Reaching diverse student populations presents many classroom challenges. Requests for accommodation of disability and consideration of international, first-generation and additional language speakers can make curriculum design and delivery complex. How to meet so many needs and still deliver the goods equitably?
The Massachusetts-based Center for Applied Special Technology, or CAST, introduced Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the mid-1990s, based on the neuroscience of learning. Universal design principles support flexible course materials, activities and assessment methods that prevent barriers, result in fewer requests for exceptions and accommodation and enhance students’ participation in meaningful learning.
Universal design is proactive, not reactive. Instead of offering individual exceptions to traditional methods, faculty plan for multiple methods in advance. For example, a professor using UDL would post slides ahead of the scheduled class. That allows students to preview key concepts and helps their comprehension. Assistive technology users can convert the material into a usable text before class. A student with low vision may need to enlarge the size of the font. Others may need to view the slides in class on their laptops and add notes on the side. Posting the slides ahead of class also helps students who have difficulty taking pen-and-paper notes and second-language learners who are developing their English writing skills.
Some professors may worry that students will stop attending class if they have the slides in advance. It’s true that some may, but research has shown repeatedly that if they do skip class, they’ll be disadvantaged in course assessments.
Universal design learning is no longer new. K-12 schools in Canada and the U.S. have implemented UDL principles for several years, and a dizzying array of training resources is available online. Take a look at the websites of CAST or the National Center on Universal Design for Learning to get a sense of the impact this theory is having on public education.
Or, drill into any provincial department of education website to find endorsement of universal design principles. In New Brunswick, K-12 schools are mandated to give any student universal accommodations, defined as “strategies, technologies, or adjustments that enable a student to reach prescribed outcomes and can be used at the teacher’s or student’s discretion.”
For example, at the university level some faculty build in extra time for all their tests. In a 60-minute class, if a test will take most students 30 minutes to complete, some students will need more time. So they allow students to take a full hour to write the test. Students who complete early are given a supplementary reading task to help prepare for the next lesson’s topic. That extra task might or might not be assigned to the others to do on their own time, depending on how valuable the teacher thinks it is.
Now, universal design is growing in postsecondary education, most often through centres for teaching excellence and offices for disability services. A few Canadian institutions – including the University of Guelph, Trent University and University of Toronto Scarborough – have made it a priority to educate instructors on how to apply universal design. Faculty who do use it report that while there is some up-front learning and adapting, the method saves time in the long run.
Promoting universal design at universities is challenging and complex. Instructors are experts in their discipline, not necessarily in teaching methodology. There is a host of competing demands on faculty members’ time and attention. So why spend your precious, finite time and energy learning about universal design?
To put it bluntly, you need to. The wave is about to hit. The homogenous class made up of students of similar abilities, backgrounds, ethnicities, interests, learning styles, languages and expectations is long gone – if it ever existed. The growth in numbers of international students, the inclusion movement and the adoption of UDL strategies in the K-12 system are boosting demand for universal access by a much more diverse student population. The professor equipped with a universal design toolkit will be able to ride the wave with confidence and success, reaching more students with less time and energy.
Your institution’s centre for teaching excellence or disability services office can inform you of learning opportunities on UDL. And, the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton is hosting a symposium for educators (Universal Design in Post-Secondary Teaching: Reality or Utopia?) this coming November. Join us!
Jody Gorham is director of the Student Accessibility Centre, and Barbara Roberts is the human rights officer, at the Fredericton campus of the University of New Brunswick.