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Applying Universal Design for Learning in remote classrooms

As schools were compelled to implement distance learning during this year’s pandemic, it became clear that emergency remote learning widened many gaps that already existed within the walls of brick and mortar schools. Many of the supports that could be relied upon in classrooms were no longer feasible online, and some of the supports that had been missing from the start exacerbated the weaknesses of the feeble systems we previously had in place.

As we look to the uncertain future, the one thing that is clear is that we must have a system that will work well in any location, and for all students. This, after all, is the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework that aids curriculum designers and educators in ensuring that all learners receive the accommodations that are needed to help them excel in school.

UDL was an offshoot of a movement that promoted universal design in architecture and product development. In his TED talk, “The Myth of Average”, Todd Rose uses an example that epitomizes the need for UDL, showing how a cockpit seat that was designed by the Air Force for the “average” pilot actually fit none of the pilots who used it. To repair this problem, the cockpit was “designed to the edges,” as Rose calls it. Flexible seats were introduced that could accommodate the shortest pilot to the tallest pilot - and anyone in between. As Todd Rose continues his talk, he explains that we need to apply these same design concepts to education.

Read more: How to apply the Universal Design for Learning in the classroom

During the 1990s, the Center for Applied Special Technology (C.A.S.T.) began to develop a formalized approach to implementing universal design in school curriculums. Under the guidance of Anne Meyer and David Rose, C.A.S.T. created the UDL framework, and today offers UDL professional development and resources to educators around the world.

When educators utilize the UDL Guidelines, lessons are designed that provide multiple means of: engagement, representation, and action and expression. From initial learning experiences through assessment, students are offered varied supports and choices that are “designed to the edges” of student interests and abilities.

Because the goal of UDL is to ensure that every student receives appropriate instruction, UDL is an excellent lens through which teachers can make decisions during curriculum planning to aid them in creating lessons that will be useful whether teaching face to face, remotely, or in hybrid situations. C.A.S.T.’s one-pager of key questions to address provides thoughtful guidance for curriculum designers. Efficient planning guided by UDL will eliminate the need for “emergency” plans if situations change, and ultimately result in reaching all students.

Read more: On challenges and opportunities: Emergency remote teaching

Applying Universal Design for Learning in remote classrooms

Teachers who are fearful of adding even more to their workloads will be relieved to find that UDL, when done correctly, will actually give them more freedom to spend time challenging students to raise their abilities, eventually empowering students to become independent learners.

As one of the authors of Camp Design Online, an open resource from Muhlenburg College developed in response to the pandemic, states, “Planning for accessibility doesn't automatically mean creating multiple versions or discarding activities, assignments, or content up-front because it could be inaccessible for certain students. It means thinking through how to make course materials and experiences accessible for diverse students who might register for your class.”

For educators who would like some examples of UDL curriculum, you can join the UDL Studio for free access to lessons that have been shared by teachers around the world. As you begin to work to shape your school year, consider the following questions posed by C.A.S.T. as a guide.


Does the lesson provide options that can help all learners regulate their own learning, sustain effort and motivation, and engage and interest all learners? — Key Questions to Consider When Planning Lessons,

Providing asynchronous options for students can allow them to move as quickly or slowly in a way suited to their learning styles. Many teachers are already familiar, now, with using video either as a supplement or replacement for lessons. One way to avoid the loss of interest of students is to make sure these videos are no longer than 6-10 minutes. Both EdPuzzle and Google Slides make it fairly simple to select parts of videos to include in a lesson. They can also give students time to pause and reflect between segments.

Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning

Students will have more motivation when they have interesting choices. While keeping in mind student interests and relevant content, teachers can use Choice Board templates, like these that are provided by SlidesMania, to generate enthusiasm and empower students. Varying topics and reading levels using sites like Newsela or Smithsonian’s Tween Tribune will help students to gain confidence and independence.


Does the information provide options that help all learners: reach higher levels of comprehension and understanding, understand the symbols and expressions, and perceive what needs to be learned? — Key Questions to Consider When Planning Lessons,

If you are presenting a digital lesson synchronously, consider recording that lesson with a free tool such as Screencastify, and making it available for later use. This allows students who may have missed the initial lesson, or had trouble understanding some of it, to access it as many times as needed. When using the Present mode in Google Slides or PowerPoint, teachers can also use the Closed-Captioning feature.

Any visual content should also have audio descriptions, and teachers should be sure students know how to use text-to-speech tools that are available on their devices, such as Google's Read Aloud or Microsoft’s Immersive Reader. In instances where you are unable to use sites that vary in Lexile levels, tools like Smmry or Rewordify can help students to simplify text that is online.

Action and Expression

Does the activity provide options that help all learners: act strategically, express themselves fluently, and physically respond? — Key Questions to Consider When Planning Lessons,

Technology has given us many tools that can enable students to respond in a variety of ways, from student response platforms like Kahoot, Gimkit, or Socrative, to video collections like Flipgrid. During synchronous teaching, Peardeck and Nearpod make it simple to make slide presentations interactive, allowing the teacher to gather formative assessments as students draw, drag items, or type comments.

Read more: 3 Teachers that are crushing assessments with ed-tech

When possible, educators can allow for multiple means of expression based on student strengths instead of weaknesses. Students can record responses instead of type, create videos, or use artistic representations. Virtual manipulatives can replace physical ones that may not be available.

Putting it all together

When given time and the necessary tools, teachers can create lessons that are inclusive of all learners, regardless of the setting. As teachers develop relationships with their new sets of students this coming school year, they will find areas in the curriculum that can be tweaked a bit to customize them for the children who have unique needs.

However, with a UDL curriculum in place, the majority of the work will be to create strong emotional connections with students and letting them know that they belong to a community of learners where everyone is valued.

Knowing that flexible lessons have already been planned, teachers can spend their time giving students frequent feedback, communicating with parents, and helping their students to feel safe and happy during these unpredictable times.