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Universal Design for Learning

The term universal design was coined in the field of architecture in the early 80’s. The underlying concept is to incorporate in the design of all product features that make them:

aesthetic & usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of age, ability, or status in life.

Universal design for learning (UDL) is essentially a movement started by a small band of education researchers looking to explore using new technologies to provide better educational experiences to students, helping them to overcome barriers commonly presented in education. The result has been an evolving framework based on the three networks of the learning brain:

  1. Affective, the why of learning and the
  2. Recognition, the what of learning; and
  3. Strategic, the how of learning;

and the need to:

  1. Stimulate interest and motivate students for learning,
  2. Present information and content in different ways, and
  3. Differentiate the ways students express what they know/learned.

In UDL the focus is on the learning environment and the creation of the learning environment instead of adapting the individual student or student functions to fit within that environment. Anticipating the needs of all students and building in features to meet those needs from the very beginning increases usability for everyone. The UDL framework provides guidance in the creation of curricula that meets the needs of all learners. In the diverse class/course of today that includes international students with English as a second language, the full-time employee/full or part-time student, students with disabilities, the overwhelmed and anxious student, veterans who have experienced great trauma, adults returning to school after many years, and more.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act and the US DOE’s National Education Technology Plan of 2010 both emphasized UDL as a framework to benefit all learners. As formally defined, universal design is “… a concept or philosophy for designing and delivering products and services that are usable by people with the widest possible range of functional capabilities… (without requiring assistive technologies)... ” and universal design for learning is “… a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that provides flexibility…; and reduces barriers… provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations… ” (Higher Education Opportunity Act, 2010).

UDL involves curriculum developers, faculty, staff, and institutions in commissioning curricula and learning environments that are created from the outset to make learning accessible to highly diverse learners. Digital technology continues to be a cornerstone in the theory and practice of UDL, enabling customization, alternate representations, and true interactivity, addressing all of the networks of learning from the outset.

Below you will find a universally designed presentation by UK faculty member Roger Brown.


Additional Resources

Center for Applied Special Technology

Teaching Every Student -

UDL Online Modules -

UDL Theory & Practice -

National Center on Universal Design for Learning

The Chronicle of Higher Education (2010) ProfHacker: Tips about teaching, technology, and productivity: Universal Design, Usability, and Accessibility -