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Hot Topics in Education: Universal Design for Learning, Accessibility, Inclusivity

Are you planning on entering a career in education? In teaching? Maybe you're curious about what educators are discussing? If so, then you might want to keep reading…

(Many of the topics discussed here can be applied across grade levels, from K-12 to higher education, but in this article, I am focusing on higher education). Now, what if education could become more accessible and engaging for all learners? This is the goal of a framework called Universal Design for Learning or UDL for short which was developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST).

According to the UDL guidelines, there are three main focuses: Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression - each of these then discuss sub-topics, guidelines, and checkpoints. For example, a checkpoint in Engagement recommends educators to “Optimize relevance, value, and authenticity” regarding learning objectives.

The section for Representation considers the unique differences and abilities of an array of learners, this can include “sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness); learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia); language or cultural differences, and so forth” (“Representation”).

Action & Expression focuses on how learners/students can be assessed and demonstrate their knowledge; for example, “Some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not speech, and vice versa” so then educators must consider alternatives that focus on individual

students’ strengths.

UDL is not only for educators but also “curriculum developers, researchers, parents” who want to create a more engaging and beneficial learning experience (“The UDL Guidelines”). UDL considers how students have unique experiences, knowledge, learning styles, and abilities; it encourages educators to assess their class content and offer a variety of ways to present content that can help different learners. For example, some students might enjoy watching a video whereas another might prefer reading. It's all about options.

UDL also goes hand-in-hand with increasing accessibility in education. Making class content more accessible benefits all students like how automatic doors and elevators benefit all who use them.

Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler of the University of Washington made a list of ways to make an online course more accessible. These tips can even be applied to in-person classes since many materials are accessed through the class site (like one on Canvas). Some of Dr. Burgstahler's tips include making text and pages easier to read such as using sans serif fonts and using high contrast, adding captions for videos and transcripts for audio content, making "examples and assignments relevant to learners with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds,” and many more excellent ideas.

Lastly, I would like to discuss making instruction inclusive - which is making students feel like “insiders” instead of “outsiders.” In their resource "Inclusive Teaching Practices Toolkit," The Association of College and University Educators list the following 10 items (which include examples and resources in the full article):

  1. Ensure your course reflects a diverse society and world.

  2. Ensure course media are accessible.

  3. Ensure your syllabus sets the tone for diversity and inclusion.

  4. Use inclusive language.

  5. Share your gender pronouns.

  6. Learn and use students’ preferred names.

  7. Engage students in a small-group introductions activity.

  8. Use an interest survey to connect with students.

  9. Offer inclusive office hours.

  10. Set expectations for valuing diverse viewpoints.

So, what do you think about these hot topics in education? As we can see, there's always room for improvement. I will add that in my experience as a student, supportive and positive language has made the biggest difference in my engagement in a class. I’ve been through experiences where I felt like an instructor gave up on me and had low expectations; this might challenge a student to work hard out of frustration to prove the instructor wrong, but instead, this left me feeling completely discouraged and made me loathe going to class.

However, I’ve had instructors show me respect and value my voice. Once in a class, I answered a question incorrectly, but the professor brought up my answer later on during the discussion and made it relevant - they took my wrong answer and made it right. It erased my embarrassment. Another professor of mine, at the end of most classes, would say, “Thank you for your hard work.” Acknowledgment, respect, encouragement, and having high expectations are game-changers for students and steps in transforming classrooms to be equity-minded. UDL, accessibility, and inclusive instruction are also huge steps in this transformation.

Check out the videos below to learn more about UDL, accessibility, and inclusion in higher education.

Works Cited/Further Reading

ACUE. “Inclusive Teaching Practices Toolkit.” ACUE, 2020.

Burgstahler, Sheryl. “20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course.” Do It -

University of Washington.

Butler, Eugene Jr. “Why a Culturally Responsive Curriculum Works.”

Carnegie Mellon University. “Model inclusive language.” Carnegie Mellon

University, n.d.

CAST. “The UDL Guidelines.” UDL Guidelines, n.d.

— “Representation.” UDL Guidelines, n.d.

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