A- A A+

What Is Universal Design for Learning?

what-is-universal-design-learning-teacher-addresses-kindergarten-class icon_podcastsThe following is a transcription of the podcast, Universal Design for Learning (Audio).”


In this podcast on the topic of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Laura Kaloi, public policy advisor for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, interviews Skip Stahl from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) based in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Mr. Stahl serves as CAST Director of Technical Assistance and is Co-Director of the Accessible Instructional Material Consortium. He is a nationally recognized expert in Universal Design for Learning. He has extensive experience in providing professional development and assistance to educators in K-12 and postsecondary settings.

Laura Kaloi: Please give our audience a brief description of Universal Design for Learning (sometimes referred to as UDL).


Skip Stahl: Universal Design for Learning is a framework for thinking about [learning] as a process of instruction in a general education classroom, and it really refers to the curriculum. So when I talk about the curriculum, I’m going to talk about four aspects: goals, methods, materials, and assessment. Those four components really comprise the entire curriculum. One of the difficulties, particularly with students with disabilities and learning disabilities especially, has been the inflexibility of the materials and methodologies used in the general education setting. So the part of the work of, and the goal of, Universal Design for Learning is to increase that flexibility and to provide more opportunities for learning in those general education classrooms.


A good example of Universal Design Learning is the requirement that all broadcast television include closed captions [for the hearing impaired]. As of the early ‘90s, the application of closed captions in our broadcast TV signals was the result of advocacy that was part of the effort from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to gain access to information. And so with the passage of the American Disabilities Act in the early 1990s, it became a requirement for all television makers that they include a closed caption chip in the actual television sets to decode the caption signal. Prior to this, if you were deaf or hard of hearing you had to go out and actually buy a closed caption decoder to get the caption track, and that placed a lot of expense on the individual. Another challenge was that not every broadcast station was broadcasting captions. In the early- and mid-‘90s, some research was done to determine how effective the use and the availability of closed captions was for individuals who are hard of hearing. What was most interesting about that research was that it turned out that the most popular use of closed captioning was either couples in bed at night (where one wanted to sleep and one wanted to watch television) or increasingly in sports bars, gyms, and airports. It was a kind of unique discovery by a lot of people, particularly in the disability community, looking at the accessibility of information because what happened was with the availability of this alternate format, it was not only the hearing-impaired individuals who benefited but the general population as well.


The key the UDL framework is based upon three principles that CAST developed in the early ‘90s, and those three principles are to provide:


  • Multiple means of representing information, not just in print but in audio and video.

  • Multiple means of expression. Not all of us are able to express ourselves in the same way, so if we require all students to express what they know simply by writing [we may do a disservice to] students with learning disabilities.

  • Multiple means of engagement, multiple ways of engaging students in the learning process.


Those three principles -- representation, expression and engagement -- create the foundation for Universal Design for Learning. We apply those to the four aspects of the curriculum: goals, methods, materials, and assessments.


Laura Kaloi: You’ve described how CAST supports a set of principles in UDL in certain technology. How has CAST helped you move that work forward?


Skip Stahl: What CAST is doing is trying to promote and develop a strong research base for Universal Design for Learning in a multiplicity of ways. So in one area we’re working on the policy front to make sure that instructional materials that flow into classrooms are available in more than one format, not just print but ideally either electronic text or Braille as well. We are also working collaboratively with curriculum publishers to increase the flexibility of their materials but also to embed in those materials learning supports and formative, embedded assessments to chart student progress along the way. In addition, we are doing a lot of work in the area of professional development, working with teachers both at local and state levels to help train educators in strategies and approaches that will take advantage of the flexibility that a UDL approach offers.


Laura Kaloi: You said that UDL is not just for students with learning disabilities. How does UDL benefit other students with special needs or those without disabilities?


Skip Stahl: The focus of UDL is really on the environment into which students will be placed, so the classroom, the curriculum, and the materials those students will use, the instructional practice that teachers apply in working with those students, and again, focused on a high degree of flexibility. What we’ve discovered in our years of research is that the more options you provide in learning settings, the better the chances are that not only students with disabilities are going to benefit but it offers a much broader array of options for students who don’t have any disabilities whatsoever, but who simply prefer to approach a learning challenge from a different perspective. A good example might be if students were asked to express what they know solely through writing, then there is not really an opportunity to share their work with one another or to display what they know graphically or musically or in some form of movement or alternative presentation. So part of what we are really encouraging in the area of expression is for schools to increasingly encourage students to use multiple types of media and multiple strategies for expressing what they know. But each one of these approaches yields two benefits: it meets the needs of students with disabilities who may require alternate formats of information and alternate means of expression; it also meets the needs of students with disabilities, and for general education students, it increase flexibility and opportunity for both accessing information and expressing what they know.

  • 1
  • 2