A Primer on Universal Design (UD) in Education
Dave L. Edyburn, Ph.D.

The purpose of this web page is to provide a brief introduction to the applications of universal design in education (also known as: Universal Design for Learning). Links to additional resources are provided for teachers and administators interested in more information.

Scroll down the page or click on the links in the interactive outline:

I. Foundations

  1. What is univeral design?
  2. The application of UD to learning (UDL)
  3. Why is UD important?

II. Interventions

  1. What’s the relationship between UD and differentiated instruction?
  2. Is UD just another form of assistive technology (AT)?

III. Using UD Principles to Design Classroom Instruction

  1. Anticipating differences
  2. Getting Started: Tic-Tac-Toe
  3. Sample instructional units
  4. UD template

IV. Professional Development

  1. Monitoring new developments in UD

I. Foundations

A. What is Universal Design?

The roots of universal design is found in accessible design of the physical environment. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University is one example of this philosophy. By understanding the unique needs of individuals with disabilities and proactively designing homes, schools, workplaces, and community buildings to anticipate these human differences, universal design eliminates the need for making building modifications. For example, when accessible design principles are used, entry ways are designed with modest slopes rather than stairs. This simple design strategy is cost-effective to install as a building is being built and eliminates the unsightly wheel chair ramps that must be added to pre-existing buildings designed with a flight of stairs leading into the building. Click to review the seven principles of universal design.

A second arena in which universal design principles have been applied is the field of web page design. As the web grew in prominance, disability advocates quickly realized that this is another domain in which access for persons with disabilities would suffer if adequate design considerations where not made as web pages were designed. Again, the concept of proactive design emerged. A leading advocate for accessible web design is known as the W3 consortium. Accessible web design is critical for individuals who are blind, have low vision, or have motor impairments that make online navigation difficult. However, application of UD principles to web design have the potential to improve the online experience for everyone.

Most recently, the concepts of universal design have evolved in a new direction. CAST has been spearheading a movement for Universal Design for Learning (UDL). That is, utilizing principles of universal design (practively planning for differences, utilizing technology, and providing users with tools and options), CAST believes that it is possible to design teaching and learning environments with adequate supports to meet the needs of the entire range of learner differences. As students with disabilities spend a majority of their day in general education classrooms, it is increasingly important that access to the curriculum is provided. Indeed, as educational reform seeks to enable all students to achieve high standards, UD offers considerable potential for helping teachers address the increasing array of diversity found in the classroom.

Individually and collectively, the three traditions of universal design (UD in the physical environment, UD in the web environment, and UD in the teaching and learning environment) have emerged to capture the attention and imagination of policy makers, developers, researchers, teachers, and administrators. While the achievements to-date have been inspirational, much work remains to capture the potential. A national UDL Summit was held in November 2007 to define an agenda for scaling up an agenda that would help achieve the promise and potential of UDL (UDL Summit Summary, 2007 [link to download pdf]).

B. The Application of UD to Learning

Rather than thinking about disability as a distinct group of learners, CAST suggests it is more helpful to think about learners on a continuum. Some students have more interests, skills, and abilities, and some have less. This is true at every grade level and with every topic in the curriculum. As a result, curriculum should be flexible to address differences proactively, rather than waiting for students to fail and then trying to remediate their academic performance. Advances in technology, learning theory, and brain research offer many exciting possibilites for designing learning environments which support learner differences.

To learn more about the basic principles of universal design for learning (UDL), visit: What is universal design for learning?

C. Why is UD Important?

The potential of universal design has captured the imagination of researchers, developers, policymakers, administrators, [link to download pdf] and teachers. UD is an emerging discipline based on the application of advances in learning theory, instructional design, educational technology, and assistive technology. As a result, a multi-disciplinary community has evolved to focus their attention on fundamentally rethinking interactive learning environments.

UD is an important framework for both research and practice. UD allows researcher to design learning environments and instructional materials that merge the best of what we know about instructional design and performance. UD is essential for teachers and administrators with diverse classrooms and limited time, energy, and resources to modify curricula to meet students’ needs. UD is a potential solution to the relentless demand for curriculum modifications that occur when a “one-size fits all curriculum” fails to meet the instructional needs of the majority of students.

II. Interventions

A. What’s the Relationship between UD and Differentiated Instruction?

In recent years, general education has been introduced to the concept of differentiated instruction. Essentially, this philosophy reconizes that learner differences must be addressed when designing instruction and that one-size curriculum, instruction, and assessment meets very few students’ needs.

Universal design is best known in the field of special education. The basic principles have been discussed above.

Differentiated instruction and universal design principles are highly compatible. Both seek to enhance student achievement by proactively designing learning environments and instructional materials in ways that allow all students to be successful. Learn more about the relationship between universal design for learning and differentiated instruction:

Differentiated Instruction and the Implications for UDL

B. Is UD just Another Form of Assistive Technology (AT)?

Many professionals in special education may think universal design is a specialized form of assistive technology. While the legal relationship between UD and AT has yet to be addressed, there are fundamental differences. AT is an intervention that is explored after a performance problem is identifited. On the other hand, UD is proactive instructional design that seeks to build learning environments and instructional materials with supports (e.g., text that talks, language conversion, cognitive simplification, dictate responses rather than handwrite, alter font size, etc.) that enable all students to achieve the academic standards despite differences.

III. Using UD Principles to Design Classroom Instruction

A. Anticipating Differences

A fundamental characteristic of universal design involves anticipating differences. That is, understanding the full continuum of diversity, and the implications for teaching and learning. For example: given a unit on photosynthesis, how does a teacher plan for instruction when some of the students may be non-verbal, cognitively impaired, blind, deaf, struggling readers, reluctant writers, unmotivated, non-native English speakers, or gifted/talented. Rather than creating a single instructional plan (i.e., one size fits all curriculum), who do we plan a variety of learning activities to enable all students to achieve the given goals in the time allocated for instruction?

B. Getting Started: Tic-Tac-Toe

One method that I have found to be very helpful for enabling teachers to begin using principles of Universal Design for Learning principles in their own classroom involves Tic-Tac-Toe. Essentially, teachers create a menu of learning activities that involves selecting learning activities for diverse learners and ordering the various activities on a Tic-Tac-Toe grid. Then, students are responsible for selecting three (in a row) activities to complete their assignment. A valuable resource for teachers interested in getting started with instructional planning for diversity. Click here to access a resource page that offers a blank template and examples of planning grids that teachers have created.

C. Sample Instructional Units

Over the past few years I have taught preservice and inservice professionals how to examine state curriculum standards and determine instructional priorities and outcomes. We then utilize principles of UD as we create learning environments that utilize digitial curriculum, instructional and assistive technology tools to enable students to achieve high academic standards.

We are in the process of uploading a number of these UD units to the curriculum map below. Click on a link to obtain a downloadable pdf file of our 8-page UD instructional units. More units will be posted soon.

Grade Level Subject Area Subject Area
Early Childhood (forthcoming)
Elementary Plants ReadingComprehension
Middle School Volcano Zoo
High School Wellness

Similar units have been created by the PATINS Project in Indiana as part of the UDL project. Click here to learn more about this state-wide grant funded special project and to access module UD units created by the participants in that project.

D. UD template

Download a Word file with a template for developing a unit of instruction using principles of universal design to enhance academic performance.


IV. Professional Development

A. Monitoring New Developments in UD

Interested in learning more about universal design? Explore the following resources:

April 23, 2008: CAST and Google announced the release of CAST UDL Editions as part of World Book Day. To access the free online books directly, go to: http://udleditions.cast.org/. These books offer text to speech support, comprehension supports, and agents to assist students in understanding what they read. Users will be excited to see that many of the features found in the commercial product, Thinking Reader, have been built into these free online books.

April 4, 2008: At the annual Council for Exceptional Children Conference, CAST released UDL Guidelines 1.0 to faciliate the development of UDL standards. A companion blog allows the user community to comment and make suggestions for improving the standards.

In November 2007, a national UDL summit was held in Washington, DC to ascertain current developments in the field and to outline an agenda for research, development, and policy. Click here to download a pdf summary of the discussions.

Here is a pdf reprint that is very useful for introducing teachers and administrators to UDL:
Using Flexible Technologies to Meet the Needs of Diverse Students: What Teachers Can Do

Here's a new (2005) book by the folks at CAST:
The Universally Designed Classroom: Accessible Curriculum and Digital Technologies

Some readers may be interested in learning a great deal more about universal design for learning. The following book can be purchased in print form, or accessed (free!) online: Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Available online at: http://www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent/ideas/tes/

Questions or comments about this web page may be sent to Dave Edyburn.

Updated: May 1, 2008