Connecticut Assistive Technology Guidelines - Section 1: For Ages 3-21

Universal Design for Learning

Universal design for learning (UDL) is based on the premise that learning should be designed to provide access to the curriculum to the greatest number of students possible to the greatest extent possible.

Since learning is not one-size-fits-all, educators need to tailor the curriculum to address the broad range of skills, needs, interests, and abilities that students bring to the classroom. In the UDL classroom, the teacher proactively designs lessons around all students, including those with disabilities and differing cultural and linguistic backgrounds, learning styles and interests, gifts and talents, etc.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) recognize that instructional strategies based on the principles of UDL support student engagement by presenting information in a variety of formats and allowing them to access and express what they know in different ways. The CCSS encourage teachers to use digital media and other teaching materials with the standards to meet the different needs of students with disabilities.

Principles of UDL

The three main principles of UDL that guide the development of curriculum, selection of materials, teaching methods, and assessment are:

  • For more in-depth information on UDLprinciples, refer to the UDLGuidelines.
  • Multiple Means of Representation: This means that educators present information and content in different ways to help them reach the greatest number of students possible.
  • Multiple Means of Action and Expression:This means that educators give students the opportunity to express what they know in a variety of ways. Assessment is not tied solely to paper and pen tasks but is broadened to include demonstrations of knowledge, video projects, speeches, drawings, etc.
  • Multiple Means of Engagement:This means that educators stimulate interest and motivation for learning by tapping into students’ interests. The educator is in touch with the students’ likes and dislikes and uses this information to inform and shape instruction.

Research Supporting UDL

These three principles of UDL are based in neuroscience research that tells us that our learning differences are as unique as our DNA or fingerprints. There are three primary brain networks that affect our learning and have led to the development of the three principles of UDL. These three networks are:

  • The Recognition Network, also known as the “what” of learning, helps us to gather information and make sense of it. We use it to categorize what we see, hear, and read. With this network, we are able to identify letters, words, pictures, and styles of writing. Since individuals have strengths and weaknesses in this network, it makes sense for educators to present information in multiple ways. Some may be better visual learners, while others may need auditory support. This led to the development of Multiple Means of Representation to engage the recognition network of all students to the greatest extent possible.
  • The Strategic Network, also known as the “how” of learning, helps us plan and perform tasks. We use it to organize and express our ideas. With this network, we are able to write a report or solve a word problem. When students experience difficulties in this area, they may not do well with more traditional tasks such as taking a paper-and-pen test or writing an essay. The second principle of UDL, Multiple Means of Action and Expression,addresses the difficulties that some experience in planning and performing tasks by giving students the ability to express what they know in a variety of ways.
  • The Affective Network,also known as the “why” of learning, helps us get engaged and stay motivated. With this network we become interested, excited, and challenged by the learning process. When the educational environment presents materials in a way that appeals to the interests of the students, they will be more engaged. The third principle of UDL, Multiple Means of Engagement, addresses the need to make the learning meaningful and interesting to students.

The best source of information on UDL is the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, a program of CAST (the Center for Applied Special Technology).

UDL and AT

Many AT tools were originally designed to meet the unique needs of individuals with disabilities. In many cases, these tools have been add-ons to address what was lacking in existing educational materials. With the advent of UDL, there is a stronger push for technology tools to be designed from the beginning to meet the needs of a wide range of students, including those with disabilities. In addition, many tools that were previously thought of as AT tools are now being used to address the needs of a broader range of students. UDL has benefited from the existence of AT tools, and AThas benefited from the increase in attention to the tools and their benefit to a broader range of students.

Since UDL addresses the need to provide students with multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement, there are many technology tools that an educator could integrate into instruction in a school and/or classroom that incorporates the principles of UDL. Technologies that support students in the writing process such as text-to-speech and/or word prediction software can be included for use by any student who might benefit from these tools. While UDL does bring AT tools into the hands of many students, there is still the need for exploring the unique needs of students with disabilities and finding the tools that best meet those needs.

From a UDL perspective, technology tools should be designed to address the wide variety of needs, abilities, and interests of the students. Decisions about technology purchases should take into consideration the needs and abilities of all students. If a school is planning to use a Web-based tool, it would be important to examine how well the tool follows the principles of UDL. Will all students be able to access the tool? Will students be able to use alternative access methods to use the tool? Will it work with a screen reader or text-to-speech program?

  • A great resource for exploring the answers to questions when making technology decisions is the TechMatrix. This site helps educators make informed decisions regarding technology purchases.

From the AT perspective, technology tools are based on the needs of the individual student. When educators incorporate a UDL model, there is a greater likelihood that students with disabilities will have access to a wider range of tools and materials and that their individual technology will be integrated into the school day.


The Law Regarding UDL

IDEA 2004 defines universal design using the same definition as the AT Act of 1998, as amended, 29 U.S.C. 3002. (34CFR§ 300.44): “The term ‘universal design’ means a concept or philosophy for designing and delivering products and services that are usable by people with the widest possible range of functional capabilities, which include products and services that are directly accessible (without requiring assistive technologies) and products and services that are interoperable with assistive technologies” (Section 3[19] of Assistive Technology Act as amended in 2004).