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Universal Design for Learning: Three Aces Up Our IT Sleeves

min read

By implementing UDL, higher education IT leaders can have a profound, quiet, positive (dare we say, sneaky?) impact on learner persistence, retention, and satisfaction—all while fostering best practices and reducing the number of unplanned urgent IT requests.

Six men and women on laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.
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A Very Short Digression about Cards

To become top-ranked poker players, aspiring superstars need to develop a core group of card-playing skills that go way beyond "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em." Experts learn the various combinations of cards that rank higher or lower, as well as how rarely such combinations occur in the game. They understand how various factors influence their confidence in the cards they have been dealt—the number of players at the table, the number of cards that have already been played, how other players are betting, checking, raising, and calling. They can bluff and indicate that they have great cards when really they don't. All of these ideas and tactics are part of playing the game at an expert level.

Another strategy that you've probably seen in movies about the Old West is to hide aces—the best cards—up your sleeve and hope that no one else sees you employ them to put together winning hands. Of course, that's cheating, and it could get you beat up (or worse).

But in colleges and universities, marshaling resources from unexpected sources isn't cheating. It's an expert-level practice. Let's explore how to find some aces "outside our game" and bring them into our IT work for maximum impact. I promise that almost no one will challenge you to a shootout at high noon.

Aces Up Our Sleeves

College and university information technology (IT) leaders are often in situations analogous to our poker-playing friends. Our goals are to serve student, faculty, and institutional needs through the tools and systems that we adopt. Decisions that we make can hinder or enhance access across the curriculum and interactions among all of our users.

On the yearly EDUCAUSE list of Key Issues in Teaching and Learning, "accessibility and universal design" jumped from 12th place in 2015 to second on the list in 2018 and is 5th on the list for 2019. Most of the advice for IT leaders in this area has focused on accessibility—making sure systems and tools meet the legal requirements for serving users with disability barriers.

That approach allows us to "check the box" to meet requirements, but it seldom moves the needle on the bottom-line concerns of our presidents, provosts, and chancellors: learner persistence, retention, and satisfaction. The concept of universal design for learning, or UDL, applied from an IT perspective, gives us three "aces" that we can use to make those strong public signals and stretch limited IT resources to have an outsized positive impact for our learners and colleagues.

Ace #1: Interface Design

Based on the neuroscience of learning, UDL offers learners three main benefits: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of taking in information, and multiple means of taking action. UDL goes way beyond disability-based accessibility, responding to all sorts of barriers that learners face in whatever interactions they have, not only with content but also with each other, instructors, support staff, and the wider world. Outside in-person conversations, the way that learners engage with colleges and universities is through our web sites and learning management systems (LMSs)—most often on their mobile devices.

One concrete strategy that IT leaders can implement is to adopt consistent navigation elements across systems such as web pages and the LMS. This lowers a barrier of having to learn new "look and feel" elements for each system supported by the institution.

An advanced-level UDL practice is to give everyone the same cards, so to speak. Instead of providing instructors, designers, and support staff with empty LMS shells or web-page templates, build a standard shell that includes a navigation and content structure that follows accessibility and design best practices, such as a shallow subfoldering structure and alternative-version requirement for media elements. Allow users to change the structure if they prefer (to avoid the "you're forcing us" argument), and rely on the inherent inclination of humans to adhere to default structures.

Ace #2: Inclusive Procurement

CIOs and IT leaders are in a unique position to influence the overall ease of access across all systems supported by colleges and universities. By training purchase-level staff in IT and the accounts office in how to assess Electronic Information Touchpoints (EITs) for extensibility and accessibility features, we can silently increase the ease of use and interaction for the entire campus community. Kirsten Behling and I wrote recently in Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone about an expert-level procurement strategy:

By adopting the mind-set of offering at least plus-one choices for users of EITs, many institutions are using recent legal settlements as a call to proactive action. Some are creating procurement policies that ask the vendors who supply EIT resources to prove, through a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), how usable their technologies are for diverse populations (spoiler alert: even when vendors have VPATs and claim their products are widely accessible, test anyway, because there is not yet any centralized authority that checks the validity of VPATs). As more institutions ask vendors about usability and inclusive design as a routine part of their procurement processes, vendors are taking a harder look at incorporating UDL into their products.

Ace #3: Slimming the Bottom Line

UDL strategies help keep costs down across the institution. As a key plank in the approach to open and inclusive pedagogy, UDL reduces learner attrition and keeps more dollars at our colleges and universities because learners stick around when they feel that they can choose their own paths through their studies. As IT leaders, it is when we make this bottom-line argument that we most often convince our colleagues. It's also key that we frame the argument in terms of access, writ broadly as mobile-device access to interactions, rather than accessibility, which colleagues can hear as applying to only a small segment of our learners.

An expert-level UDL strategy is to adopt a wider perspective at leadership meetings. By talking about how our system- and application-level IT design, procurement, and budgetary decisions expand access for all learners, we actually reduce the need to assign resources intensively to perform accommodations—making one change, one time, for one learner. Accommodation needs will never go away, but with the UDL framework, we can make the argument for inclusive benefits beyond students with disabilities. Imagine a student who is a single father who has to drop his daughter off at school and then drives 45 minutes across town to work. Giving him a way to do his course readings via alternative formats (say, read-aloud to the Bluetooth connection in his car) can be the difference between dropping out and keeping up.

Adding Aces to the Hand You're Dealt

Adopting UDL is actually much more of a mind-set shift than it is a change to our established IT processes. It really is like adding cards to the deck that we didn't have before, expanding our options and resources. IT leaders in colleges and universities can build on existing practices by designing interfaces to be inclusive, implementing inclusive procurement practices, and guiding campus leaders about the cost-saving aspects of UDL. By quietly playing these aces behind the scenes in an iterative way and from a learner-support perspective, we can both avoid arguments about academic freedom from instructor colleagues and marshal our limited resources away from intensive and unpredictable single-accommodation responses, toward broader design choices that save us, our colleagues, and our learners time, effort, and struggle.

And that's no bluff.

Join me for a breakout session, "How IT Can Foster Expert-Level Universal Design for Learning (UDL)," that I will present at 4:00 p.m. PT on February 19 at the 2019 EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Annual Meeting.


Thomas J. Tobin is the Conference Programming Chair and Faculty Associate in the Learning Design, Development, and Innovation department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

© 2019 Thomas J. Tobin. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.