It’s been ten months since Universal Design for Learning hit the streets at KPU (at least in a formal sense whereby an individual with the requisite skills, knowledge, and experience was hired as an Educational Consultant in UDL in the Teaching and Learning Commons). A lot of solid, interesting work has already been done in workshops, in consultations, class visits, and at conferences. And the pace is picking up.
As I have had the privilege and fun of working with faculty around UDL, some myths about what UDL is and isn’t have been bandied about. As instructors come across new frameworks, they integrate that information with what they already know and how they currently practice. For instance, I have seen a number of Faculty delighted that they are already practicing some of the main tenets of UDL and are happy to see their approach named. For other instructors who struggle with accommodation plans, UDL is recognized as supporting accessibility needs. And still others, who are thinking about changes, perhaps to address diversity, Course renewal, struggles with engagement, or the Academic Plan, UDL can be perceived as an opportunity to rethink their practices.
Whether beginning or expanding engagement in UDL, some misconceptions and misunderstandings have emerged. For this blog post, I want to spend some time dispelling three main myths about UDL.
But before we get to that, let’s remind ourselves that UDL is a DESIGN framework. It is concerned with how we intentionally design curriculum, courses, and activities. The main features of UDL are:
- Designing to the margins
- Designing to creating expert learners
- A proactive vs reactive approach to planning
- Enabling access
- Providing flexibility and choice in getting to learning outcomes
- Explicitly addressing expectations and structure through design
- Frequent, varied assessment
Given that UDL can represent a change in the way we think about teaching and learning, it is unsurprising that some myths emerge. Below I have fleshed out three key myths that are often heard about UDL.
MYTH 1: UDL is About Accessibility
This might be considered a pseudo-myth. At its inception, UDL DID come about through the desire to design curriculum accessible to students who had been excluded from school and instruction due to learning disabilities. The idea was to design activities to provide alternative ways of getting to learning outcomes.
As research into learning, motivation, metacognition, and social learning increased in earnest in the last fifty years, there was more and more reason to see that learning itself is nuanced and variable. The “problem” was no longer that only 10% of kids were struggling to read; we started to see how different everyone is in the way they learn. We have a powerful understanding that as instructors, we can shape the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of the classroom (Ambrose et al, 2010). We know that culture and experience play an enormous role in shaping minds and to ignore those cultural and experiential lenses means that you will probably run into difficulties with the way students engage in discussions, receive feedback, demonstrate dependence or independence in learning, and engage in troubleshooting.
So yes, UDL can be about accessibility and indeed it is the first step in the framework. Design so that you make sure students can participate, see, hear, pay attention, and maintain focus. Caption videos, provide notetaking support, provide choices in the ways student express their learning, learn to work with interpreters, understand what a braille computer is, become friends with your Accessibility Services people.
Once that is done though, UDL takes you on a deep, deep dive, past that initial access stage and into places where students can learn through authentic settings, assignments, and assessment. The UDL framework has the ability to help you flesh out conceptual frameworks, conduct meaningful vocabulary study, engage in experimentation, and demands that you acknowledge that culture, language, and experience not only play a role in learning, but gives learning its joy and its fire.
MYTH 2: UDL is Just Good Teaching
What to make of this statement? What is teaching? What is good? And importantly, what is JUST?* As I said before, when people are coming into contact with new frameworks, their first impulse is to cast that framework in light of what they already might know. Cognitive efficiency at its finest.
The term good is highly subjective, value laden, and political but overall, we can probably agree that the good teaching category is constituted by subject area passion, modelling how to learn well, establishing personal relationships with students, knowing who the student is and what they care about, being a good communicator, and creating the conditions under which student acquire, retain and later generalize at least some of their knowledge. A tall order, and nothing just about that.
UDL is a design framework which means that it overlays (expands, enhances) good teaching with design thinking. As such, the UDL framework provides ways of understanding the learner, to define learning problems (engagement, representation, and action and expression), to find pathways of creating innovative solutions and to test and redesign. Assessment is a great example. Where we may be seeking a departure from exam/essay assignment, we may not be able to think of any alternatives. Tradition might tell us that the rigor of papers and exams are good teaching. The UDL framework allows us to reevaluate our position and technique around assessment. Meyer, Rose, and Gordon (2014) suggest UDLing assessment using five benchmarks. Assessments should be:
2. measure both product and process
3. are flexible, not fixed
4. are construct relevant
5. actively inform and involve learners
So while you may be engaging in good teaching because you are passionate, a good model, good at establishing relationships with students etc., the UDL framework suggests that you look at how you are designing assessment and enable you to check in on whether your tests are flexible, construct relevant, and ongoing. Thus, UDL can be good teaching but I prefer to look at it as complementing good teaching with good design thinking.
MYTH 3: UDL Means an Overhaul
If you have attended any of my workshops, read previous blog posts, or talked to me about UDL in the hallway, you’ll know that I like to use UDL as a verb to underscore that it is a process, and one that is best undertaken by baby steps. Sure, UDL can be used in a redesign, but anyone in UDL implementation will tell you that UDL is best started small. Try it with an assignment or project. Apply it to group work. Try plunking in a formative assessment on student engagement or prior knowledge. How do you melt an iceberg with a hairdryer? One small section at a time. Design thinking means that you anticipate your students and anticipate their need. It means getting feedback and experimenting and getting more feedback and trying again. Design work is iterative. Build from small pieces to large pieces. If you’re chomping at the bit and want to use a blowtorch for the iceberg, UDL can help guide program review and course redesign but if it gets overwhelming, go back to those smaller places where we are developing expert learners, designing for flexibility, and acknowledging and supporting the variation in learning.
And as always, if you find yourself confronting UDL myths, scared of an overhaul, or wishing to dive deeper than access, please reach out. I’m always so happy to chat.
*I’m a skeptic of the word just. Just is used by people who want you to do work but also want to make it seem like it’s going to take ten minutes so you’ll say yes when it will really take two weeks and an assistant that you don’t have and a spreadsheet that you don’t want.
Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., Lovett, M.C., Di Pietro, M., Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST.