What is Universal Design for Learning?

03 May

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What is Universal Design for Learning?

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that recognises we all learn in different ways and it proactively considers the needs of all learners. UDL seeks to address the difficulty of making a curriculum that challenges and engages diverse learners.

“A central premise of UDL is that the curriculum, rather than the learner, needs to change” (Meyer & Rose, 2005)

UDL is built on three main principles which aim to meet a diverse range of learner needs. To consider these needs, your curriculum should have multiple means of engagement, representation, and action & expression.

So, what does this mean in practice?

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Learners differ in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. However, there is not only one means of engagement that will be optimal for all learners in all contexts; so, providing multiple options for engagement is essential. (,2022)

For example, this could mean using a variety of media types, video, audio, or digital images. Engagement is often a place where UDL and Accessibility naturally intersect, especially online. For instance, one of the principles of (WCAG) The Web Content Accessibility 2.1 is that content should be perceivable, which means providing text alternatives for any non-text content so that it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols, or simpler language.  


We all differ in the way we perceive and comprehend information; for example, many people grasp information more efficiently through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. Learning is improved for everyone when multiple representations are used, which is why we should provide options for audio-visual content (with transcripts and captions) as well as written content ( with audio-visual and auditory options).  

Action & Expression

Action and expression mean how we show and express what we have learned. Learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. Some learners may be able to express themselves well in written text but not in speech, and vice versa. It should also be recognized that action and expression require a great deal of strategy, practice, and organisation, and this is another area in which learners can differ.

In reality, there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; so providing options for action and expression is essential. (,2022)

The UDL principles of multiple means of engagement, representation, and action & expression advocate for curricular changes that make learning more accessible for everyone. This approach can lead to improved outcomes for all students and can help create a more inclusive learning environment for all.

Why is Universal Design for Learning important?

Although Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a curriculum development framework that emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s, it has become increasingly relevant because our digital landscape gives us the tools and opportunities to present content in multiple ways.

In the last decade, we have seen a cultural shift from binary thinking to recognising shades of difference across a spectrum. (Matei, 2019) This has changed our ways of thinking about many topics. In terms of educational access when we recognise learners as having a spectrum of neurological abilities this further supports the need for accessibility and a UDL approach.

Outside of higher education Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DE&I) policy has moved into the mainstream. As diverse groups of learners move from higher education to the jobs market it is natural that they would have the same expectations of potential employers around diversity and inclusion.

76% of job seekers and employees report that a diverse workforce is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.” A further 50% of current employees demanding their employers do more to enable DE&I programs. (Gialleli,2022)

Apart from issues of equity, pro-actively designing for inclusivity has been shown to benefit all users and this applies to both our physical and digital worlds.

Universal Design as a concept originated first in the world of architectural and product design: 

If you design a building, for instance, in a way that is accessible to all from the outset, it will end up being more elegant, more efficient, and more useful while being less expensive than if you have to go back in and add features after the fact. And many of the features you add for those with disabilities will benefit others too — think of the automatic doors that help those in wheelchairs, yet also make things easier for those pushing strollers or carrying shopping bags. (Bacon, 2014) 

An example of UDL from the digital world would be the new updates that Twitter has added and is testing to improve accessibility. Twitter added video/ audio caption in December 2021 and this week started testing another accessibility update which is a closed caption button. The button will appear as a CC badge in the top right-hand corner of the video letting users know closed captions are available, users can tap the button to turn captions on or off. Testing has begun with select users on iOS and will expand to Android soon.

Universal benefits are also possible in the digital world when UDL and accessibility act as partners, proactively designing learning environments that meet the needs of diverse learners. (Ableser & Moore, 2018)

Companies like Twitter are recognising the benefits accessibility improvements to their product have for all users. Captions improve video accessibility by making videos accessible for deaf and hard of hearing, as well as those who want to watch videos without sound, they also increase viewership in general. Twitter says that videos with text or subtitles are 11% more likely to be viewed and generate 28% higher completion rates and because Twitter supports auto-captions, people won’t have to manually add them to videos saving time. (Twitter, 2022)

The principles of UDL can help all learners navigate both our physical and digital worlds, whether it’s using a ramp instead of the stairs or reading captions whilst watching a video.

UDL also seeks to extend beyond basic accessibility to support and challenge learners in order to develop expert learners. Two fundamental tenets of UDL are that we can address learner variability and reduce barriers in curriculum and instruction through intentional and proactive design. The ultimate goal of UDL is to develop expert learners. These three core concepts that underlie UDL (,2022)

Whilst Accessible Design focused on the needs of people with disabilities, Universal Design considers the wide spectrum of human abilities. It aims to exceed minimum standards to meet the needs of the greatest number of people.


In recent years, UDL has been gaining traction as an approach that has the potential to transform education. It was developed by the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) as a response to the growing recognition that our educational systems were not meeting the needs of all students, including those with and without disabilities. UDL is premised on the idea that it is more effective and efficient to design a curriculum that is accessible and inclusive from the start, rather than trying to adapt or modify it after the fact. The key features of UDL are flexibility and customization, which allow educators to provide all students with equitable access to the curriculum.

When you take the time to design learning experiences that meet the needs of all learners, you create an inclusive learning environment where everyone can succeed.

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