Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

by Thomas J. Tobin, Kirsten T. Behling

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Advocates for the rights of people with disabilities have worked hard to make universal design in the built environment “just part of what we do.” We no longer see curb cuts, for instance, as accommodations for people with disabilities, but perceive their usefulness every time we ride our bikes or push our strollers through crosswalks.

This is also a perfect model for Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework grounded in the neuroscience of why, what, and how people learn. Tobin and Behling show that, although it is often associated with students with disabilities, UDL can be profitably broadened toward a larger ease-of-use and general diversity framework. Captioned instructional videos, for example, benefit learners with hearing impairments but also the student who worries about waking her young children at night or those studying on a noisy team bus.

Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone is aimed at faculty members, faculty-service staff, disability support providers, student-service staff, campus leaders, and graduate students who want to strengthen the engagement, interaction, and performance of all college students. It includes resources for readers who want to become UDL experts and advocates: real-world case studies, active-learning techniques, UDL coaching skills, micro- and macro-level UDL-adoption guidance, and use-them-now resources.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781946684608
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Series: Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 232,634
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Thomas J. Tobin is the conference programming chair at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the author of Evaluating Online Teaching and  Copyright Ninja #1: Rise of the Ninja.

Kirsten T. Behling is the director of student accessibility services at Tufts University and an adjunct professor at Suffolk University, where she cofounded and teaches in the graduate certificate program on disability services in higher education.

Read an Excerpt


How Universal Design for Learning Got to Higher Education

Meet Kate

Kate Sonka is the academic specialist for the Academic Technology Office in the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University, and she is the driving force behind their annual Accessible Learning Conference. We spoke with Sonka in 2017 about how Michigan State created space for accessibility, generally, and for Universal Design for Learning (UDL), in particular. "I came on board with MSU to work on a large project: just reviewing accessibility, understanding what that is for a higher education audience of students, faculty members, and administrators. Up until a few years ago, we talked about accommodations for people with disabilities when we did onboarding for new faculty members, but we didn't have a good way of talking with faculty members about how to be inclusive as a broad practice" (Sonka, 2017).

In our conversation, Sonka revealed that the key to adopting UDL came when she and her colleagues started talking to faculty members, support staffers, and campus leaders in terms of student needs and benefits: "I worked with an undergraduate student who had gotten grant funding to create a series of tutorials about accessibility, and I came to see the value of the student perspective." That student graduated and then joined the MSU team in their central information technology (IT) area. The president and provost soon signed an update to the university's 2009 accessibility policy, explicitly adopting both technical standards for multimedia and a UDL framework for the design of interactions (Michigan State University, 2015). The policy also, importantly, adopts unit-level five-year plans and a purchasing workflow for assessing third-party tools for accessibility. We will explore these ideas in chapters 9 and 10.

For Sonka, UDL principles (which we'll explore in this chapter) served as the framework that allowed everyone on campus to approach accessibility without limiting their perspective solely to disability services. "MSU is all about experiential learning: studying abroad, working in internships. No matter what kind of teaching and research we engage in, there is a place for students in all of that work" (Sonka, 2017). Sonka conceived of a conference to bring together everyone on campus to talk about UDL and accessibility.

Because UDL had been widely adopted in the K–12 world but not yet in higher education, having students themselves advocate for broader access to learning was a winning strategy with the university's senior leaders. "Once we got beyond the echo chamber" of her team, the disability services coordinators, and the central IT staff, Sonka says that "our students helped us to make the case to our president and provost for a one-year experiment to put very different 'buckets' of people together via the conference." The first accessible learning conference (see Michigan State University, 2017) was a response to feedback from students and faculty members about a felt need within the university community, with many people "feeling as though they were floating out there on their own." The conference provided forums for asking questions and resource-sharing opportunities for faculty members and staff members; Sonka's aim was for the conference "to be a way for people to see each other as resources."

Sonka's team has seen precisely the kind of networking and conversations that they envisioned: "we had hoped that UDL would help us to demonstrate the value of students being part of solutions. We value their voices, and they are learning about skills and theories. Other units on campus are asking how they can get involved."

Sonka's story is one of bringing a new frame — UDL — to an existing challenge: How do colleges and universities improve student persistence, retention, and satisfaction? How do we do better at keeping the students we already have, and how do we reach out to new populations of potential students whom we have traditionally served poorly or not at all? UDL is an especially practical response to these questions, but higher education has been relatively late to the UDL game. To understand why, we have to start back in the 1960s, with the architectural concept of Universal Design (UD).

From UD to UDL

In architecture, Universal Design is "the design of products, environments, and communication to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design" (Institute for Human Centered Design, 2016). Imagine that you are moving into a new house. The three steps leading to the front door will present a barrier to your elderly neighbor visiting with a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift, to your daughter bringing your grandson over in his stroller, and to you when you are carrying in your couch. Design the house to be universally accessible from the beginning, however, and you create a welcoming space for all.

We can trace the formal concept of UD back to architect Ron Mace (Schwab, 2015). Mace had polio as a child and used a wheelchair to get around. He recognized in the 1950s that the U.S. population was aging. He foresaw that people who were no longer able to navigate stairs or small bathrooms would have to move out of their unusable homes and into nursing facilities or the homes of relatives. Mace believed that if architects designed homes to be "usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible" from the beginning, then more people could continue to stay at home as they aged (Gaylord et al., 2004). The fundamental idea of extending such barrier-free environments to everyone was introduced in the United States partly through the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act.

The concept of Universal Design makes intuitive sense. Designing supermarkets to have sliding doors with electronic sensors allows more people to enter and exit the store with ease: people pushing shopping carts as well as people in wheelchairs. By adding audio signals to traffic intersections, more people can cross safely: those who are guided by the visual walk signals and those paying attention to the audio chirp. By adding closed-captioning to television programs, more people can enjoy them: viewers who are learning the language, who want to keep up with unfamiliar accents, or who have hearing impairments. All of these design elements in the built environment are simple, unobtrusive, and make our lives easier. We may not even think of them as originating to support a certain group of people — people with physical disabilities.

And yet, if you ask scholars where these affordances come from, most will point to Universal Design, specifically as it applies to barrier-free living. The 1950s saw the beginning of the deinstitutionalization movement. People with disabilities were removed from institutional settings and placed into inclusive community-based settings. Architects and city planners began examining how to make such transitions more successful for people with physical disabilities. This movement also coincided with the U.S. civil rights movement, also motivated by equality. The civil rights of people with disabilities then became an action item for lawmakers, who, with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, included physical access to public spaces as a condition for receiving federal financial assistance.

This civil rights movement was extended in 1988 with the Fair Housing Act, which requires builders to ensure that people with disabilities can get physical access to multifamily housing. The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) of 1990 took the initiative further when it required both public and private entities to ensure equal access to their physical space, regardless of whether they received federal funding. Suddenly, this meant that any public places people went (restaurants, shops, libraries, parks, theaters, museums) must be accessible.

As the United States progressed in its efforts to ensure equal access to the built environment, disability rights advocates began raising awareness that telecommunication was also not accessible. Shortly after the ADA was signed into law, Congress amended Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to include all communication and information technology. This meant that phone lines, television shows, movies, the Internet, and information kiosks must be accessible. This extension of UD principles from the physical environment to the digital one was a major step toward the eventual creation of UDL.

In short, Universal Design became a conceptual framework that supports the civil rights of all American citizens. It reduces the need for people with disabilities to have to ask for special treatment through accommodations (making one change, one time, for one person), instead promoting a more holistic existence through UD that is aimed at making life easier for everyone.

The work that Mace initiated continues today at the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. The Center for UD developed seven principles to guide the designs of environments, products, and communications (see table 2). Over the years, these principles have guided designers in the work they do, while also uniting people with various needs through equal access.

UDL in Elementary and Secondary Education

The transition from UD in the built world to UDL in the sphere of educational interactions was a gradual one that started in the K–12 world. If students cannot get access to school buildings, then they are at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Likewise, if students cannot participate in the curriculum or methods of instruction, then they are also at a disadvantage. UDL examines what happens once students get through those school doors. How can we remove the barriers in the learning environment?

David Rose and his colleagues at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) argue that UDL "puts the tag 'disabled' where it belongs — on the curriculum, not the learner. The curriculum is disabled when it does not meet the needs of diverse learners" (Council for Exceptional Children, 2011). The scientists at CAST incorporated neuroscience into the mind-set of UDL because UD principles that were created to guide the design of things (e.g., buildings, products) were not adequate for the design of social interactions (e.g., human learning environments).

In the 1990s, CAST began by examining the diversity and academic success of students in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools. Was it an indication of students' ability when some seemed unable to pay attention to their teachers after fifteen minutes of lecturing? Were students whose first language was not English being punished unfairly because they couldn't take notes fast enough? Why were students who did not have access to computers weaker than their peers on writing concepts? CAST looked holistically at student demographics, methods of instruction, and curriculum design, initially seeking a frame that would fit all of these differences into one instructional method. Their finding, however, was that variability is the norm: no two students learn alike, regardless of ability. Curriculum design at the time was largely monolithic, forcing all students to receive information and demonstrate skills in only one way. David Gordon writes about the need to recognize and design for learner variability: "Options are essential to learning, because no single way of presenting information, no single way of responding to information, and no single way of engaging students will work across the diversity of students that populate our classrooms. Alternatives reduce barriers to learning for students with disabilities while enhancing learning opportunities for everyone" (Council for Exceptional Children, 2011). CAST set about translating Mace's principles of Universal Design for the built environment into a design for interactions in the elementary and secondary education systems. Their resulting framework is called Universal Design for Learning (UDL; see table 3), and it maps the seven principles of UD into three principles specific to learning and neurological processing, focused on three brain-based information networks.

It is important to note that, in the UDL framework, there is no requirement that information be presented in all of its different possible permutations, or in one unique way per student, as in the theory of Differentiated Instruction (DI), which asks teachers to identify the strengths of their learners and then customize instruction to play to those strengths. Rather, UDL posits that designing for learner variability ahead of time — before instructors even know their students — is the most effective way to reduce individual accommodation needs. In other words, offering students choices in how to recognize, engage with, and report back the information that they learned increases the chances that instructors can connect with their students and their learning needs.

UDL has been successfully adopted by many elementary and secondary schools since the 1990s. For example, an elementary school science teacher in Massachusetts whom Kirsten Behling knows saw UDL as an opportunity to support students from various cultural backgrounds in her classroom. After a class activity went poorly, the teacher asked her students to engage actively in a class discussion in which they could push back against her, but she met quite a bit of reluctance from some students. When she reflected on why this happened with some learners, she suggested that in some cultures it is considered rude to contradict or challenge authority figures like teachers.

In addition, for some students, speaking up in class causes paralyzing fear. Recognizing this, the science teacher used UDL to foster a sense of collaboration and community among her students by encouraging the students to be active members of the teacher/student process through means that worked for them. She gave her students opportunities to reflect on how the lessons were going, choosing from journal writing, class discussions, and anonymous surveys. The reflective assignments provided students with a comfortable outlet for sharing their thoughts and provided the teacher with feedback on what was working in the class. By creating multifaceted ways for students to share their opinions and then using those opinions, she created an environment that optimized learning.

Another example of a UDL success story comes from a grade 10 English teacher in Ontario whom Tom Tobin knows. The teacher was considering whether to ask his class to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Some students were high achievers who would benefit from the traditional read- out-loud-and-discuss model. Others were visibly unengaged, and a few had Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that required audiobooks and guided prompts throughout the content. The teacher wondered whether taking on a novel as complex as To Kill a Mockingbird was really wise, given the diversity of learners in his class. After speaking with a UDL facilitator, he decided to give it a try. The first thing he did was to make sure that all of the students had access to the audio version of the book, not just the students with disabilities. This immediately gave his students a choice of how to experience the book. He also started off the lesson by showing them scenes from the 1962 Robert Mulligan film.

Some of his colleagues questioned this decision, claiming that the students wouldn't read the book if they had access to the audio version or had seen the film. The English teacher argued that it was more important for students to have a general knowledge of the story and cultural milieu, which the movie would provide, and the book itself would serve to fill in the details. Indeed, knowledge construction and analysis were the stated learning objectives for the unit that the teacher had prepared. His UDL approach tied the choices given to learners directly to the goals, objectives, and targets of the interactions, and that is why the approach was effective.

The teacher asked the students to research a historical occurrence that happened during the book's time frame that was interesting to them, and to teach the class about it. The students worked in groups and researched everything from the music of the civil rights era to well-known leaders and the laws referred to in the story. Giving the students choices about how they responded to the common text increased their engagement with the subject. The English teacher believes that if he had not added the principles of UDL to his first foray into To Kill a Mockingbird it would not have been so successful.


Excerpted from "Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone"
by .
Copyright © 2018 West Virginia University Press.
Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
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Table of Contents

Part 1   Where We Are Now
1. How Universal Design for Learning Got to Higher Education
2. It’s the Law . . . Except When It Isn’t
Part 2   Reframing UDL
3. Meet the Mobile Learners
4. Engage Digital Learners
5. Adopt the Plus-One Approach
6. Coach the Coaches and the Players
Part 3   Adopt UDL on Your Campus
7. Expand One Assignment
8. Enhance One Program: UDL across the Curriculum
9. Extend to One Modality: The Online Environment
10. Embrace One Mind-Set: Campus-Wide UDL
11. Engage! The UDL Life Cycle
About the Authors

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