Why UDL is more important now than ever

The Coronavirus pandemic has created incredible opportunities for improving inclusion, with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at the centre of this shift.

Clock 2 min read Calendar Published: 11 Oct 2020
Author Lawrie Jones
Why UDL is more important now than ever

The Coronavirus pandemic has created incredible opportunities for improving inclusion, with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at the centre of this shift. As institutions adjust to the new normal, the principles and practice of UDL are more important than ever.

Accelerating innovation

COVID-19 has transformed higher ed, accelerating the progress toward a digital-first model that many experts predicted would take decades.

At the start of October, 50% of colleges are delivering the majority of course content online, a recent survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education has found. In contrast, just 4% are providing their courses entirely in-person.

So-called ‘Hyflex’ or blended-learning models have clear benefits for many learners, but it risks disadvantaging 19% of US college students who have a disability.

The institutions that are delivering the best and most rewarding blended learning experience are moving from passive learning to the personal approach, with technology at the centre.

And disability services have an important role in supporting faculty transition to an equitable blended learning model.

As panelist Lauren Dusek put it in a recent Sonocent webinar,

‘As far as working from the disability resources office goes, I feel like I have to provide both support to the faculty members … and the students simultaneously.’

Recapping the core principles of UDL can help you communicate its importance to faculty, and help shape education for the better in this time of transition.

Why one size fits nobody

Universal Design for Learning is based on detailed neuroscientific research into our networks that affect learning. UDL has gained traction as individuals and institutions have recognized that a passive, one-size approach to learning fits nobody.

Instead, all learners benefit from a personalized approach that respects and embraces difference.

The principles of UDL are embedded in many organizations – and are delivering results. For those yet to realise the potential of UDL, COVID-19 is the perfect opportunity to transform tuition and embrace the potential for digital disruption that can benefit those who need it most.

The three fundamental building blocks of UDL are engagement, representation, and action and expression. Educators have been using the principles UDL to engage, inform and inspire their learners in person, but the principles apply equally powerfully online. Here’s how.


Students with disabilities need targeted and tailored support to help them reach their potential. Regular engagement with students can help to reduce the frustration and stress that we’re all dealing with.

As AHEAD reports, students have felt stymied by a lack of communication and frustrated by drop-offs in support during the Covid crisis.

While communication alone won’t solve all problems, regular check-ins can reduce anxiety, and provide an early-warning system if things are getting worse.


Educators must recognize that we all understand, perceive and process information in different ways.

Students must have access to materials and course content in a variety of different ways.

Assessments too, should reflect the ways that students learn and process information. Representation is about recognizing and respecting the differences in how we learn.

For a parallel example of how representation might influence your online presence, read our guide on designing and testing accessible websites.

Action & Expression

Zoom may have transformed online teaching, but there is a huge range of assistive technologies that can improve the learning experience.

Glean is a simple and smarter note-taking solution that puts all students at the same level. Using a simple web app, students can record lectures interactively, reducing some of the challenges disabled students face when processing information.

Note taking is just one example of how students have differing action & expression obstacles and needs.

The market is full of accommodations and resources that can improve learner experiences and outcomes in an online or blended setting. Ensuring you audit your range of tools and services in line with student feedback should help you improve accessibility.

New normal

COVID-19 has created challenges but, even during a pandemic, educators are optimistic about the future. It’s something we’ve written about before. As we all adjust to the new normal, educators must use every tool, technique and theory to deliver the most inclusive and rewarding experience for all. Blended models of learning present significant challenges for learners with a disability, but they’re not insurmountable. UDL provides a solid framework for course design and delivery, with digital innovation at its heart.

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