Universal Design and Accessibility

What is Universal Design for Learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) involves a proactive process of designing learning in order to achieve the highest level of functionality and positive user experience for the widest audience possible. In order for UDL to be effective, it requires purposeful consideration and strategy in all areas of course planning and design. The end result will be online learning that allows students to access, interact, and learn in a variety of ways, addressing the learning styles and learning needs of a wide variety of students.

According to Sheryl Burgstahler and Rebecca Cory (2009), principles of Universal Design for Learning include:

  • Equitable use: Design is appealing and usable for all.
  • Flexibility in use: Choice in methods of use and consideration of preferences is part of the design.
  • Simple and intuitive use: Consistency and ease of use are considered in design.
  • Perceptible information: Information is presented in several ways to accommodate various learner needs. Information is clear and well organized.
  • Tolerance for error: Guidelines and instructions help to steer the learner away from errors or hazards.
  • Low physical effort: Navigation is clear and requires no unnecessary redundancies.
  • Size and space approach and use: Appropriate space to accommodate various learner needs is made available.

Why is UDL necessary?

The brain learns in complex and varied ways that are as unique as our fingerprints (CAST, 2013). According to research conducted by CAST, a nonprofit research organization that is leading the way in UDL, learning occurs as a result of the workings of three brain networks: recognition networks, strategic networks, and affective networks. In order to activate and address these three brain networks in the process of learning (and knowing that these systems don’t work alike in any two people), we must provide for multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement.

Multiple Means of Representation

Part of the complexity in how people learn involves how information is perceived and comprehended. Additionally, the rate at which information is grasped may occur quickly in one individual but require more time in another. Both will likely end up achieving the same learning goals but at different points in time or sequence. Certain learning styles and preferences also come to play as the three brain networks work together. Some learners may grasp information best when it is presented visually while others may require both auditory and visual cues. Students with disabilities will certainly be more inclined toward certain means of accessing and ingesting information.

What’s the answer? Presenting information in multiple ways and providing options for learners. Here are some examples:

  • Provide captions for all videos and transcripts for all audio recordings or podcasts
  • Make key information stand out by highlighting big ideas and by indicating relationships between concepts
  • Provide background information and context through a story or an example
  • Offer alternatives for visual and auditory information
  • An image or graph that explains a concept is also explained in the caption or in corresponding text.

Multiple Means of Expression

Just as learners differ in how they process new information, they also differ in how they can best demonstrate learning. Some students struggle with writing skills while others excel. Some students can describe their learning verbally quite well while others do not. By limiting the means by which a student can demonstrate their learning, we may not get a true indication of what the student has learned because it is hidden by areas of weakness. Furthermore, some means of expression may translate better to the job world or to a particular field. For instance, someone whose work will involve giving presentations to large groups of people may benefit from a presentation approach in the classroom instead of a written assignment.

What’s the answer? Provide a variety of opportunities and methods for students to demonstrate their learning. Here are some examples:

  • Instead of just a written assignment, provide other options for presentation like PowerPoint, screencast, video, or audio recording
  • Research ways to make assignment options professionally relevant
  • Provide multiple types of materials to support completion of assignments (video, audio, written instruction)
  • Embed opportunities for students to “stop and think” about strategies and concepts they’ve learned before applying them in assessments (CAST, 2013)

Multiple Means of Engagement

The affective brain network impacts the ways a student is engaged with the content of the course, as well as their motivation to learn. The factors that impact how a student engages with content involve culture, gender, prior knowledge, neurology, etc. (CAST, 2013). These factors can influence whether or not learners prefer to work alone or in groups and what aspects of the content will draw the most interest. If learners are not deeply engaged with the content, they are less likely to transfer knowledge and skills in a meaningful way.

What’s the answer? Provide multiple ways for students to connect and interact with the content. Here are some examples:

  • Give learners choice and autonomy in such things as tools used, methods of reflection and self-assessment, types of rewards/recognition, level of challenge
  • Provide opportunities for both group work and independent work and create a community of thinkers
  • Allow learners to set meaningful personal goals related to the impact of the content to their lives and professions
  • Provide opportunities for instructor-student and student-student support and coaching

How are UDL and accessibility related?

Accessibility refers to the ability of a device, product, service, or environment to be usable by as many people as possible. This is an important aspect of Universal Design for Learning and they often go hand in hand. UDL, in the context we use, refers to the process of making learning effective and usable for all and can extend beyond accessibility to addressing learner preferences, styles, and methods of instruction that meet students’ needs. Often accessibility is considered when integrating technology into the learning environment. Universal Design involves the usability of that technology and extends to how the technology is integrated into the learning plan, along with the other elements of the course.


Burgstahler, S. & Cory, R. (2009). Universal Design in higher education: From principles to practice. Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, MA.

CAST. (2013). About UDL. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/udl/index.html