Universal Design for Learning: A Great Lens for E-Learning

It’s interesting where inspiration comes from sometimes. This last semester I took a graduate class at the School of Education called The Academic Life.  Unlike the articles we read on e-learning, which were largely descriptive, one article in particular grabbed my imagination unexpectedly: Robbin Zeff’s “Universal Design Across the Curriculum” (New Directions for Higher Education, no. 137, Spring 2007).  

A curb cut, now a familiar sight, is an example of how spaces were shaped by the theory of universal design.

A curb cut, now a familiar sight, is an example of how spaces were shaped by the theory of universal design. Image courtesy of Flickr user m.gifford.

I say unexpectedly because the title meant nothing to me at the time. Universal design started as a movement in architecture to design infrastructure to be accessible to everyone, regardless of physical ability — the philosophical backdrop to things like the Americans with Disabilities Act.  An interesting phenomenon that grew out of the movement was the finding that many of these changes benefited everyone – a great example from the article being that curb cuts (you know, the little ramps where sidewalks empty into streets) are not only helpful to wheelchair users, but also to folks pushing kids in strollers, or rolling deliveries on dollies, or someone using a walker (and face it, even if you’re fit as a fiddle and walking unencumbered, you’re more liable to trip on an uneven walking path than a seamless ramp; everyone at William & Mary has experienced this!).

Universal Design for Learning

It turns out that universal design has been adopted & adapted under a few different guises for the education field.  One of them is called UDL — universal design for learning — and was developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) with the goal of “building courses and classroom activities from inception to meet the learning needs of the greatest number of students.”

This really resonated with me, because it summarizes something I’ve been thinking about in more vague terms for quite some time, especially regarding e-learning at a fairly traditional, liberal arts-focused institution at William & Mary: that e-learning technologies and techniques have a lot of potential to enhance teaching & learning even when a class is mostly taking place in the usual way, such as around a seminar table, or in a lecture hall.  CAST further breaks down that goal into three overarching principles of UDL (I’m paraphrasing Zeff here):

  • Multiple means of representation (of material)
  • Multiple means of expression (for the students)
  • Multiple means of engagement (with, and by, the students)

When I got to that part of the article, the thought cloud over my head was something like the famous panel of Charlie Brown bowling psychoanalyst Lucy over, yelling “THAT’S IT!”  Not that these principles are technology-centric, but rather I realized that we have technologies available on campus (and more out there on the Internet, or “in the cloud,” as kids say these days) to support each one of these principles.  You want multiple representation?  I was privy to a conversation the other day where Randy Coleman was sharing his method of audio recording his lecture and providing it, along with his presentation as annotated during class to all his students.  We have several videoconferencing technologies available for bringing outside experts virtually into the classroom. Blogs, wikis, Google Drive and other tools grant students a wide array of modes of expression — from personal reflection to elaborate collaborations.  To encourage engagement, the possibilities range from using Twitter or text messaging for quick communication to using Adobe Connect to hold virtual office hours.

I’m really excited to have found this lens through which to think about the possibilities of e-learning — especially since it takes the emphasis off the technology and the gee-whiz glitter of the latest iPad app for instructors, and places it firmly within a frame centered on teaching and learning that, like a good game, has fairly simple rules that lead to myriad variations.

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Engineering and eLearning Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and has been with W&M IT since 2007. In addition to working in AIS, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.