson goals available for the students for every step of the lesson and this will help students to know what they are working to achieve. it will be easy for me as well to refer any time the goal if it is posted properly and students have access to see. Also, using large visual and tactile aids.

    Reply
  • December 14, 2019 at 11:35 pm
    Permalink

    Thank you for the examples on how to deal with the learning challenges

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.