Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

by Nancy Swenson

“This year’s [ELI] survey results has moved accessibility and UDL from #12 in 2015 to #2 in 2018. This is a significant increase in the importance placed on this topic that should alert higher education institutions across the country to sit up and take notice.” -Kathleen Bastedo, Community of Practice Discussion


Faculty teaching online courses face the exciting prospect of dealing with all types of students with diverse learning styles and needs. Instead of creating a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, consider implementing a teaching approach that provides flexible instructional methods, materials and assessments that can be tweaked to meet the needs of your diverse learning population. UDL takes into consideration that we all learn differently and, therefore, should be provided with options for learning materials and for demonstrating learning.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles for curriculum development that is designed to meet individual learning needs. It “provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs” (CAST, 2016). The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) is an organization that is internationally recognized as a leader in the field of UDL. They have developed a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn. The framework is based on cognitive neuroscience and identifies three brain networks that are involved in learning. CAST not only identifies these three brain networks they have also developed principles and strategies to apply to each. Application of these principles and strategies will help meet the needs of diverse students. Visit their website for more information about the CAST organization and UDL.

The U.S. Congress (2008) also emphasized the importance of Universal Design for Learning when they defined UDL in the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008 as a scientifically valid framework that:

  • “Provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged
  • Reduces barriers in instruction
  • Provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges
  • Maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient”  (110th Congress, 2008, sec. 103, p. 122 stat. 3088)


As neuroscience has revealed that the way in which we learn is “as varied and unique as our DNA or fingerprints,” a one size fits all approach to teaching and learning may not meet the needs of our diverse learners (CAST, 2016). Whether faculty are teaching online or face-to-face, the application of the UDL Framework and principles will benefit all learners. Consider providing some UDL faculty development sessions to teach your faculty about the importance of UDL and how it can successfully be implemented in their courses.

Institutional Resources

General Resources

Sample Course

The TOPkit sample course has additional information regarding accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and the benefits the application of UDL principles has for all learners in the online environment.

Week 2 Content in the Online Environment

Accessibility and Online Course Content


110th Congress (2008). Higher Education Opportunity Act. Retrieved from http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-110publ315/html/PLAW-110publ315.htm

CAST. (2016) What is Universal Design for Learning? Retrieved from: http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl