Universal Design for Learning Enables Significant Learning in Digital Courses

Universal Design for Learning Enables Significant Learning in Digital Courses

Kimberly Coy
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0115-3.ch014
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Universities serve a more diverse group of students than ever before, including students who are first generation, students from poverty, and students with learning disabilities. These institutions are also increasing the amount and types of digital learning environments students use. Meeting the needs of such a diverse student group with changing resources is a dynamic problem. The universal design for learning (UDL) framework has the potential to support professors, lecturers, and course designers as they create academic events for this wide group of learners in every field of study. This chapter examines the core concepts of UDL and presents specific examples in digital university teaching constructs. Students with diverse learning needs can be served in the same environments as more traditional students when this design framework is employed. UDL can be leveraged as an instructional superpower to the benefit of all learners in universities and post-secondary courses.
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It is critical for universities to shift to meet the need of a variety of students This includes race, social class, ethnicity, cognitive differences, gender, families, and many more. At the university level we should embrace these changes and take steps toward believing that diversity makes us stronger. If we believe that working to make changes, to create pathways for all students to be successful, and to provide rigorous content is important then we must take that step. Harnessing the power of UDL in digital courses is a platform for building that step; for raising people up, expanding opportunity, and creating an environment for divergent thinking. And at its core, this is what a university should be providing its students.

This chapter is created to take the reader through examples of how the UDL framework and checkpoints influence specific practices in digital post-secondary digital and online settings.

On a personal experiential note the first involvement I had designing online courses took place with very young students, ages five through twelve. Some of these students had learning disabilities, some experienced trauma in the form of bullying at their regular face to face schools, and most were just average learners whose parents had chosen to have them school online while in their home environment. I had not met any of these students face to face and had little to no experience with the technology I would use to deliver content, develop curriculum, or understand if these students were learning or not. As I took stock of what I did know a list formed that became the foundation of the next chapter in my educational career:

  • o

    the students were all human, with human brains;

  • o

    the content was familiar, as I had already been teaching for over ten years;

  • o

    I could learn the technology with some help from my friends;

  • o

    and I was creative and hard working.

As I reflect on those first experiences with online learning I can see now how that list still informs my teaching and design practices, and my research ten years later. My teaching now involves learners who are in post-secondary institutions, and they are still human, I still understand my content deeply, I am always learning new technology (and still with the help of my friends), and I am creative and hard working. Perhaps this list is all we need? Probably not, but it is a start.

There are more students accesing post-secondary education now, that is a fact. Along with this is the realization that all students are more varied in their approach to learning then previously conceptualized. Learning and neuroscience continues to demonstrate the complex and infinitely unique ways human brains understand content, connect to new learning ideas, and demonstrate their new learning. This combination of diversities is a great opportunity to examine how teaching occurs within post-secondary classrooms. Add onto this opportunity the vast growth of online learning spaces and an explosion in teaching innovation is on the horizon.

This chapter examines the use of the Universal Design for Learning framework to answer the need for innovation. First by looking at the UDL framework in the context of learner variability, then by looking at engagement by educational setting variability, in particular in the digital and online learning environments. Then we look closely at how students can show what learning they understand and what questions they still have through examining the UDL principle of action and expression in the online course development by asking questions around how students navigate the online learning environment, and how do they demonstrate knowledge acquisition. And lastly asking, how can change be supported by other aspects of the college or university structure. UDL is presented in this final section as an area that administration and staff can participate in: how information is represented.


From Architecture To Pedagogy

Ron Mace, an architect, coined the term Universal Design in the early 1980’s (Bremer, Clapper, Hitchcock, Hall, & Kachgal, 2002). He saw a new focus in designed spaces that could be used by all of the people who might want be in the space.

Key Terms in this Chapter

First Generation Student: Students attending colleges or universities who are the first of the current generation in their families to do so.

Universal Design for Learning: An educational framework based on research that opens up content and curricula for a wide variety of learners.

Emergent Bilingual: The continual growth of more than one language over the course of a person’s lifetime.

Post-Secondary: Educational environments that occur after secondary education to include Universities, Colleges, and Community Colleges.

Online Learning Environments: Courses that take place in an online space that is not tied to a physical space, to include college and university courses, as well as high school and elementary.

Pedagogy: The scientific study of educational theory.

Digital Learning: Learning that takes place through accessing an environment requiring a computer, tablet, or mobile device.

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