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Universal Design for Learning: A Comprehensive Introduction

March 18, 2022 by Amy Foxwell

Every learner has preferred methods for obtaining, comprehending, and retaining information. Some are visual learners, some are auditory learners, and some are kinesthetic learners. However, most learn best through a combination of these three tactics. A teaching framework called Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recommends multiple methods of presentation to address the unique needs of every learner in the class.

Universal Design for Learning is an instructional framework that supports a flexible approach to individual learning needs. Education non-profit CAST offers UDL Guidelines that, through the use of technology and adaptable lesson plans, aim to help the maximum number of learners comprehend and retain information by appealing to all learning styles.

However, UDL should not be confused with assistive technology (AT), which refers specifically to tools and devices that can help students with communication disabilities complete complex tasks and interact better with others. While assistive technologies are effective, UDL flips the model by offering these benefits to all students, allowing them to choose which tools fit them best, even customizing their learning in different paths depending on whether they are trying to write an essay or solve a trigonometry problem. In short, UDL and assistive technology are related subjects, but they’re not the same.

Here’s an introduction to UDL—including the integration of assistive technology—for educators at every level.

Universal Design for Learning and Material Presentation

The UDL guidelines advocate presentation of information through a variety of means in order to reach the most learners. Instead of simply supplying the learner with a universal text and expecting them to comprehend the information through reading, educators are encouraged to present information through visual, auditory, and hands-on means. When information is presented through text, the text will ideally be interactive and adjustable.

Technologies such as e-readers and tablets allow for the presentation of richly interactive texts that can be adjusted in size to make reading easy. Textual presentations are also often accompanied with visual elements that bring the information to life, and present multiple methods for the learner to comprehend the information. For visual and auditory information, a simple way to enhance customization is to present the information in video or mp3 format, so learners can comprehend the information at their own pace.

Two schoolchildren wearing headphones using text to speech as they do schoolwork on a laptop. The teacher is sitting behind them to see how they are doing.

Universal Design for Learning: Tools for Auditory Learners

Many people learn best by hearing information, which is why, even though it has been modified and enriched to appeal to more types of learners, the lecture is still a staple for any educator. As with texts being accompanied by pictures, graphs, and interactive features, the ideal lecture will present information in multiple ways at the same time.

One popular method for lecture enhancement is the use of text-to-speech (TTS) technology, which allows text information to be presented in a way that appeals to auditory learners. Accompanying a lecture with live TTS, or integrating a slideshow which presents video, text, charts, and photographs that reinforce information, makes the information presented much easier for the student to learn.

UDL Background Information and Big Ideas

One of the best ways to enhance learning is to make the information relevant and interesting to the learner. Instead of presenting information as a series of facts, UDL principles call for educators to connect the information through patterns and big ideas.

By providing background information, the educator can show the learner why the information is important, thereby increasing engagement and interest. With proper context and big-picture reinforcement of information, all learners will be more likely to retain information, limiting the effects of learning loss and unfinished learning—problems that became acute during the school shutdowns associated with COVID-19. The pandemic also forced generations of students into online learning environments, where TTS is also a valuable tool for meeting UDL guidelines.

WATCH: Bridging the Gap with Assistive Technology: How to Reduce Learning Loss in Online Learning

Designing for Difference with UDL in Online Learning

Online learning has its advantages for today’s students, providing:

  • Availability: Learners are no longer bound by time and location, and can continue learning despite pandemic-related disruptions.
  • Affordability: Online education is often less expensive than traditional education.
  • Flexibility: Learners are not constrained by a fixed schedule and can better balance personal and professional obligations.

Just as the online learning environment is unique, so are the challenges in creating a successful program. Many online learners experience difficulties using course technology and struggle with self-motivation and discipline. They also have difficulty adapting to reduced engagement with instructors and fellow students. Learners with disabilities like dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and vision loss, or those completing coursework in a second language may have special difficulties with text-intensive online learning courses.

Figure showing statistics: 5 to 15 percent of people in the US are affected by dyslexia, 4.4 percent of adults and 11 percent of children are affected by ADHD, 21.6 percent of US residents speak a language other than English at home, 10 percent of American adults have trouble seeing.

With online learning taking center stage, certain key design components must be in place to ensure effectiveness and the achievement of learning goals in a new environment.

Universal Design for Learning provides these design components. It recommends multiple means of Engagement, multiple means of Representation, and multiple means of Action and Expression, with an end goal of offering a variety of learning formats. Online content needs to be structured in a way that accounts for student preferences, and the UDL principles of Engagement, Representation, and Action/Expression help to meet this goal. To provide these multiple means, however, teachers need digital tools that work in multiple environments—tools like TTS.

Universal Design for Learning and Text to Speech

Text-to-speech technology can help teachers apply the principles of UDL. Historically, the concept of having text-based materials read aloud for students has applied mainly to special education students who had trouble reading. Now, educators are finding that offering this service to all students is leading to more use than expected—and higher comprehension rates.

When offered the chance to use this tool, some students whose profiles don’t suggest they need text to speech have discovered that it helps them retain information, either by replacing reading dense texts or by reinforcing what is learned through reading.

Some students even combine the two, allowing text to speech to run while they read along. This is called bimodal learning. Many UDL concepts may seem obvious or commonplace in the modern educational environment, but that is because they are highly effective. Whether teaching a group of students in a classroom or a workplace seminar, UDL concepts enhance the experience for all learners by making the information taught more understandable. Universal Design for Learning is a beneficial endeavor for educators of all types of learners—and ReadSpeaker offers TTS tools that support UDL integration.

ReadSpeaker TTS Solutions for UDL Implementation

ReadSpeaker’s learning tools align with UDL principles in that they allow students to engage with and absorb content in multiple ways according to their learning preferences and needs. We enable courses, lessons, tests, quizzes, assessments, reading assignments, and any other text-based content to be read aloud while students follow along with highlighted text.

We also offer reading, writing, and study tools that enable students to personalize the ways in which they interact with content, including:

  • Word lookups to assist with vocabulary
  • Page masks or reading rulers to better focus on specific text
  • A simple view tool to remove clutter and distraction
  • Read on hover to have specific text read aloud automatically
  • Text enlargement to substantially increases the size of the displayed font for easier reading
  • Translation tools to translate text and listen to in another language, or revert back to the original language
  • Image to text to allow images to be converted to text and read aloud, providing convenience and saving time
  • Dictation to assist learners who have difficulty typing or getting their thoughts onto paper by converting their speech into text
  • Choosing reading speed as well as font color, size, and typeface, including fonts such as OpenDyslexic
  • Download an audio version of content to an MP3 for convenient offline listening
  • And more!

Plus, our solutions require no downloads by students and can easily be integrated into your institution’s learning management system so courses can be enabled campus-wide.

For more information on how ReadSpeaker is aligning to industry standards for Universal Design for Learning principles, helping institutions make content more engaging and accessible for all kinds of learners, and increasing course completion and student diversity and success, download our free e-book, Enhancing the Learning Experience.

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