Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles describe how educators can cater to the needs of students with differing needs, including those with disabilities (CAST 2011). It stems from the social model of disability, which places the problem within the environment, rather than with the individual who has the disability (Collins 2014).
Technology enables the quick modification of learning materials to meet the specific needs of students (Pisha & Coyne 2001) and online communication can even hide a disability from others. For example, a deaf student who participates in an online discussion forum does not need to reveal they are deaf in order to communicate with peers. This can lower the social and communication barriers that may be experienced when communicating in person. Also, there are many modern technologies specifically developed to help people with disabilities engage with online environments. This means online learning environments are particularly well placed to address the goal of Universal Design for Learning. It is the responsibility of the institutions and developers who maintain these environments to ensure they can be accessed by all.
While most of the UDL guidelines apply to curriculum design, some of them are relevant to the design of the broader virtual learning environment (VLE).
UDL principles (CAST 2011) mapped to how a VLE might meet relevant checkpoints
To learn more, click on one of the Guidelines in the boxes below.
UDL Principle 1 aims to ‘provide multiple means of representation’ by ‘providing options for perception’, which includes ‘offer[ing] ways of customizing the display of information’ (CAST 2011). This means the VLE should offer the ability to do things like resize text and enable screen-readers to read aloud text to those who have visual impairments or dyslexia.
Within UDL Principle 2, guideline 4: aims to ‘provide options for physical action’, which includes ‘vary[ing] the methods for response and navigation’ (CAST 2011). This means ensuring all navigation and interaction can occur via a keyboard and using assistive technologies such as voice activated software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which recognises speech and converts it to text.
UDL Principle 3 seeks to ‘provide multiple means of engagement’ by ‘recruiting interest’, including enabling the learner to choose colours and layouts (CAST 2011). There are a number of tools that enable users to change the fonts and colours on a webpage and it is important these are able to be applied. The VLE should also offer the ability to customise the interface, in terms of re-ordering frequently accessed items, placement of menus and temporarily hiding extraneous information that may distract from the task at hand.
These three principles and the specific checkpoints mentioned above are being addressed as part of the Accessible Moodle project
, which aims to make UCL Moodle more accessible. The main ways these are being addressed are through the development of a more accessible Moodle theme
, as well as the development of Moodle code itself. Although the project has limited ability to develop this code, suggestions for improvements are being raised with the Moodle development community via the Moodle Tracker. You can sign up and vote for accessibility enhancements
to help these get prioritised, and therefore resolved more quickly, by Moodle HQ and other developers within the community.
The remaining UDL principles are intended to guide the development of more accessible content and curriculum designs, and therefore these will inform the development of the Universal Design for Learning course that is being developed at UCL, to help educators understand how to design accessible learning tasks, environments and materials.
Pisha, B. & Coyne, P. (2001) Smart From the Start: The Promise of Universal Design for Learning. Remedial and Special Education. [Online] 22 (4), 197–203. Available from: doi:10.1177/074193250102200402.