Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Equity

Blog Post 41

Thankfully there is much more intentional discussion around equity, especially in higher ed.  Delivering on equity can cover a broad spectrum of topics, from physically helping learners get to campus to helping to remove other elemental barriers.  At Ease Learning, we think the discussion around equity should also encompass curriculum and learning design. Gina Limperis, Ease Learning’s Chief Academic Officer, is our guest blogger.  In the following piece she shares how Universal Design for Learning  plays a key role in designing equitable learning experiences especially in the online format. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Equity

Addressing the needs of all learners  is not a new notion in education. The theory of Multiple Intelligences was first proposed by Howard Gardener in 1983. Previously, it was widely accepted that intelligence was set or predetermined and there was little we could do to change that. Gardener suggested that there were many types of intelligences that equally needed to be supported in an educational setting.  He categorized these intelligences into nine categories and suggested all learners possessed a certain amount of each.  In order to provide equity in the classroom,  learning opportunities should be provided that address all nine. Doing this allows learners to grow in all areas, excel in some,  and ultimately be more successful and prepared to apply their learning to new situations.  To support the success of all learners, access to these learning experiences needs to be equitable.

In 2008, a framework was published, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines. The UDL Guidelines  provide concrete examples of ways learners can  access and  participate in meaningful learning opportunities.  The UDL Guidelines, led by CAST, are supported by research and feedback from those in the field of education.  They are continually updated to improve equity in education.  They are designed to be used by anyone, in any learning situation.

The landscape of higher education has changed. Today’s learner requires flexible new modes of delivery. Learning needs to be relevant, grounded in real world experiences, and connected to concrete goals.  The learner wants to know, “How is this going to help me in the workforce?”   and  “How do I know that I am successful?” Learning must be connected to clear outcomes and data.

UDL plays a key role in designing equitable learning experiences especially online.

At Ease Learning, we use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines to create learning opportunities that are inclusive of all learners for the colleges and universities that we serve. 

The UDL Principles are:

  1. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

  2. Provide Multiple Means of Representation

  3. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

This means we use the tools and technologies available to create a learning environment that includes the following:

  • Collaboration and cooperation between learners 

  • Active learning

  • Opportunities for feedback and interaction with faculty

  • Authentic tasks that have meaning to learners and motivate them

  • High expectations and goals clearly communicated 

  • Backward Design and mapping of all course content to learning objectives, Scaffolding of formative to summative assessments

  • An  intuitive learning environment or learning path so learners focus on learning and not where things are located

  • Engages  learners by presenting content in a variety of ways 

  • Allows learners to represent learning in multiple ways

  • Sets expectations that motivate learners

  • Provide strategies for self regulation – promote student responsibility

  • Allows for reflection – learners need to think about their learning and make decisions about application

One of the first things our learning designers do is to develop an understanding of the goals of a program. They want to know:

  • Where the learner’s skill is when they start the course?

  • Where do we want the learner’s skillset to be?

We look at the endpoint first and then scaffold activities and content that lead to those goals.

We use Backward Design to ensure curriculum alignment.  An online course must be mapped out before the teaching begins.  Our learning designers work with faculty  to scaffold and align engaging course content and activities but allow for personalization and differentiation while teaching. 

By doing this we avoid having learners get to the end of the course and struggle with their final project because there were not enough opportunities along the way for formative or practice tasks.  For learners or employees who need to be upskilled, it’s critical that by the end of a training they are able to apply new skills to their on the job performance.  This happens when  they are provided with authentic practice tasks along the way. We work with our client’s  faculty and instructors to make sure the learner gets feedback from the instructor throughout the course or training – this allows the learner to grow and approach tasks with new skills and provides information for the instructor on how to differentiate teaching and support the needs of the learner.

We design learning experiences that activate prior knowledge, provide opportunities for learners to interact with content in a variety of ways, allowing for practice and then application in a new situation. We want learners to make meaning of their learning and develop higher order thinking skills.  Content and activities are connected to the real world making them authentic  and learners in turn are motivated to engage with the course materials. Effective pedagogy includes shifting focus to the learner so that the learner’s voice is at the center of the experience. Learning is active.

What sets  Ease Learning apart?

We think about the whole learning experience and the perspective of the learner.  This is the only way that we can be successful in delivering an equitable learning experience. Learning environments are not a place to simply  provide access to information, the essential knowledge needs to be provided in a variety of ways. Learning environments must foster true learning methods, materials, and assessments. Instruction must be accessible by all learners and learners are given the opportunity to apply knowledge acquired in new real world situations. 

Designing equitable learning experiences must be intentional.  We’d love to share even more about our process and how we can ensure your learning design is supporting the success of all of your learners. 

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