A rainbow seen looking south from Fairbanks, AK

Universal Design for Learning

Design learning for everyone


Originally an intervention into the way accommodations were made for students with disabilities, UDL was created in the 1980s by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit CAST  with a goal of using technology to support learners with different needs. In collaboration with Harvard University, UDL developed into a broader educational theory, beyond technological interventions, that seeks to create effective educational experiences for all learners. 

Importantly, UDL is an “asset pedagogy:” a pedagogy that focuses on the strengths learners bring to the course, rather than deficits (Waitoller and Thorius). UDL explores how course design “disables” students, and seeks to create an environment where everyone can thrive. As CAST researcher Allison Posey  puts it, “When you use UDL, you assume that barriers to learning are in the design of the environment, not in the student.”

Universal Design for Learning is born out of the broader concept of Universal Design from engineering and architecture. In this arena, the hallmark example of universal design is “the curb cut effect.” where the cuts in the sidewalk that increase mobility for people who use wheelchairs also benefit other users.

When you use UDL, you assume that barriers to learning are in the design of the environment, not in the student.

Decorative topo lines

Accessibility and Universal Design, is there a difference?

According to the  Universal Design.com, Universal design is a more holistic approach to online design (or any kind of design, for that matter) that integrates good overall usability decisions as a design approach, rather than concentrating on converting or preparing individual materials to make accommodations. Information about how Universal Design applies to higher education. More  Universal Design Resources.

Research Foundations

Cifuentes, L. Alexandra, J., Guerra, L. and Weir, J. (2016, May 28).  A Working Model for Complying with Accessibility Guidelines for Online Learning.  TechTrends (2016) 60:557—564.

Massengale, L. R., & Vasquez III, E. (2016). Assessing Accessibility: How Accessible Are Online Courses for Students with Disabilities?.  Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,  16  (1), 69-79.

Van Rooij, S. W., & Zirkle, K. (2016). Balancing pedagogy, student readiness and accessibility: A case study in collaborative online course development. The Internet and Higher Education, 28, 1-7.