An Overview of Universal Design for Learning

A Heightened Awareness of Accommodations

At a recent Toastmasters officers meeting in a popular coffee house, the club secretary asked me to switch seats with him. While I didn’t have a problem switching, I was curious why he wanted me to move. He informed me that as our meeting’s notetaker—and left-handed person—he needed a space conducive for taking notes. My seat was the only space at the table that met his need.

As an Instructional Designer, his request made me think about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the importance of designing environments to meet the needs of everyone. As I drove home, I reflected on the eCornucopia conference at Oakland University that our team attended in June—two sessions, in particular, focused on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Accessibility. Until the coffee house experience, I must admit, I hadn’t considered how spaces are accessible for people without recognizable ADA accommodation needs. I never considered left-handedness in the context of accessibility—and yet it impacts about 10 percent of the population.

On that drive, it dawned on me—if I hadn’t taken lefties into consideration, what other factors haven’t I contemplated? With this heightened perception of accessibility, I wondered how a more informed awareness should impact my Instructional Design praxis? How should I use UDL, accessibility, and usability when considering mobile learning (mLearning)?

According to Traxler, “Mobile learning exploits both handheld computers and mobile telephones and other devices that draw on the same set of functionalities. Mobile learning using handheld computers is obviously relatively immature in terms of both its technologies and its pedagogies, but is developing rapidly. It draws on the theory and practice of pedagogies used in technology enhanced learning and others used in the classroom and the community” (Elias, 2011).

Basically, I wanted to clarify UDL and how to differentiate between similar paradigms. In this post, I’ll explore the connections between learning theory and the application of UDL principles.

Hand and Hand: Universal Design, Accessibility, and Inclusive Design

As Instructional Designers, we want to create environments that empower everyone within them to acquire, discover, construct, and discern knowledge without barriers. And any products and materials in these environments need to be accessible and usable by all within those spaces.

“Inclusive design refers to the design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible…without the need for special adaptation or specialized design.” Dusablon, 2018


Universal Design for Learning is a framework based on research by neuroscience and CAST that presents multiple ways to explain the “Why,” “How,” and “What” of learning. UDL guidelines support effectiveness and accessibility within curriculum and instruction. While UDL facilitates the use of flexible strategies, tools, and technologies to help students achieve instructional goals, UDL guidelines carry differently in different modalities (particularly face to face and online).

“The premise of universal design, as it applies to the learning environment, is that a curriculum should include alternatives to make it accessible to and appropriate for individuals with different backgrounds, learning needs, abilities, and disabilities in widely varied learning contexts.” (Mills, 2006, p.19)

Face to Face environments

The face to face environment should be set up safely with an open physical space to accommodate various needs and equipment. Projectible equipment and internet access must be available as well as applicable technology, like assistive technologies.


In online environments, the course management system (CMS) or learning management system (LMS) provides the infrastructure for the course. They must be usable for learners with specific needs such as, mobility challenges, visual deficits, hearing deficits, etc. Good design suggests that learners are made clearly aware of the course’s structure. This should occur early in a content area (like in a course Announcement) within the CMS/LMS to show the learner a clear path of what is expected. The syllabus should also communicate this information.


With various blended models and structures available, you must determine the one best suited for the learning environment being designed. An example of a blended structure might include:

  • Course space created in the CMS/LMS
  • Course model detailing:
    • Assignments–Readings and Assignments due:
      • Individual assignments
        • Due Online
        • Due Face to Face at the start of class
        • Due in class and online
    • Group assignments
      • Due Online
      • Due Face to Face at the start of class
      • Due in class and online
  • Required Resources/Documents to support assignments and activities textbook
  • Discussion Board
  • Group Area
  • Optional Resources

Additionally, you’ll need to use the same considerations as the face to face environment for those sessions.


Tanya Elias (2011), in Universal Instructional Design Principles for Mobile Learning, identifies eight principles for Universal Instructional Design, including how these principles slightly differ in the mLearning environment.

  1. Equitable Use
  2. Flexible Use
  3. Simple and Intuitive
  4. Perceptible Information
  5. Tolerance for Error
  6. Low Physical and Technical Error
  7. Community of Learners and Support
  8. Instructional Climate

Learners, in all modalities, should be able to access required documents in electronic format. Syllabi and other documents needed for required activities should be saved as a pdf for electronic distribution and accessibility. PDFs make it easier for learners to read the syllabus online as well as open embedded hyperlinks.

Good UDL principles allow learners multiple ways to complete assignments and assessments. For example, instead of only asking students to respond to the discussion prompt by text, you could also allow the students to respond with a voice recording. If this option is allowed, the instructor should work with Technology to identify video recorders that also caption when recording for accessibility. When these types of instructions are provided, students should be able to provide transcripts with recordings posted. You can also make content lighter by streamlining it into smaller chunks and labelling the content appropriately.

For example, if you include activities or assignments meant to help students with quizzes/tests, then sequence and label these content items so that students can clearly distinguish this (e.g., place a Knowledge Check meant to help with the Quiz to be taken before the Quiz). Learners should have as much control as possible and be allowed to use media.

Theory Linking with Practice

When you discuss UDL, you need to consider the learning theories that informs practice specific, to the Why, What, and How of Learning. Here’s a few practical examples to connect UDL to theory.

Constructivism; Social Constructivism; Experiential Learning (Kolb); Social Development; Communities of Practice

In online and blended environments, students interact with the content, instructor, and each other, which results in new or expanded knowledge. Adult learners interact with other learners with similar experiences within the learning environment to build and activate new knowledge based on new experiences related to common interests.

Meaningful Reception Learning theory and Subsumption theory (David AusubeI) Advanced Organizers

David AusubeI developed the meaningful learning theory and subsumption theory. Meaningful learning results when existing knowledge relates with new knowledge in an organized structure. In one of my graduate theory classes, I used a matrix style graphic organizer to identify each learning and instructional theory along with the theorists credited and the reasons for the theory’s creation. The matrix allowed me to identify the theory’s application and compare and contrast similar theories. As a result, I was engaged in the why, what and how of the learning. Most importantly, I’ve retained the learning.

Multiple Intelligence theory (Howard Gardner)

UDL focuses on the needs of the individual learner by offering multiple ways for engagement. As an instructor, you can activate the recognition network by presenting the same assignment to different students in different ways (e.g., graphics, video, text). As in the discussion board option I explored above, when you encourage students to use different ways to submit assignments, it activates the affective network. When students demonstrate how they are accomplishing the assignment, then it completes the strategic network.

Constructionism (Papert)

Locally in Jackson County, Michigan, several robotics initiatives currently run at the elementary and middle school levels. As a learning theory, Constructionism supports robotics curriculums as students learn to build the robotics kits in a team concept within a shared learning experience. When I evaluated this sample robotics curriculum using Elias’ eight principles for Universal Instructional Design, I found it met all three Universal Design for Learning principles.

As you can see, many instructional and learning theories support Universal Design for Instruction. Are there any that you would like covered? How’re you already using UDL in your classroom? Let us know!



Bers, M. U., Flannery, L., Kasakoff, E., & Crouser, R. J. (n.d.). A curriculum unit on programming and robotics. Retrieved from

Burgstahler, S. (n.d.). Equal access: Universal design of instruction. Retrieved from

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from

Dusablon, B. (2018, October 3). What I’ve learned: How to create more accessible eLearning right. Webinar presented at Accessibility in Practice by The eLearning Guild.

Elias, T. (2011). Universal instructional design principles for mobile learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(2). Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2017). Kolb – learning styles. Retrieved from

Mills, S. C. (2006). Using the Internet for active teaching and learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Ruukel, R. (2015, April 15). A case for accessible, usable and universal design for learning [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Author: Tara McCoy, Lead Instructional Designer

Tara is a lifelong learner and recovering Type A personality. She loves to read and help others learn. A mighty Spartan and Tartar, she earned her BA from Michigan State University, and MA and EdS in Instructional Technology from Wayne State University. She’s an active member of Toastmasters International, having held various chapter-level leadership positions.

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