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Universal Design for Learning with Thomas Tobin

April 16, 2021

Welcome to 3Play Media’s Allied Podcast, a show on all things accessibility. This month’s episode features Thomas Tobin and is about Universal Design for Learning.

Thomas Tobin is an author, speaker, and consultant on all facets of quality for technology in higher education: Universal Design for Learning (UDL), evaluating online teaching, copyright, academic integrity, and non-faculty career paths.

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Episode transcript

ELISA LEWIS: Welcome back to Allied, the podcast for everything you need to know about web and video accessibility. I’m your host Elisa Lewis, and today we’re joined by Dr. Thomas Tobin to discuss Universal Design for Learning, UDL, as it relates to multiple industries and how that’s changed in the time of COVID.

Thomas holds a PhD in English literature, a second master’s degree in information science, and multiple professional certifications in online teaching, project management, and accessibility. Thomas is an advocate for the educational rights of people with disabilities and people from disadvantaged backgrounds and has so much to offer us in today’s discussion. Thanks for joining us on the podcast. Let’s dive in.

Thank you so much, Thomas, for joining us today. We’re thrilled to have you on the Allied podcast and we want to start the conversation learning more about your background. So you have a PhD in English literature, a second master’s degree in information science, and multiple professional certifications in online teaching, project management, and accessibility. How did you know this was what you wanted to do and how have your masters and certifications shaped your career and philosophy today?

THOMAS TOBIN: My original desire, way back when I was a little kid, I wanted to be a professor in college and that’s how I went up through in 1995 when I was working on my master’s degree in English literature, I taught myself HTML for a project on the 19th century pre-Rafaelite art and poetry movement. I created an online annotated database called The Pre-Rafaelite Critic. It’s actually still there even though I’m no longer a 19th century literature and art history scholar.

And my career kind of took a left turn. It changed in 1997. I was working at a two year college in Pennsylvania helping them to create their very first online courses and I met Marty. Now, Marty’s story, he was a business instructor and he had gone blind in his 40s due to undiagnosed and so untreated diabetes.

He didn’t know how to, and I’ll put air quotes, here be a blind person, right? So he didn’t walk with a cane. He didn’t know Braille. He couldn’t touch type. And when he came to me and he said, I want to teach online, I thought, this is going to be a bit of a challenge, especially since Marty didn’t actually believe that online was worth doing at all. He thought this is the future and he wants to be prepared for it, but he thought that it wasn’t really a viable way to teach.

And I was 28 years old. I was working on my PhD, and so I said, yeah, I’ll help you out. And I thought, oh, the literature is going to save me on this one. So I went back and did a search, and there was no literature on how to support a faculty member who had a disability barrier.

Then I, by dumb luck, I got connected with Norm Coombs at Rochester Institute of Technology and he was an advocate for instructors and students with disability barriers. He had been blind since birth, a fantastic professor. I got an opportunity to talk with him on the phone and his advice was, essentially, good luck, kid, because there’s not much to help you.

At the same time, he gave me a few things that we could do with Marty. And Marty was kind of a success story, right? So this is– I helped our community college to adopt Blackboard version 1 back in 1997. That’s how long ago this is.

And Marty was one of our first instructors to actually teach an online course. Since, in his earlier days, he had been a sighted person, he knew the structure of a computer screen. He knew where to look for different icons or colors, so we essentially sat down and he memorized the structure of the learning management system.

And we threw graduate students from a local university at him to be his eyes and his typing fingers. So when he would respond to students, he would say stuff out loud to the graduate students. They’d type things into the discussion forum or into the grade book and he’d give feedback to students and that’s how he got information from his online students at will.

And it worked brilliantly for three offerings of that course until we figured out that we were violating the FERPA privacy laws, like, seven different ways and we have to stop. So that failure caused me to really take a hard look around myself and I thought, OK, if it was this challenging to help one person, who else aren’t we serving well or maybe not serving at all?

So people with disability barriers, yes, but also people with work, family, military commitments, folks who lived far away from campus. You name it. Now, that propelled me from my PhD into a second master’s degree in information science, library science, and later certifications in project management, online teaching, and accessibility. Along the way, I became an advocate for a framework that helps lower barriers for everyone in that list of people we weren’t serving well, Universal Design for Learning, or UDL.

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you for sharing that. It’s such an interesting story. For our audience who may not be familiar with UDL, what is it and why is it so important?

THOMAS TOBIN: UDL is a framework. It’s a mental model from the neuroscientists at the Center for Applied Special Technology, CAST, or cast in Boston, and it’s how do we design interactions that our learners have with information, with each other, with their instructor’s support staff, and the wider world, so that they have multiple ways that they can stay engaged, take in information, and take action and express themselves.

UDL is based on how our brains take in, analyze, and store information. When we learn anything, whether we’re six years old or we’re 60 years old, we have to activate three different chemical pathways in our brains. Now, we’re not going to talk about the acetylcholine uptake pathway through the hippocampus today.

Well, what we talk about is the affective, recognition, and strategic networks in our brains. Put a little more simply, we need a why are we learning something, we need a what, and a how in order for any learning to stick with us. So a quick question for you. If you’re at home and you notice that there’s water dripping out underneath your kitchen sink, what’s the first thing you do?

ELISA LEWIS: Well, I’m probably going to take a look under the sink and see what’s going on and then I would probably Google it.

THOMAS TOBIN: Yeah, absolutely. So you’ve already got the why. Oh, hey, there’s something wrong. I see a puddle on my kitchen floor and I want to find the shutoff valve or figure out where this water is coming from. And you already have what. The what is, is how do I get the information.

So I’m going to go to Google, I’m going to ask my home assistant. Hey, Siri, hey, Google, where’s the shutoff valve in most kitchen sinks? Or I want to connect with a human being who has expertise, right? So you want to call a friend who is handy or you want to call a plumber. But you’re going to use tools to help you find out information to take a first step.

So you’ve got the why and the what, and those tools, like the phone in your pocket, are helping you with the how as well. It helps you to actually take action. It helps you to get practice with that content, or that information, or the process that you need.

So talking about a broken pipe under your sink is one thing, but it’s true of everything that we want to learn, whether that’s differential calculus, or whether that’s babysitting techniques for teenagers, or whether that’s an art history class, or whether it’s a broken pipe under your sink.

Now, for Universal Design for Learning, if we have more than one way that we can stay engaged with things, if we can have more than one way that we get that information– and so when you go to Google, you might find a web page that has text of how to turn off the shutoff valve under your sink, but there’s also probably a video you could watch.

And you can take action in more than one way. You can call a plumber, call in an expert, or you could do it yourself. And there’s lots of different variables and lots of different options there. So that’s the simple part of it. But if we put it even more simply, all those interactions that our learners have with content, with each other, with us as the instructors, with support staff with the wider world, all of them, it’s just plus one thinking. If there’s one way for an interaction to happen now, make just one more way.

ELISA LEWIS: I love that concept and the way you put it so simply, and I think certainly having an example is really helpful for our listeners to kind of put it in perspective and understand UDL. So that plus one concept is from your book, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone, Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education, that you wrote with Kirsten Behling. Where you focus on colleges and universities, does UDL work outside of K through 12 and college settings?

THOMAS TOBIN: Absolutely, and the folks at CAST, they started in the K-12 arena with the concept of Universal Design for Learning and it was in the face to face classroom. And in recent years, lots of us in higher education have been taking it on and moving it into a higher education sphere.

But it works outside of the education realm too, and the example that we started with of the broken pipe under your sink, that leads us to suspect that it happens in our everyday lives and any place where we interact with content, with each other, with experts. That’s a place where inclusive design and UDL in particular helps us by increasing our voices, choices, agency, and sense of ownership over our own learning.

So I spent seven years in corporate learning in the learning and development team at Blue Cross and Blue Shield. When I got there in 2004, they practiced accessibility according to the law, right? We put captions on our videos. We made sure that we had alternative text descriptions for the images on our websites.

Now, one of the challenges that we faced was training our frontline employees so that they could find information and give correct answers to policyholders, doctor’s offices, hospitals, all of our customers, at close to 100% of the time as possible.

Now, we began implementing UDL principles in both our onboarding training, so things like giving employees a text-based prep manual as well as read aloud audio of the same content, and in our everyday documentation practices. So, for example, we expanded our database of written policies and practices to also include video and audio content across our public and staff only repositories. All of it was searchable by keyword, so we had a greater range of ways to find the answers that people needed.

Now, when the Affordable Care Act was enacted in the US in 2010, it changed the law around literally thousands of those right answers. Pre-existing conditions were no longer part of health care coverage determinations. The process for approving experimental treatments was streamlined. I mean, people could be covered on their parents’ health insurance up to age 26.

So we had to put together a team devoted to just updating our databases and a separate team focused on retraining. In addition to the real time sessions that we offered for our 16,000 plus employees, we recognize that choice and options were not nice to have. They were essential. We created on demand, self-paced versions of that real time training. That choice of how to engage, how to take in the information and practice with it, that’s the core of UDL.

So I also want to give your listeners in industry an early tip here too. Our colleague James McKenna is now finishing the writing process for his new book. It’s called Limitless Learning, Driving Peak Performance in Individuals and Organizations With UDL. Now, James asked me to write the foreword for it and I’m excited to see this business-focused book get published. It’s slated for a fall 2021 or spring 2022 release from CAST Publishing. So to get the latest, go follow James over on Twitter. He’s @IDLACOE.

ELISA LEWIS: Thanks for the recommendation. Your story of wanting to expand access and choices for learners reminds me about how we’re all trying to respond well to the COVID-19 pandemic. What are you noticing has changed in online learning environments since COVID?

THOMAS TOBIN: Good question. And honest answer? Most of the problems that we’re experiencing in remote teaching and training due to the pandemic, it’s because we haven’t changed enough. OK, back in the late 1990s, we collectively figured out how to do online learning well. Provide learners with multiple ways to structure their time, their effort, their collaboration, their practice, and how they demonstrate their skills.

So the name distance education is kind of a misnomer, right? We’re no longer concerned about reaching learners who live too far away from our businesses and campuses. With the pandemic, even the learners who are in the residence halls or down the street from us, we all have the same barrier. We can’t get together in person.

And our biggest challenge is now the clock. How do we fit learning into our already crammed days of work, study, caregiving, self care? What I mean by it hasn’t changed enough is, for the majority of us in higher education, K-12, and business learning, we didn’t have to pay attention to the lessons that those of us in online education already figured out 20 plus years ago and we continued our focus on real time, in-person teaching and training.

So when the pandemic forced us all into remote teaching mode, we recreated that remote teaching to mirror what we were already doing in the face to face environment as much as possible. It’s a comfort thing. But we ended up with a poor replication of in-person learning, real time Zoom calls, when the most flexible thing to do for all of us would be to craft asynchronous cohorted learning experiences.

So the problem is, we’re severely understaffed in higher education for sure and most businesses to be able to train all of our instructors, develop all of our content, retool all of our assessments away from formats that just create anxiety and pressure for learners. So we all ended up getting everyone to the just good enough starting line when the pandemic hit, right?

Our next task, though, is to start moving away from an emergency action approach and established best practices for remote learning that we can sustain even beyond the pandemic. Now, this is where UDL can really help. We can look at the enormity of making absolutely every piece of content, every interaction in our courses and training sessions accessible and we’ll suffer from analysis paralysis and we won’t even start.

Some of your listeners have heard about the HiFlex or hybrid flexible model of course design that a lot of colleges and universities have latched on to recently. Now, HiFlex allows students to decide from course meeting to course meeting whether to attend in-person or remotely. The instructors have to be ready to teach both in-person and remote learners at the same time and lots of people are reporting being burnt out by the design load and teaching load demands of the model.

This is what most of us envision when we think about shifting our course from face to face to more accessible. The whole course has to be, quote unquote, converted to a more accessible design or the model doesn’t work. Now, UDL, the other hand, has a goal of making all our interactions more accessible and supportive, but we can start small.

Think of those pinch points where your learners ask the same questions over and over again. You know, you get the same email 700 times. Or where they collectively get the ideas or concepts wrong and you have to reteach or do another training session. Or just where do they ask consistently for alternative explanations?

Those are the places where a little plus one thinking not only lowers barriers for them, but it also keeps them better engaged and it makes things easier on you as the instructor or the facilitator. And once the barrier of pandemic restrictions is lowered, the flexibility and choices for learners that we design, those can remain as ways to keep folks engaged, make them more likely to come back to continue their learning journeys, and be more satisfied with their learning experiences with our colleges, universities, and organizations.

ELISA LEWIS: Absolutely. It’s definitely true that we’re all feeling the overload that the pandemic has put on us as designers, instructors, and facilitators, so applying UDL seems like effort that pays us back. How do we actually go about implementing it?

THOMAS TOBIN: Good question. We can talk about three different levels of implementation. In individual interactions, in our everyday operations, and at the level of our organization’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or DEI efforts.

So for individual designers, instructors, facilitators, apply that plus one thinking at those pinch points. Where do learners ask the same thing a million times? Where do they get the same things wrong collectively or they get confused as a group? Those are the spots where some inclusive design helps them to feel like they have some choices about how they engage, study, and practice.

Now, if you want to focus your efforts where they’ll make the most immediate impact, create multiple ways for your learners to take action and show what they know. This is the thing that is part of UDL and almost none of us are doing it. So when we think about accessibility, most of us, we’re thinking about making multiple representations of information, like putting captions on the videos, like having alternative text for the images on your website, that kind of stuff.

But giving people ways to take action and show what they know, just a choice between a written response and, say, an audio recording using a student’s phone, can unlock potential and instill a sense of ownership. Agency, engagement, all that stuff comes up in your learners and it’ll be more fun for you to provide feedback too.

If you want some more specific ideas on how to start small, I can encourage all your listeners, please check out Lillian Nave’s Think UDL podcast at and pay attention to the Resources section of those episodes that match best with your own situation.

So that was one level. The second one is in terms of the everyday operations in our organizations. I can’t emphasize enough that accessible design, if it’s the responsibility only of instructors and trainers, it will fail to attract more than the 10% of people who have already adopted inclusive methods. So giving people choice, voice, and agency is everybody’s job.

So train everyone in the UDL basics, your IT colleagues, your multimedia team, your web design staff, your librarians, your teaching center folks, regardless. Anybody who has a touch point who supports instructors or trainers or directly works with students.

That way, when somebody comes to the media people and says, I want to do a flip design training session, the response is, yeah, we’ll help you record that. We’ll also help you chop up the video into three minute segments, and we’ll help you work on the captions too because that’s just what we all do here at our organization, or our college, or our university.

Now, none of that makes any impact without institutional support from your leadership team. It’s one thing to have a grassroots effort to make interactions more accessible and another to have your president, provost, your board asking for more inclusive ways for learners to engage.

And now is the time to advocate for UDL a key plank in the broader diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts that almost every organizational leader is getting behind. Access is the foundation of diversity, equity, and inclusion. UDL helps us to design for access. Access to the content, the conversations, and to the confidence that people belong in the spaces where we live, study, and work

So whether I’m talking with campus leaders or business leaders, I’ve stopped talking about accessibility. Now, I have to be really careful when I say what I’m about to say next. I am an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, but I found that when I come into the conversation and I talk about accessibility, people will make a mental mistake, right?

It conjures up a vision of people with disability barriers in their lives and colleagues can think, well, why would I make these big changes just for a small number of my students, or my staff, or my customers. But when we chop the end of the word accessibility off and we talk just about access, generally, suddenly we’re talking about core business goals, right? Persistence, retention, satisfaction, efficiency.

The conversation moves from narrow advocacy to a broad-based impact. It has an effect on everybody. So do you have a lot of people who now need to work remotely, like pandemic workers, right? How about learners who don’t own laptops but have smartphones, like most of the students at my university? Folks who have to park near Starbucks because that’s their only source for Wi-Fi. UDL helps us to lower barriers to access for all of them and it also helps our learners with disabilities too.

ELISA LEWIS: Wow. That’s a really inspiring set of ideas and techniques to try. As we wrap up our conversation, where can we find you online? And if you had one takeaway piece of advice for our listeners, what would that be?

THOMAS TOBIN: Well, thank you very much for the conversation. I speak and consult on how we use technology to mediate our teaching and learning. You can find me at On my site, you can see my speaking brochure, get my books, see videos, ratings, and testimonials from past clients. And if you’re on Twitter, I’m over there too @ThomasJTobin.

So a parting thought for everyone listening to the podcast today, UDL is a team sport. We can all do something small tomorrow that helps people to stay engaged in our interactions, something that gives them information in more than one way, or something that helps them to show what they in a way that sparks for them.

Our entire education and training systems were designed to create expert students, right? People who know how to get good grades and take tests. But UDL shifts our focus to creating expert learners, people who are, as CAST says, purposeful and motivated, resourceful, and knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed.

So start small. Be inclusive in the places where you already identify that things aren’t going the way that you had planned them, and those are wonderful places to start giving a little bit more access, a little bit more choice, a little bit more agency for your learners.

And keep coming back to add those plus one elements every time you offer that training, every time the course comes up. It’s an iterative process that we build on over time. If you’re trying to make your entire course accessible or your entire training program accessible right from go, you’re never going to be done and it’s going to take too much in terms of your time, your people, your resources, your funds.

So start where you can have a positive impact, and don’t take my word for it. Measure it. Collect the information and the data. See before and after, are your learners understanding the concepts better? Are they getting better marks on the exams or the tests? Are they able to demonstrate those competencies in the workplace? Do they have fewer errors when they go out after the training? All those things you can see, OK, we did it the one extreme way and we did it the UDL way. Which one worked better for us?

ELISA LEWIS: Thank you so much, Thomas. It was great speaking with you as always and I know that our listeners learned a lot of really relevant information from this conversation. Thanks for listening to Allied. If you enjoyed this episode and you’d like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave us a rating and review. To catch all the latest on accessibility, visit Thanks again and I’ll see you next time.

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