Universal Design

Formatting course content for accessibility is best served by the Universal Design of electronic documents and course content; Universal Design makes your course information more mobile, so it's compatible across all types of devices - computers, laptops,smart phones and tablets - and across all varieties of end-user settings on their devices.To learn the simple steps of proper formatting of your course materials, please go to http://www.ncdae.org/resources/cheatsheets/

Universal Design is “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”.

  - Definition from Ron Mace, founder of the Center for Universal Design at NC State University

There are several ways of outlining principles of universal design that can be put into practice in higher education learning environments. The basic idea is that if we design learning environments with a full and natural range of students in mind, we reduce the need for accommodation. On this page we will look at two different frameworks for understanding the principles of universal design as well as a list of online references.

Three Practices

Click here to see a concept map of the three basic practices

Three basic practices can help educators implement principles of universal design when constructing learning experiences. If the means of representation, the means of engagement, and the means of expression are all examined critically during the design phase, and multiple options for each are built into the learning environment, then learners will benefit in significant ways.

Multiple means of Representation
The way that ideas are represented to learners, the way that content is delivered, is extremely important. When ideas are represented in only one modality, learners who experience difficulty sensing information through that modality are at a loss. When ideas are represented in many modalities, learners can choose the method that is most effective for them as an individual. So for example, by providing a textbook chapter to read, and a lecture that covers the essential ideas, with a handout of the lecture notes on blackboard, which also features links to sites that offer additional resources, it is possible to cater to a variety of learning needs at once.

Multiple means of Engagement
The way that learners interact with content is also important. Even after ideas have been represented in a variety of ways, it is critical that learners are offered multiple means for engaging with that content. Whether a learning environment is a traditional classroom or a method of distance delivery, it is vital that the full range of learning needs are accommodated. Issues like communication style, interpersonal skill set, speed of processing and responding, all must be taken into account. If all learners are offered a range of activities to engage with material, while some of those methods will be uncomfortable to each learner (and it is important to clarify that uncomfortable is not the same as inaccessible) the methods that are uncomfortable will not be the same for each learner, therefore, while in any given learning encounter some learners will be pushed outside of their comfort zone, others will find what they need.

Multiple means of Expression
The third practice that educators can use to implement the principles of Universal Design is to reflect critically on the means for expressing learning that are available to the learner. First ideas were represented in multiple ways, then learners were offered a variety of ways to engage with material, last, learners need to be given more than one way to show their understanding of that content. For all the same reasons discussed already, no one method of assessment will evaluate learning in all students to the same degree of effectiveness. A student who experiences short term memory loss due to a seizure disorder may have a harder time with a multiple choice test but write papers that are well organized and thorough. Another student may excel at written examinations but due to underdeveloped social skills have a very difficult participating effectively in group work.

Looking outside of disability it is possible for factors like learning style, or personal life circumstances to play a part in how well different types of assessment will reflect a learners true knowledge. In order to allow student to “show what they know” educators should supply a variety of avenues for expression. Examinations, papers, projects, hands-on demonstrations, all can give learners a chance to express how they have met the learning objectives, but some of these methods are going to be more effective for some learners than others. When educators can identify several different avenues for expression that would be equally viable in terms of establishing that learning outcomes have been met, then learners can be given a choice. This is not always possible though. Sometimes a given measure is truly the most effective, and in those cases, the best measure should be employed.


Nine Principles

Click here to see a concept map of the Nine Principles

The Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability at the University of Connecticut promotes nine principles of UDI that include seven principles identified by the Center for Universal Design at the NCSU College of Design as well as two additional principles that speak specifically to the learning environment as opposed to the design of products and environments more generally.

Principle One – Equitable Use
The design should be appealing, and should allow for the same means of use for all users whenever possible, or equivalent means without segregation when identical means are not possible.

Automatic doors and curb cuts are both examples of design features that allow for equitable use. A person in a wheelchair benefits but so does an individual with a stroller or delivery trolley.

The idea that good design allows for equitable use is vital. Students can successfully compete in academic environments only if they receive equal access to all course materials and activities. The use of assistive technology and adaptive computing can provide students with disabilities with the tools and techniques they need for full access but only if the design of the learning experience affords such use.

Consider a distance delivery course that relies on CDs to deliver instructional material. All students receive the same CDs. The material could be accessed on a standard computer or on a computer that has been modified with adaptive computing hardware/software to make it more accessible. It is possible for the same design to work well whether or not students are using magnification, synthesized speech, or other assistive technology, assuming the proper adaptations are in place, and the design supports such means of access.

Principle Two – Flexibility in Use
The design should provide choice in method of use. As an example consider the distribution of lecture notes on blackboard. By using electronic text students are allowed to access the content in whatever means are most efficient. Electronic text can be printed in a variety of font sizes, viewed on screen at magnified levels, read out loud by a screenreader or filereader, or converted to an alternate format such as Braille or digital audio, all without the need for special accommodation assuming learners have the appropriate technology.

Principle Three – Simple and Intuitive Use
The design should allow for ease of use regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. It is important for content to be presented so the most important information is clearly identifiable as such, so that even with limited experience or language barriers a user can effectively navigate. For example, in a syllabus, there should be clear expectations without any unnecessary clutter.

As another example consider two different ways to design a website. One designer uses headings appropriately, designating the format of the content so that main ideas are coded as heading 1, subtopics receive a heading 2 designation, etc., then a blind user who relies on a screenreader such as JAWS to navigate on the web can use keyboard commands to bring up a list of all headings for a given page and have them read out loud, hitting the enter key when the topic that the user wants to read about is read. Because the information has been well organized and labeled appropriately, the user can skip from main ideas to main ideas, then from subtopic to subtopic, finding the information that is needed with ease.

In the second case, the designer has not used headings, simply changing the font size to display organization visually. For the blind user accessing this site there is no way to quickly identify the main ideas and navigate to subtopics of interest. Instead, the user has to listen to all the text, tabbing from section to section without knowing how the information is organized, a process that takes much more time and is much more difficult.

Principle Four – Perceptible Information
The design should allow for effective communication of ideas regardless of conditions in the surroundings or the user’s ability to sense through given modalities. Consider the use of captions for televised presentations. Those who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing will benefit, but so will those in a noisy room, or those who learned English as a second language, or those who learn best when information is presented in a bimodal fashion.

As a basic rule, anything that is not text should have a text equivalent, whenever possible. This means that sound should have captions or a transcript and images should have text labels or “alt tags”. More information on how to create appropriate alt tags can be found on the web. Contact DSS at aydss@uaa.alaska.edu for tutorials.

Principle Five – Tolerance for Error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. As an example consider an individual with low vision or limited fine motor control who can interact with a keyboard more efficiently with options such as StickyKeys (which allows for key combinations even when hitting one key at a time), BounceKeys (which ignores repeated key strokes) and ToggleKeys (which uses sound to alert a user when Caps Lock, Scroll Lock, or Num Lock are pressed), minimizing the impact of accidental keystrokes.

Another example is the standard dialogue box that pops up when a user goes to close a document before saving changes, or a guard rail that keeps someone who stumbles from falling off a ledge.

A last example that is tied to course design has to do with the frequency with which students receive feedback. If a student has to wait until the midterm exam to find out he or she has not been “getting” the information presented in class, it will be harder to correct the situation than if he or she had smaller stake quizzes or assignments all along that could serve as indicators that more study time was needed.

Principle Six – Low Physical Effort
The design eliminates nonessential physical effort so the focus can stay on essential aspects of the learning environment. It is important to note that the reference here is to nonessential physical effort. If the learning outcomes include mastery of certain physical skills then it is not appropriate to modify the learning environment to remove those challenges.

For example, in an EMT program the ability to physically lift another individual or perform CPR is a requirement. The physical effort is essential. On the other hand, in a classroom setting, the effort of hand writing a paper rather than typing it with a word processor may not be essential.

Principle Seven – Size and Shape
The design should allow for a clear line of sight to important elements, the ability to reach, manipulate, and use important components regardless of body size or mobility. For classes that are small, sitting in a circle instead of in rows can allow for learners to see each other, helping students with attention deficit to stay focused, helping learners with hearing impairments to benefit from being able to read lips and use body posture.

More generally, having adjustable height tables, ergonomic chairs, a variety of laboratory and computer equipment, operating systems with built-in accessibility features and the ability to set up roaming profiles so users can set their preferences and find them intact at whatever computer they log onto in the network, buildings with automatic door openers, elevators that function well, fire alarms that use lights in conjunction with sound and Braille labeled doors are all important ideas.

Principle Eight – Community of Learners
The instructional environment promotes interaction and communication among students and between students and faculty. This is a concept that finds much discussion within many institutions of higher education. Important features can include physical space for gathering comfortably in open access portions of a campus, encouragement and incentives to organize and maintain study groups, as well as availability of faculty during office hours.

Principle Nine –Instructional Environment
The instruction is designed to be welcoming and inclusive while encouraging high standards for all learners (Scott 2002). This is critical. Implementing principles of universal design must not be equated with a lowering of standards. The idea is to remove barriers not to remove appropriate challenges. By designing an environment to be inclusive and challenging at the same time, learners are allowed to compete fairly. By removing barriers at the design stage, qualified learners can focus on accessing content, engaging with it effectively, and demonstrating mastery. Students with unique needs can focus on learning through the same basic design as their peers instead of focusing on issues of access that arise from a poor design.



Center for Applied Special Technology: http://www.cast.org

Center for Universal Design at NC State University: http://www.design.ncsu.edu/cud

DO-IT Faculty Page: http://www.washington.edu/doit/Faculty/Strategies/Universal

Faculty Ware from University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability: http://www.facultyware.uconn.edu

University Course Design from Community Inclusion: http://www.communityinclusion.org/udl/