How to Make Universal Design for Learning a Reality at Your University

January 25, 2016 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: June 3, 2019

The Coordinator of Learning Technologies at Northeastern Illinois University, Thomas Tobin, presented at the 3Play webinar Strategies for Getting Administrative and Faculty Buy-In for UDL.

He got attendees to confess their secret thoughts and feelings when confronted with accessibility requests.

And more importantly, he explained what to do about it.

Tobin concluded his presentation with a Q&A. Watch a recording of this portion on the video below, or read on for a condensed version.


How do you let faculty know about the resources for UDL and accessibility that are available to them?

    THOMAS TOBIN: We used to host workshops and webinars like this one. We’d ask faculty members to come if they were interested in the topic of accessibility or working with students with disabilities.

    Then we made two changes.

    Focus on Access, Not Disability

    We stopped talking directly about students with disabilities and shifted the conversation to access in general.

    If you give a workshop on your campus on how to reach students with disabilities, the same people will show up over and over again, and it’s probably the same 10% of your faculty.

    So what we did instead was offer workshops on how to reach your students on their mobile phones. In this era of budget cuts and demands for student retention, persistence, and satisfaction, we focused our workshops on increasing your student retention by becoming accessible on mobile. Those workshops were packed.

    Spread the Word Through Support Staff

    The other change addressed how we made faculty aware of these resources.

    We no longer publicized these efforts directly to the faculty. We told the folks in our IT department, web design department, and media services area about good Universal Design for Learning practices. And then when faculty members would go to those areas for help, they’d go to the web design area and say “Hey, can you help me redesign some of the things for my course? I want to support my face-to-face course with multimedia.”

    We trained our support staffers in UDL practices, and they’re the ones who started spreading the message to faculty members.

    That way faculty not only learned about UDL best practices, but they could collaborate with support staff to make it a reality.

    And that collaborative effort means that busy faculty members are much more likely to do the upfront work required for UDL.

Even without accommodation requests, there’s still the issue of faculty questioning why they need to add another format. They’ve been using the same materials for years and it’s been fine, so why do they need another format? How do we shift the paradigm for those professors?

    THOMAS TOBIN: I hear that question an awful lot. I hear, “Well, I’ve never had a student with a disability in my classes, so why should I do extra work if no one’s asking me to do it?”

    And this is where the impetus of budgets, student retention, and student recruitment comes into play.

    One of our biggest motivators has been the recent budget challenges for our state universities. We’re trying to protect instruction, but I know faculty members are getting laid off these days. And that means that student retention has to be a priority.

    Also, you can’t be sure that you haven’t had students with disabilities, because some of them don’t self-identify. It’s not like in the K-12 environment where people with disabilities have to have some advocacy by law.

    We’ve shifted the conversation away from, “here is what the law says you must do. Caption everything, and do alternate things for this. And here’s what ADA says….” We know that that’s the case.

    You can’t be sure that you haven’t had students with disabilities, because some of them don’t self-identify.

    We approach it from an instructional design perspective: for every single course that we offer, we are going to ask the faculty members to identify those places where students have problems, where students always get things wrong on the tests and quizzes, and where students always need things explained in more than one way. And those are the places where we’re going to work with faculty members to increase the access to different ways of delivering that information.

    We say, “Where are the places where you get 700 of the same e-mail from students where they get confused?” And faculty members say, “Oh yes. That’s a headache. That’s a pain.” And then we explain how UDL can take that pain away. Do this small bit of work upfront, and you won’t get the 700 e-mails. And by and large, that’s true.

    The hardest part of spreading Universal Design for Learning throughout a campus is the “why should I do the work upfront?” argument. This is why.

How do we shift more responsibility onto staff to support the faculty? And what if support staff just aren’t part of our culture?

    THOMAS TOBIN: In instances where you’re working at a small institution where maybe there’s one support staff person, or maybe it’s just you, the faculty member, one of the things that you can do is to create faculty communities of practice.

    I started my career at a two-year college where there was just one multimedia/web/design/instructional technology person. The faculty members there created communities of practice where all the people who taught a certain course or in a certain program would design the materials for a given course together. And then they would give each other permission to use those materials.

    By doing collective design and focusing on one step at a time through the progression of courses in a program, they were able, in three or four years, to be able to touch every single course that they taught, get input from everybody who was an expert, and come away with more broadly accessible content.

    The same thing work if you have support staffers who are already overworked or already overtaxed, which is the case in a lot of places. There aren’t just magically new resources to take on new work.

    How do you get buy-in for UDL from administrative leadership?

    9 times out of 10, pilot projects for Universal Design for Learning see greater student retention, persistence, and satisfaction.

    Getting buy-in from your senior leaders is a challenge. This is where you sit down with a college president, a provost, a dean, you advocate for UDL in terms of student retention, student persistence, and student satisfaction.

    If they won’t take the leap into ongoing UDL, ask for a pilot project. A pilot project has a defined beginning and a defined end, and you can measure the impact once it is finished.

    Nine times out of 10, those pilot projects where people adopt Universal Design for Learning and implement them, those programs see greater student retention, persistence, and satisfaction. In other words, students are less likely to drop out of a class or out of the program in general.

    Finally, they enjoy greater student satisfaction. When that happens, your graduates become your program evangelists and recommend new applicants. It’s a beautiful cycle.

Do you have any strategies for ensuring that courses maintain UDL best practices over time?

    THOMAS TOBIN: One of the nice things about Universal Design for Learning is that it is an iterative or cyclical process.

    If you think about it as a spiral, we start looking at where there are opportunities to do Universal Design for Learning practices. Then we implement a few of them. We actually teach the course.

    And then when it comes to that time of the year again, we see the impact that those Universal Design for Learning things have done for us. And then we look and see where else we can apply them.

    We know that we can’t do everything all at once. We select the areas where we think UDL will give us the greatest impact.

    Universal Design for Learning is best served in small increments. If the legal requirement for accessibility is do everything, we know that we can’t do everything all at once. So for Universal Design for Learning, we select the areas where we think it’s going to give us the greatest impact. And we focus on those first.

    Then the cycle repeats: we determine where UDL will give us the next best impact, and the next, and the next, and the next. And it becomes part of our iterative design process.

    That also means that we start looking at our courses not as static artifacts. We start looking at courses as living, breathing conversations.

What if there’s a type of technology that faculty wants to use, like an Adobe Flash quiz, that is not compatible with universal design principles?

    THOMAS TOBIN: One of the challenges with technology is that it is changing all the time. If you had asked this question back in 1999 or 2000, all we had was Flash quizzes. Back then, that content wasn’t really available to people with disabilities because there wasn’t a way that a screen reader could get into that information.

    So if you have content or interactions use inaccessible technology, there’s a right answer and there’s a practical answer.

    The Right Answer

    Please stop using it. Or find an alternative that allows access for the greatest number of people.

    The Practical Answer

    If you have something in Flash and it’s not one of those places where your students always have questions, where your students always get things wrong on the test or the quiz, where your students always send you the 700 emails, that might be lower on the priority list than doing Universal Design for Learning on some of the other kinds of materials in your course.

    By the way, hold your textbook companies responsible for updating their materials. Chances are if you have Flash content in your course, it was created by some professional organization. It wasn’t just coded by Joe coder who’s out there giving out Flash stuff for educational purposes. If you can trace it back to your textbook publisher, then hold them accountable and ask them to give you an updated or more accessible version.

    And the same thing goes for things that you find out there on the internet and want to use. Make sure that you have a process for vetting new content. For existing materials, see if you can find accessible alternatives.

To learn more about making your course content accessible, download:

5 Web Accessibility Resources Every College Needs

5 Web Accessibility Resources Every College Needs

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