Tips for Getting Your Colleagues to Adopt Universal Design for Learning

When most people in higher education hear the phrase “universal design for learning,” they think about students with physical disabilities and the accommodations we provide to them in order to help them meet course outcomes.

To help make educational materials and practices inclusive for all learners, this interactive webinar session radically reflects on how faculty members and course designers can adopt Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Presented by Thomas Tobin, author and speaker on quality in distance education, this session will help broaden the focus of UDL beyond learners with disabilities and toward a larger ease-of-use/general inclusion framework.

This presentation will cover:

  • How accommodations and UDL are very different
  • What you can do today, within a week, and within a month to reach out to your biggest segment of learners—people on their mobile devices
  • How you can incorporate UDL elements into your courses
  • How you can design and retrofit existing course components using UDL principles
  • How to implement UDL across campus to increase persistence, retention, and satisfaction for all learners


Tom Tobin
PhD, MSLS, PMP, MOT | Author and speaker on quality in distance education

Patrick Loftus (Moderator)
Marketing Assistant | 3Play Media

Webinar Q&A with Tom Tobin: How to Get Your Colleagues On Board with UDL

Universal design for learning, or UDL, is a concept that describes designing educational programs, products, and courses to benefit people both with and without disabilities.

For example, an interactive transcript makes instructional video recordings accessible to people who are Deaf and hard of hearing because they can read a transcript of the spoken audio. But, it also lets any user search the text to find a section of the video that contains a specific spoken word.

Dr. Thomas J. Tobin, internationally-recognized speaker and author on quality in distance education, recently took audience questions during a webinar called Tips for Getting Your Colleagues to Adopt Universal Design for Learning. Read on for highlights from the Q&A including great advice, key resources, and some common questions about how to encourage UDL implementation as an accessibility solution that benefits everyone at your institution:

What I understand about UDL is that I need to make multiple media formats available for learners. Is that all I need to do?

THOMAS TOBIN: UDL goes way beyond just creating alternative formats for multimedia. It’s all about providing choices for people who interact with materials, each other, us, and the wider world. I always approached course design generally by thinking about it as a series of interactions. By focusing on the actions that take place, rather than on the materials, we adopt a mindset that prizes connections made (no matter how).

By focusing on the actions that take place, rather than on the materials, we adopt a mindset that prizes connections made (no matter how).

…The best UDL guidelines for higher-ed are from CAST. Go to and see an overview of UDL, along with great specific examples of courses and programs that have adopted best practices. You can also get a free book from CAST: Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. Go to and give them your name and e-mail address. They collect this only for research stats; they do not sell or give out your information — and you get a free book!

How do you get the word out to faculty that training in UDL, or resources for captioning, etc., are available?

THOMAS TOBIN: One of the things that I’ve seen at other institutions that’s worked very, very well is to work with faculty champions who already know the value of good inclusive design. Have those folks talk up the idea of I didn’t have to do all this work myself, and I worked with the Teaching and Learning Center, the folks in the Disability Services Office, the folks in the Media Services area, the folks in IT.

Wherever you can, play up those partnerships where it’s the faculty member being the subject matter expert who is suggesting, “Well, if I had this multiple ways, or if I could get students to communicate in different ways, it might open things up.” Those are the examples that allow faculty members to convince each other that it’s an important thing to do.

Now, there’s a flip side to that coin, as well. If your institution is undergoing a broad change that applies to everyone — so for example, in 2012 my former institution, we were moving from one learning management system to another one, which meant that our Teaching and Learning Center suddenly got very, very visible on campus — if you have big institutional changes that are happening, those are often good places where you can put good inclusive design into part of the goals for moving through those changes.

So, while we have all of our courses back in the shop, so to speak, or we’re moving to a new learning management system, as was my case, or if you’re adopting a new set of standards or going to a new review standard — or even if there’s just new leadership at your institution — those are things that can happen top-down in addition to those bottom-up strategies that I mentioned before.

A lot of our faculty members are stuck in their ways. How do you get them to change?

THOMAS TOBIN: A lot of our faculty members were stuck in their ways, as well. And we can’t make everyone change. It’s an impossible goal. What we can do is at the level of the institution, to say here are the goals that we have– inclusive design, access to education for all.

The people who are set in their ways will say, ‘What did you do? How did you how did you make this happen? How did you reduce your workload?’

And then at the individual level — when you have those hallway conversations in the cafeteria, in the faculty meetings, when you have those one-on-one or only a few people kinds of conversations — what you do is you say, “Well, I made this one change in my course and now most of my students don’t ask a million questions, and they pass the midterm.”

And then just be quiet for a minute. The people who are set in their ways will say, “What did you do? How did you how did you make this happen? How did you reduce your workload?” And by putting it in terms of “I was able to reduce my workload, I was able to save myself time and work and energy, and by sharing universal design for learning as a way of doing a little work up front to save yourself as a faculty member a lot of work on the backend,” many of the folks who are fairly set in their ways start paying more attention to that. Because who doesn’t pay attention to something that could save themselves a lot of time and effort and energy?

And one of the cool things about universal design for learning– you don’t have to look very far to find an example of a faculty member who tried out even some middle universal design for learning things, like putting up text-based transcripts in addition to the video content because they already started with a script.

It didn’t take them a lot of extra work, and they can definitely turn into evangelists for, hey, this work is worth doing. It helps my students be more successful, and it helps me to focus on the things I want to focus on instead of answering a million questions or having to dive in with just one student and make one change one time.

Just the fact of being able to reduce the number of accommodation requests alone is worth making the argument.

What do you do with the support of the college just isn’t there, when you don’t have administrative buy-in or staff support?

THOMAS TOBIN: I’ll add to that question: what do you do when you don’t literally have enough people to do the work that you know you need to do? So, if you’re looking at a resource constraint– you don’t have the funds, you don’t have the time, you don’t have the people, or you don’t have the upper division buy-in from your senior leaders– that’s when it’s especially important to do a little triage, to prioritize the efforts that you have, and to draw a line in the sand.

A lot of places that got sued by the National Association of the Deaf and the National Federation of the Blind lost those suits and ended up with plans in place to get back on track mostly because they didn’t have plans in place. So good intent counts for something these days.

And if you have a plan in place for where you’re going to start– OK, as of February 1, 2017, all of our videos that are on our public website are going to be captioned– that’s a place to start. And if you can prioritize the work that you’re doing to match up to the people you have, that’s one thing to do. Where do students always have questions? Where do they get things wrong on the tests or the quizzes? Where do they end up asking for alternative explanations? Those are great places to focus and start.

And you should also take a look at what resources are available to supplement what you’re doing. Can you bring on graduate student workers? Can you go find grants? There’s a bunch of them for people who want to make their content more accessible.

And I know that our colleagues here are 3Play Media have lists of some of the folks who give out those grants. So there’s a lot of things that you can do to keep things moving in a good direction.

[This last section was actually a comment someone made during the webinar — but we’re going to include it anyway!]

“As a blind chemist, I would say use your disabled students as resources for what works.”

THOMAS TOBIN: Did everybody notice the chemist with the visual disability who attended our webinar? Me, neither, and that’s the entire point of why inclusive design works. Our hosts at 3Play had live captions going during the webinar, and as we went through the session, I always tried to describe what was on the screen (“here’s a scene with Luke Skywalker practicing with the light saber and a blackout helmet,” “This shows the cart return in the parking lot of my grocery store, and it’s in the parking space for people with disabilities”).

By just talking through what was on the screen, I adopted an inclusive practice that helped not only those participants with disabilities, but everybody who was listening to the webinar while doing other things — yes, I know some folks were checking e-mail, and that’s okay, and perhaps a few folks were listening while driving or while getting lunch or . . . well, you get the point.

And that’s the biggest take-away about why UDL is both important to adopt and a good way to save yourself some work, too. Nobody had to say “hey, stop the webinar because I need to be treated
differently,” or “I need you to make a change to allow me to participate more fully.” We just enjoyed our time together, and, I hope, you came away with some specific and concrete ways that you can increase everybody’s access to the learning you offer.