What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

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Angela McElhinney

Angela McElhinney is one of our Further Education and Training (FET) Service teachers and an AHEAD Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Badge Facilitator. This year she’s leading a Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) Innovation Project that’s working to promote the use of Multiple Means of Assessment and is also undertaking a PhD in the area of UDL and Inclusion in the FET sector. In this blog she tells us more about UDL.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

The Further Education and Training (FET) sector is a very worthwhile and rewarding area which I have had the privilege to work in for almost twenty years. FET is for everyone and aims to offer a pathway that will take individuals as far as they want to go, irrespective of their current level of education. As FET educators we teach a diverse range of students. While this diversity helps to bring great variability to our Service it also presents challenges for us in the classroom. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an innovative approach to teaching and learning that provides us with a framework and guidelines to support this diverse range of students.

The term Universal Design (UD) originates in engineering and architecture where environments are designed in a way that they can be used by as many people as possible without needing to adapt or specialise. For example, steps cannot be navigated by wheelchair users but ramps can be used by everyone. UDL applies the goals of UD to teaching and learning environments. Instead of using differentiation and singling out students for additional support, we can adapt our curriculum and teaching at the design stage to give all of our students an equal opportunity to learn. UDL is a framework that is based on years of research in the science of how people learn. It recognises the fact that everyone learns in different ways and there is no such thing as the average learner. It provides us with a set of guidelines and principles to help us to lower barriers to learning for our students through a variety of teaching methods to give them all an equal opportunity to succeed. UDL is about offering flexibility in how we provide information, how students engage with the programme and demonstrate their knowledge or skills.

The three core principles of UDL are:

  • Providing multiple means of engagement.
  • Providing multiple means of representation.
  • Providing multiple means of action and expression.

The UDL Badge with AHEAD introduced me to the concept of UDL and has been one of the most beneficial courses I’ve completed, for both me and my students.  It made me stop, take a step back, look at my current practice and rethink it. Small changes can have a huge impact for our students. Using a ‘Plus-One’ method is a great way to bring UDL into our teaching. Think of just one more way that an activity can take place. An example of this would be if you were giving your students a copy of your class presentation to read, you could also add an audio option that they could either read the slide or have you read it to them. Mote is a great extension for Google Chrome that allows you to easily add audio to your Google Slides. In assessment an example of a ‘Plus-One’ would be, instead of students being required to submit a typed essay they can present their assessment in an audio/video recording or as a poster. Simple things like giving our students access to the lesson materials prior to the class gives them the opportunity to make any adjustments to fonts/sizes/backgrounds, to print it off or just become familiar with the material. Another simple but powerful thing we can do is give the students a copy of the marking scheme for their assignment to allow them to review and mark it themselves prior to submission. By providing students with choice and autonomy, we are empowering them and giving them agency in their own learning. UDL will help us support all students to achieve their full potential.  Donegal ETB FET Service are very proactive in the area of UDL. We have a UDL Professional Learning Network and a monthly Lunch Bytes which is a 15-minute online meeting where one of our colleagues shares a UDL tip or tool that they have found to work well in their classes.

Through the use of UDL we are working toward the SOLAS vision of “Inclusion for All”, one of the key three pillars in their current strategy which they hope to achieve for all learners through a UDL approach to learning. Consequently, we as educators find ourselves at a very exciting time for FET, the beginning of a new approach to learning!

UDL is gaining momentum in Irish education, and we are lucky to have the UDL Badge on offer from AHEAD and also many supporting webinars and publications that are available to assist us in the use of UDL in our classes (please see links below).