Universal Design for Learning

by Linda Robinson

Since the Tech Act was first enacted in 1988 recognizing assistive technology as playing a role in the lives of Americans with disabilities, there has been an increasing awareness of what accessibility means for all people. The Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 made it mandatory for businesses and agencies to make their buildings and materials accessible for employees and patrons. Since that time organizations who serve individuals with disabilities have taken a new look at the design of materials and even teaching techniques to insure that every person's needs are met.

The field of education has also taken a closer look at issues of accessibility to insure equal learning opportunities for all students. The current thinking in instructional design is that educators should look at designing teaching to meet all students' needs. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has been developing and researching principles of universal design for the past several years. One of the design areas they have explored is learning . CAST has established three principles which are conducive for helping all children learn. These principles and more information on universal design can be found at their web site, www.cast.org.

The first principle of universal design for learning is to provide multiple representations of content. Children learn in different ways, some are better with visual materials, others do best with auditory. In some cases it is a preference, while in others it is a necessity. If content is presented through a variety of media, all learners benefit. The computer is a particularly good tool for presenting information in multiple media. Both the capabilities of the computer through system software and the addition of adaptive peripherals make it possible to customize learning for an individual.

The second principle is to provide multiple options for expression and control. The computer and adaptive devices can be used to meet this principle. Typically students are required to demonstrate their knowledge through text on a printed page. However through the use of technology, they have a variety of means for expression and communication. Students can add artwork, photographs, music, and video to their written text to better convey ideas. For those who are unable to use traditional writing and drawing tools, the computer provides an adaptable environment for expression. Educators need to rethink composition assignments and consider all forms of expression which best suit the learner.

Thirdly, educators must provide multiple options for engagement, which may be the most difficult factor to consider in instructional design. Keeping children interested and motivated to learn can be challenging. Again, technology offers many diverse possibilities for both the teacher and the learner. Software may provide feedback and opportunities for exploration which keep children interested in learning. To meet this third universal design principle, teachers must have a curriculum which includes activities and materials which can be adjusted to the learner skill level, interest, and preferences. By integrating technology into the curriculum educators will be able to meet the requirements of universal design.

The concept of universal design is not limited to the field of education. Due to ADA requirements architects are rethinking the design of buildings to meet the needs of all people. For further information on universal design, see the following web sites.
Center for Applied Special Technology www.cast.org
Trace Center www.trace.wisc.edu/
Center for Universal Design www.design.ncsu.edu/cud


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