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Universal Design for Learning is ultimately about disturbing tradition in education. In fact, it may be among the most disturbing things to happen in education in the 21st century.

And that's a good thing. 




What is Universal Design for Learning?


Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for designing multiple and flexible strategies for learning experiences that are effective for our variable and diverse students. UDL puts emphasis on the role of the environment on enabling or disabling learners, rather than negatively labeling students themselves.



How do instructors go about developing environments in which variable students may thrive without sacrificing rigor and challenge? That's what UDL seeks to accomplish. Two ways to understand UDL are linear and radial.



Linear process of UDL design


A linear understanding of UDL focuses on the whole instructional design process. According to UDL, good instruction doesn't start with determining material or instructional methods, but with good, clear learning objectives and progresses through faithful delivery and reflection.


Linear UDL Design Process as described in the text.


  1. Establish clear outcomes
  2. Anticipate learner variability
  3. Design assessments
  4. Design the instructional experience (methods & materials)
  5. Deliver and reflect


Radial approach to UDL application


A radial view of UDL is all about expansion of the learning experience to improve the outcomes for all learners. In this view, the practice of UDL is framed by a three-principle approach. Instructors ought to provide:

  • Multiple means of representationto enable options for how learners acquire and comprehend information.
  • Multiple means of action and expression, to enable options for how learners interact, communicate, and express their knowledge.
  • Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners' variable interests, provide appropriate levels of challenge, and increase motivation.

These principles form the top line of the UDL guidelines.


UDL Guidelines


In so doing, instructors recognize that not all students learn in the same way, that traditional instruction tends to be narrow in terms of flexibility in methods and materials, and that increasing options and flexibility in how students acquire information, express themselves, and engage in the learning means more students are able to experience optimal learning conditions, for the benefit of all.


Graphic representation of the idea that more flexible approaches enable more learners to comprehend information, express themselves, and engage in the learning.


These two ways of viewing UDL are both accurate. One focuses on the longitudinal design process, the other focuses in on how to expand who is included when designing assessments, materials and methods. As a dynamic framework involving both instructor and learner decision making, UDL is not a two-dimensional method (intervention - result), but a three-dimensional framework (e.g., instructor facilitation - student choices - result).



Two views of a pencil: from the side and top.




UDL and Accessibility


Both the application of accessibility guidelines and the UDL design framework are intended to ensure equitable access for a variable range of students (e.g., ability/disability, interests/motivation, background knowledge/skill). Both call for proactive (design-oriented) strategies as opposed to reactive (e.g., accommodation-oriented) approaches. And ultimately, applying both will have the furthest-reaching benefit for your students, as depicted below.



Accessibility includes access to physical environments and content. UDL adds access to learning and expert learning.



Why UDL?


The best reason to invest time in UDL in higher education is because it works. Designing with UDL means improved effectiveness of instruction and -ultimately- efficiency for the learners and instructor alike. We know that at the University of Tennessee, some student groups are currently less likely to engage in a given class, learn in traditional ways, and ultimately graduate. UDL provides us with a framework to remove barriers for all of our students without sacrificing rigor.



Is UDL supported by theory and research?


Yes! A great deal of it!


In terms of the linear design process, UDL draws from strong foundational theory including the works of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bloom, who drew from similar principles for framing individual differences and the teaching strategies for addressing them. Additionally, this design process overlays with established best practices for design from the fields of instructional design and universal design (originally an architectural concept).


In terms of the radial approach to UDL application, the UDL principles and guidelines are supported by over 800 peer reviewed research articles, provide benchmarks that guide educators in the development and implementation of UDL curriculum. UDL doesn't create new methods of teaching and learning, but rather organizes and frames established best practices according to recent developments in neuroscience and cognitive sciences regarding how humans learn.


Get Stated with UDL


Getting started with UDL can seem daunting. But UDL practitioners will be the first to point out that UDL implementation is about starting small and scaling up. What matters most is a willingness to jump in and get going. So what are some small ways to start?


The authors of UDL on Campus compiled these tips for getting started from those practicing UDL in higher education:

  • Start with small steps and select a specific challenge or issue.
  • You don't need to start with sweeping changes all at once. Think about each lesson and make small changes.
  • Start with tight learning goals for your students and then provide multiple ways for them to access content materials.
  • Have students help drive the changes. Have them be partners in the learning. They can be a great help to understanding what they need to be more successful.
  • Think about how each assignment can be influenced by the guidelines, provide multiple ways to access the information, multiple ways that students can demonstrate their understanding and multiple ways to engage with the curriculum.
  • Enlist the help of other faculty, talk with each other about your experiences implementing UDL.
  • Listen to a podcast from Teaching in Higher Ed where Bonni Stachowiak, Ed.D speaks with Mark Hofer, Ph.D. about his experience in implementing UDL in his teaching (para. 3).

Top 3 UDL Resources





Want More Support / Professional Development?  


  • I am a specialist in UDL implementation particularly in higher education and in Canvas and available for consults (view my website).
  • Other consults can be discovered via the UDL Nexus.

Panda unicorn

[UPDATE: See this updated and expanded post: How to Fix and Prevent Accessibility Issues in Your Canvas Course ]


Sometimes I'll forget about one or more of these tools when building a course, so I thought I'd list them here as a reminder for others, too.  Use all of these tools both while you are building your Canvas course and after you build your course.  I've also included some tips at the bottom to reduce the number of errors and technical issues with your Canvas course.


1. Course Link Validator

Especially when you are working on more than one course at a time, you may copy and paste or share things between different courses.  This may cause links or images to break for students if they link back to a different course that you have access to but not the students.  You may re-use an older course which has links that no longer work.  You may accidentally link to a page that you forgot to publish.  The Course Link Validator in Canvas will check for issues like these.  You can access it by going to your course Settings and then 'Validate Links in Content.'  See 4152,476605 


2. Student View

By default when you create and add things such as pages, quizzes, assignments, and discussions, they are not published.  That means students will not be able to see them, even though you can.  Modules with unpublished items are considered to be in a "Draft State."  See How do I publish or unpublish an assignment as an instructor? 

You may also set requirements and prerequisites or unlock dates for modules or availability dates for assignments that inadvertently block access for students at the wrong time.  Again, you will be able to see and access the modules and assignments just fine, but your students will not.

By going to Settings and then 'Student View,' you can test for these issues by viewing your course as a student.  See 4152,61153 

You might see if it is also possible to add fake student accounts to your course to test out your course from a student account more fully.  See How do I add numerous Test Students to my course? 


3. Canvas Mobile App

You've spent hours making your course look beautiful.  Lots of images, tables, videos, and other interactive features.  Hopefully early on in the process, however, you regularly check what your course looks like in the Canvas app for Android or iPhone/iPad.  You may be shocked to see that that table or image you used has made the rest of the page shrink down to microscopic levels.  Those image buttons that lined up so perfectly on your computer are all out of whack or barely visible in the app.  That Flash widget you added to a page may not even be visible in the app, and that video may be so tiny as to be unwatchable. 

Why should you care about how your course looks in the Canvas app?  At UCF, they found that around 80% of students use the Canvas app every week to access their courses. 

See the tips below for some techniques to prevent these types of issues before they happen.


4. Accessibility Checker

The new accessibility checker in Canvas lets you check a page for common accessibility issues such as image alt tags, table headers, and color contrast.  See 4152,808104 and see this page for tips on addressing other accessibility issues, such as video captions, in Canvas: General Accessibility Design Guidelines.

Your school may have UDOIT or Blackboard Ally installed, which can check your entire course for accessibility issues.

As an alternative or supplement to these tools, test out your course with a Screen Reader such as NVDA or Claro Read for Chrome or PC.  Officially supported screen readers for Canvas are listed on this page: Accessibility within Canvas  


Reducing the Number of Errors before They Happen


  1. Modules - Use the modules page as the primary place where you build and organize your course.  Think of it as the table of contents, or outline or to-do list, for your course.  If you have a reading or assignment or quiz or discussion for a particular week or unit, add it to the module for that week or unit.  Don't only link to your activities and resources within a page.  This way, everything associated with that week or unit will be more visible to you and your students.  You can see in a glance if something is not available or unpublished that shouldn't be, or if a requirement was not set, and so forth.  See 4152,41424  and 4152,41427 You can still make a nice looking homepage and module introduction pages for your course, especially if you do not like the visual appeal of the modules page.  See How do I change the Course Home Page? and 4152,41445 Adding text headers to modules can also improve the visual appeal and readability of a module: 4152,40798 
  2. Images - When inserting an image, always remember to set the alt text with a description of what is in the image, for screen readers.  If you want to embed a very large image, consider reducing its size using an image editor such as Pixlr first. See: 4152,115077 
  3. Tables - When inserting a table, always set a header row and/or column in the table properties, for accessibility purposes and screen readers.  I would recommend never setting the width or height of the table to a fixed value.  If you dragged to resize a table, then it set it to a fixed width.  This will end up looking very bad in the Canvas app.  As an alternative, either keep the width property empty, or set it to a percentage value like 100% or 80%.  I would recommend reducing the number of columns, also, if you use tables at all.  More than four columns become very small on a mobile device.  See this article for information about the different table properties you can set: 4152,41504  Go to 'row properties' to set a row as a header row.
  4. Text Color - If you ever change the color of text, also change the style to bold or a header, for accessibility purposes. See: How do I style text content in the Rich Content Editor?   If you change the text color and/or the background color of a table, check that the color contrast is sufficient using this Color Contrast Checker from WebAIM.
  5. Videos - When inserting videos, make sure there are captions (and ideally a transcript), and also check that in the Canvas app, the video plays full-screen, or at least that it is not so tiny as to be unwatchable.  You can use the 'public resources' tool, if available, to embed youtube or other videos. See: Embedding Content Using the Public Resources LTI   Otherwise if you paste in a Youtube link or use the chain link icon, see the 'alt text for inline preview' information also on this page: 4152,41508 
  6. Flash - Just, don't do it. Check that any widgets or interactive things you embed in your course do not use Flash.  Flash often will not work by default in most browsers and devices, and even Adobe, who makes Flash, is discontinuing it completelyH5P is one alternative free tool for adding some interactivity to your course.  In the worst case, you can use a screencast tool such as Screencast-o-Matic or Screencastify, to record a video of the flash animation and share it via Youtube or another video server.

It has been a slow and exciting week for me with Canvas. I had a session booked with David Norton from Instructure UK, to go over a handful of Canvas features. What I have learnt is that there really is a great team and a lot more support behind Canvas than I was aware of. The session with David followed a conversation via Linkedin and here we were, two instructure getting a personal thirty minute lesson.

David Rogers (Hindhead Campus colleague and fellow Canvas pioneer)  and I had chatted a little about the role of groups and how this might work to promote cross campus conversations, how peer feedback and multi-peer feedback looks from the students perspectice and lastly we wanted to know a little more about schedulers. David was brilliant. Knowledgeable and honest - if he didn't know (which wasn't often) he told us so.

What David did not know about groups, really was not worth knowing. The main learning point here was our conversatoins over manually versus automatically assignment students.

Via David display installation he was able to show us the students view of peer feedback and multi-peer feedback, highlightly how rubrics may be utlised. He even knew about the pending ideas over at Canvas Studio for the addition of self-assessment rubrics.  An idea currently in "Product Radar."

We talked a little about a few UX challenges for novice learners using templates with which he has some experience. All round, a very useful 40 minutes and much appreciated.


Cue confusion...


Then, somehow, I get a message from "Community Panda" emailing me from Stefanie Sanders laptop?

I've stolen her computer...again! She hates it when I do this!


To cut a long story short, I have been asked to contribute to a CanvasLIVE event called "Community Showcase" on November 1.


"Sure, why not." I said. "On what?"

As I mentioned earlier, the subtopic we have in mind for you centers around your "Beyond Attractive." blog post.

"Okay. Time zones permitting."

That left me food for thought. I could remember what Beyond Attractive was about. I had to re-read the post.

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