for implementing UDL practices in the inclusive virtual classroom

Universal Design (UD)

Universal Design (UD)

Teaching a diverse group of students requires the move from a “one size fits all” approach to education, where it was the student that had to comply with the teacher’s way of teaching, to a new way of addressing diversity in the classroom. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework that recognizes individual`s learning diversity, meaning that curriculum should be designed to accommodate all kinds of learners. UDL is based on research on how the brain works and how humans learn.

But to make it easy for us to understand and put good strategies into practices, UDL comes with a framework or a way to translate research and innovation into practice.

Universal Design

The concept of Universal Design for Learning was inspired by the universal design movement in architecture and product development, originally formulated by Ronald L. Mace at North Carolina State University. According to the Center for Universal Design (CUD), UD 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.” (Connell et al., 1997).

To narrow the scope, this definition can be modified. For example, to apply UD to teaching and learning activities, this basic definition can be modified to “the design of teaching and learning products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Product developers, architects, and engineers at CUD established seven UD principles to consider in the design of any product or environment (Connell et al., 1997, cit in. Crow, 2007):

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design  NDA

1. Equitable Use *

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Provide an equal way for the users to access features and information. Avoid segregating any group of people because of personal restrictions and/or device capabilities. Must considerate all users, instead of only the target users. When designing for everyone, the experience will be improved seamlessly for the target audience.

How to:

  • Provide the same means and quantity of information for all users: identical whenever possible, equivalent when not. (e.g.: use alt texts, captioned images, and graphs)
  • Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users (e.g.: do not use mouse-only interactions or hide elements behind mouse hovers or specific interactions)
  • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available
  • Make the design appealing to all users (e.g.: you can use high contrast so that sight limited users can have the equivalent product experience)


  • Rethink lessons if they are dependent on a single mode or lesson
  • Consider multiple assessment types: projects, presentations, role and play, debates, discussion forums
  • Provide alternative text and titles for photos and graphics
  • Name hyperlinks descriptively – not just “click here” text
  • Provide video captions and audio transcriptions
  • Provide audio descriptions of important visuals

2. Flexibility in Use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. This is about giving users a choice on how and when they access features, rather than forcing them into places they don’t necessarily want or need to be. Use flexible, adaptable and/or customizable design. It is important to consider possible individual preferences and let the users choose how they will use a product or space. When choices are provided, the users will feel free and in control of their own experience.

How to:

  • Provide choice in methods of use and accommodate right or left-handed access and use (e.g.: allow customization / ask for user preference to position particular elements of the application / for mobile, optimize for the thumb zone)
  • Provide choices in features and ways that tasks can be accomplished to facilitate the user’s accuracy and precision
  • Provide adaptability to the user’s pace. (e.g.: do not take away the user’s ability to navigate at their own speed)


  • Contents are more important than the container
  • Provide multiple pathways to navigate through information and access important resources
  • Audio, text, and printable versions have different meanings for different users with different learning styles and in different settings
  • Mobile Apps and html provide flexibility in delivery
  • Responsive technology customises content
  • Use text editor Style headings to signal hierarchy in information
  • Don’t use images for important organizing features such as titles or section headings
  • Do not use PDFs that are image scans
  • Provide text-to- voice alternatives

3. Simple and Intuitive Use

The use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. This aims to reduce complexity and cognitive loads. According to the cognitive load theory, humans can handle only 5-9 items in a short amount of time when processing information, and to hold between 2-3 items front of mind in our working memory. The greater the complexity, the smaller the capacity. So, to reduce cognitive loads, present information between 2-5 items, ideally, or fragment it into smaller groups.

In addition, the Hick–Hyman law  says that increasing the number of options to choose, the time and the effort it takes to make a decision increases, but  this law is valid for small amounts of information and make simple quick decisions, not complex actions involving extensive reading, researching, or extended deliberation.

How to:

  • Eliminate unnecessary complexity by reducing cognitive loads, keeping it short and simple and always testing with real users before adding new features to the design
  • Be consistent with user expectations and intuition, allowing the user to identify an element’s functionality intuitively without prior explanation
  • Use words and expressions that are easy to understand, giving preference to explanations instead of technical terms
  • Arrange information to be consistent with its importance
  • Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion using progress statuses, breadcrumbing and wayfinding tips and landmarks


  • Make instructions and expectations clear
  • Explain the meaning of icons and symbols and be consistent
  • Prioritize information in a logical sequence
  • Use consistent navigation and layout design

4. Perceptible Information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. Via text, pictures, audios, or videos, make sure the information is easy to access and digest by everyone. This is about finding the best way to present information considering users with disabilities, such as vision or hearing impairments.

How to:

  • Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information. This can be done by supplying both graph and table views of data, allowing to users not only the flexibility to choose how to get information like suggested in ‘2. Flexibility in Use’, but also the help to make patterns in the data more understandable
  • Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings
  • Maximize “legibility” of essential information breaking your information down into easily digestible pieces
  • Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (e.g.: make it easy to give instructions or directions)
  • Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices that people with sensory limitations use


  • Avoid text across images or low contrast backgrounds
  • Do not depend on meaning or colour or icons for important distinctions
  • Provide “white space” between various elements and sections
  • Define always new terms and acronyms
  • Avoid use of jargon
  • Make examples relevant to a wide range of learners with different backgrounds

5. Tolerance for Error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Anticipate different situations and users’ actions designing for an error-friendly environment. Ensure they can’t trap themselves in a corner, or accidentally cause irreversible damage to their information or navigation.

How to:

  • Arrange elements so as to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible. Isolate, shield or eliminate hazardous elements (e.g.: put permanent or destructive functions inside menus and/or behind confirmation prompts)
  • Provide warnings about hazards and errors
  • Provide fail-safe features (e.g.: undo)
  • Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance


  • Help students fix or avoid their errors
  • Provide links do help and support services
  • Emphasize important steps such as submitting a quiz or final versions of documents
  • Specify dues dates in syllabus and post often in course pages
  • Provide feedback on important stages in projects and research papers
  • Give opportunities for draft documents and corrective resubmission before the final version
  • Provide a practise test with the same formatting as the real test
  • Introduce new technology with a stable practise activity
  • Plan for multiple low stages assessments instead of one big stage of assessment

6. Low Physical Effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue. Those with temporary or permanent mobility issues may have a hard time moving the mouse to the desired target. This is why designing for low physical efforts is vital. Don’t require users to go back and forth across the screen to complete a single workflow.

How to:

  • Group actions together in specific areas of the screen. This minimizes the amount of mouse dragging or thumb stretching needed
  • Minimize repetitive actions and sustained physical effort (e.g.: reduce mouse use by providing keyboard shortcuts)
  • Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.


  • Reduce the number of clicks to get to resources and activities
  • Avoid repetitive or unnecessary steps
  • Remove blinking or pulsating elements
  • Reduce sensory distractors in your content

7. Size and Space for Approach and Use

The appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

How to:

  • Provide a clear line of sight to important elements and make reach to all components comfortable in different postures (e.g.: seated, standing, walking down the street, lying in bed user)
  • Accommodate variations in hand, finger, and grip size (e.g.: the average size of an adult index fingerprint is 1.6-2 cm → approximately 60-76px)
  • Provide proper dynamic space for the use of assistive tech, personal assistance or other accessibility and input tools (e.g.: special spaces for virtual keyboards, dropdown, and context menus, etc)


  • Allow access to learning materials and resources from the start of the course
  • Extend testing options to include early morning and late evening
  • Offer “virtual” options for events and lectures
  • Record them for those who cannot attend
  • Consider due dates and cut-off deadlines carefully
  • Allow adequate time for activities, projects and assignments
  • Assure that all activities align to course objectives
  • Arrange elements in order of priority
  • Present content in a logical and consistent manner
  • Avoid requiring large fie size downloads
  • Stream video and multimedia
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