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.

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