Universal Design of Instruction: An Approach for Making Your Course Accessible to All Students

By Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.

Submitted to Academe, December, 2006

Direct correspondence to:

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.

Director, AccessSTEM, DO-IT, and U.W. Accessible Technology Services
University of Washington
Box 355670
Seattle, WA 98195

Universal Design of Instruction: An Approach for Making Your Course Accessible to All Students

by Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D.

Precollege and college students come from a wide variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. For some, English is a second language. Also included in most classes are students of many different ages and learning styles, including visual and auditory learners. In addition, increasing numbers of students with disabilities are taking postsecondary courses. Their disabilities include mobility impairments, learning disabilities, visual impairments, hearing impairments, and health impairments.

Often, faculty members design their courses for the average student. When a student with a disability enrolls in a course, with assistance from the disability services office, they provide accommodations, such as creating materials in alternate formats that include Braille, providing note-takers, moving a course to an accessible location, or otherwise providing specific adjustments for the student. In contrast, universal design (UD) is an approach that addresses diversity during all stages of course design and delivery.

Universal Design: An Inclusive Approach

Universal design has been defined as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design" (http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/newweb/about_ud/aboutud.htm). For example, a standard door is not accessible to everyone. If a large switch is installed, the door becomes accessible to more people, including some wheelchair users. However, further application of universal design principles leads to the installation of sensors that signal the door to open when anyone approaches, making the building accessible to everyone—a small child, a man carrying a large box, an elderly woman, a person using a walker or wheelchair. As is apparent in this example, making a product or environment accessible to people with disabilities often benefits others. Similarly, although designed to make sidewalks and streets accessible to those using wheelchairs, curb cuts are today more often used by parents with baby strollers and delivery personnel with rolling carts. And, when television displays in noisy areas of airports and restaurants are captioned, they are accessible to people who are deaf, and everyone else.

Universal Design of Instruction: An Inclusive Approach to Teaching

Universal design principles can be applied to the overall design of instruction as well as to specific instructional materials, facilities, and strategies such as lectures, classroom discussions, group work, Web-based instruction, labs, fieldwork, and demonstrations. Universally designed curriculum provides students with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, ethnic backgrounds, language skills, and learning styles multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement (see CAST, at http://www.cast.org/).

Listed below are examples of instruction that employ principles of universal design. They are organized under seven performance indicator categories, with a goal statement for each.

  1. Class Climate. Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness.

    Examples: Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs; plan for every student actively participates in class activities.

  2. Physical Access, Usability, and Safety. Assure that activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.

    Examples: Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users; label safety equipment simply, in large print, and in a location viewable from a variety of angles; repeat printed directions orally.

  3. Delivery Methods. Use multiple accessible instructional methods.

    Examples: Use multiple modes to deliver content and motivate and engage students-consider lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, Internet-based communications, educational software, and field work; provide both written and oral instructions for an activity.

  4. Information Resources. Assure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are flexible and accessible to all students.

    Examples: Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the class begins and to allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as books on tape and Braille; design the course website in a format that is accessible to all current and potential students, including those who are blind as use text-to-speech technology to access the content (see World Wide Access: Accessible Web Design video and publication at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Video/www.html).

  5. Interaction. Encourage effective interactions between students and between students and the instructor and assure that communication methods are accessible to all participants.

    Examples: Assign group work for which learners must support each other and that places a high value on different skills and roles; use a variety of interaction methods, including large group and small group discussions, one-to-one conversations, and electronic communication.

  6. Feedback. Provide specific feedback on a regular basis.

    Examples: Allow students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project is due; have students review each other's work before assignments are submitted and graded..

  7. Assessment. Regularly assess student progress using multiple, accessible methods and tools and adjust instruction accordingly.

    Examples: Create a straightforward and comprehensive grading rubric; provide a syllabus with clear statements of course expectations, assignment descriptions, deadlines, and expectations, and assessment methods and dates; keep academic standards consistent for all students, even for those who require accommodations; assess group/cooperative performance as well as individual achievement; allow students to choose the mode of present.

  8. Accommodation. Plan for accommodations for students for whom the instructional design does not meet their needs.

    Examples: Know how to get materials in alternate formats, reschedule classroom locations, and arrange for other accommodations for students with disabilities; make sure that assistive technology can be made available in a computer or science lab in a timely manner.

Universal Design of Instruction as a Process

Design of instruction can be discussed as a set of strategies applied to specific aspects of instruction or as a process. To implement the process, an instructor can select appropriate strategies for the delivery of instruction and then apply universal design to each activity within a class. Specifically, the instructor needs to:

  1. Identify the course. Select the course, goals, and overall content for the course.
  2. Define the universe. Describe the overall population of students (e.g., prerequisites for enrolling) who might take the course and then consider the diverse characteristics of potential students (e.g., characteristics with respect to gender, age, size, ethnicity/race, native language, learning style, socioeconomic status, and abilities to see, hear, move and manipulate objects, and learn).
  3. Select standards for good practice. Adopt good teaching practices.
  4. Adopt UD guidelines. Create or select existing UD guidelines/standards Integrate UD practices with other best teaching practices.
  5. Apply guidelines/standards. Apply universal design along with design principles and standards for good teaching practice to the overall design of instruction (e.g., choices of lecture, discussion, cases, online notes) instructional methods and curriculum materials (e.g., website) to maximize the learning of students with the wide variety of characteristics identified in Step 2).
  6. Plan for accommodations. Develop processes to address accommodation requests (e.g., arrangement for sign language interpreters, creation of alternate format) of specific students for whom the course design does not automatically provide access.
  7. Evaluate. On an ongoing basis, monitor the effectiveness of the instruction by gathering feedback from students with a diverse set of characteristics, assess learning, and modify the course based on their feedback.

Consult the publication Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_udi.html for more examples of how to apply universal design to instruction.

Note that employing universal design principles in instruction does not eliminate the need for specific accommodations for students with disabilities. For example, you may need to provide a sign language interpreter for a student who is deaf. However, applying universal design concepts in course planning assures full access to the content for most students and minimizes the need for special accommodations. For example, designing Web resources in accessible formats as they are developed means that no redevelopment is necessary if a blind student enrolls in the class; they will be able to access all of the content of your website with his/her text-to-speech computer system. Similarly, if your videos used in your classroom or on your website are captioned, individuals who are deaf will be able to access the content without accommodations.

Universal design benefits students with disabilities but it benefits other students as well. For example, captioning course videos, which provides access to deaf students, is also a benefit to students for whom English is a second language, to some students with learning disabilities, and to those watching the tape in a noisy environment. Delivering content in redundant ways can improve instruction for students with a variety of learning styles and cultural backgrounds. Letting all students have access to your class notes and assignments on a website benefits students with disabilities and everyone else. Planning ahead saves time in the long run.

Employing universal design principles in everything we do makes a more accessible world for all of us. It minimizes the need to alter it for anyone. For a checklist for the application of UDI consult Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_udi.html. Further guidelines to faculty for making their courses accessible can be found in the comprehensive resource titled The Faculty Room at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Faculty/.

Acknowledgement: This article has been adapted with permission from the following DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) publications: Universal Design of Instruction: Definition, Principles, and Examples at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/instruction.html and Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction at http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Academics/equal_access_udi.html.

Biographical Statement: Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph. D., is the Director of Accessible Technology Services within Computing & Communications at the University of Washington in Seattle. In this role, she directs the DO-IT (http://www.washington.edu/doit//) Center and AccessCollege, AccessSTEM and AccessComputing, that, respectively, promote access to college; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; and computing careers for people with disabilities. Dr. Burgstahler is the author or co-author of six books on educational use of the Internet, has presented dozens of presentations and published many articles related to computer, Internet, distance learning, science lab, curriculum, and classroom access to students with disabilities. She and the programs she directs have received many awards, that include the Information Infrastructure Award in Education, the Presidential Award in Mentoring, and the Catalyst Award. For more information about Dr. Burgstahler, consult http://staff.washington.edu/sherylb/.

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Last modified: Wed Mar 20 09:23:26 2002