Universal Design for Learning

In August, our guest editors are the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology’s (CTLT) Senior Project Manager and Faculty Liaison Afsaneh Sharif, and the CTLT’s Senior Associate Director, Projects & Faculty Partnerships Jeff Miller. They share how Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can help in addressing the unique learning needs of all UBC students, and highlight projects embracing this approach.

Acknowledging and addressing the unique learning needs of all students is not just a moral obligation but also a strategic commitment at the University of British Columbia. As indicated in the 2022 Alma Mater Society’s Academic Experience Survey report (PDF), 30% of the undergraduate student respondents and 31% of graduate student respondents reported having a disability. 1 in 5 of respondents also reported being diagnosed with mental illness. Only 30% of these students are registered with the Centre for Accessibility (CfA) at UBC Vancouver, which raises the question of how the needs of the remaining 70% are being met. According to the CfA, about 16% of students registered with them have multiple conditions, with Visual condition at 1% and Mental Health at 48%.  Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework for enhancing and maximizing teaching and learning experiences for all, provides pedagogically focused strategies to help lower barriers to learning and open paths for success for all students.

The UDL Fellows Program

In response to the UBC Beyond COVID as well as BC Digital Learning Strategy reports’ recommendations to reduce barriers, and address inclusion and well-being needs for students, the UDL Fellows Program was established, with funding support from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund to run as a two-year pilot at UBC Vancouver. This program aims to ensure that all individuals have equal opportunities to succeed. Aligned with UBC’s Strategic Plan Strategy 4: Inclusive Excellence, it promotes accessibility and inclusive education, where project teams in the program redesign components of their courses to identify and address systemic barriers that hinder equitable learning, to build a classroom and campus environment that not only embraces diversity but also empowers every person to reach their full potential.

The UDL Fellows Program pilot cohort includes 16 faculty/staff project teams from 11 Faculties across the UBC Vancouver campus. These teams are focused on redesigning course materials and activities to be more inclusive and accessible, each project using the UDL framework to identify potential barriers to learning, and develop strategies to implement changes in their courses to lower or eliminate them. The program has been developed as part of a broad partnership including central units like the CTLT and the Centre for Accessibility, as well as multiple Faculties including Arts, Education, Land and Food Systems, Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Science. A key goal of this program is to develop a network of faculty and staff practitioners able to assist others to promote UDL and help increase overall support for accessibility across campus.

The first cohort started the program in May 2023 and – through the summer – participated in a range of activities including online workshops, in-person Studios, completion of a Canvas course, presentation of their work at the Accessibility and UDL Transformation Showcase. These workshops were focused on the importance of Accessibility, the UDL framework, and the three fundamental UDL principles.

The participants working on their projects’ redesign took part in diverse interactive activities, both virtually and in-person. These activities include tasks such as developing accessibility statements for their courses, reshaping their syllabi for enhanced inclusivity, and redesigning their assignments to incorporate more flexibility and options.

We have provided a few examples of how the current cohort is planning to incorporate UDL principles and Accessibility standards into their courses and practices below.

Creating more inclusive Bachelor of Social Work courses

School of Social work/ Faculty of Arts – UDL and teaching Social Work – Antoine Coulombe, Assistant Professor of Teaching and Asif Sami Haque, Educational Technologist, Arts ISIT.

Our project aims to implement UDL into a Bachelor of Social Work course at UBC. Social Work courses can be challenging, leading to barriers in engagement, expression, and representation. By using UDL principles, we were able to address these challenges and create a more inclusive learning environment. Our efforts included re-designing the syllabus, assignments, lectures, and tools for group work. We incorporated various UDL strategies to improve expression, such as adding extra support and clarity in assignments. To promote engagement, we provided students with more choices. Additionally, we offered recordings of challenging lectures and concepts to promote representation. Participating in the UDL Fellows Program allowed me to reflect on the design of our course and explore ways to improve the student experience. This is a valuable opportunity to share our learnings with the School of Social Work and hopefully increase accessibility for our students.

Applying UDL principles to a multi access law course

Peter A. Allard School of Law – Robert Russo, LLMCL Graduate Program Lecturer and Tania Astorino, Director, Professional Programs.

Our project involves applying UDL principles to learning environments in law schools. The first aspect of our project applies UDL to a single law course taught both in-person and on-line. Subsequently, we plan to apply UDL to other online courses and draft an accessibility statement for the law school. We are motivated to incorporate UDL principles into our courses to facilitate an inclusive learning experience and create equal opportunity for learning. We hope to reduce barriers and increase accessibility in courses regardless of modality –whether in-person or online – with the goal of empowering and supporting all law students to succeed. We aim to foster and nurture a culture of prioritizing engagement for and by all students.

Lowering the financial and accessibility barriers of Forest Resource Management

Forest Resources Management/Faculty of Forestry – Lee Salmon, Lecturer – Forest Operation and Frederick Qi, Teaching and Learning Support Team.

FRST 239’s UDL redesign is three- pronged. Lecture slides have been updated for those with differing visual abilities. Virtual field exercises are being developed for students without the physicality for field work. Assessments are now on Prairie Learn, an open-source software for creating and delivering learning experiences and assessments, for more immediate feedback, improved question variety, and lower computational requirements. FRST 239 is a course requirement for students who wish to become registered professional foresters. Although it is necessary to understand tree and stand measurements, many jobs in forestry do not require workers to own a computer or perform measurements. This redesign is an attempt to help lower the barriers for students with financial burdens or different abilities.

Ensuring dentistry students have equal opportunities to thrive

Faculty of Dentistry – Penny Hatzimanolakis, Clinical Associate Professor.

My project critically examines the confluence of “advancing interconnectedness” and UDL at UBC’s Faculty of Dentistry. It underscores the indispensable role of inclusive education in preparing future dental professionals to address diverse patient needs. Embedded in the importance of inclusivity and belonging, I delved into enhancing syllabi inclusivity—inclusive syllabi—recognizing its pivotal role in organizing course content and incorporating equity and inclusion into vital course information. This effort prioritizes meaningful student engagement, moving beyond grades or workforce readiness. The UDL framework resonates closely with my educational philosophy. This project is thus symbolic of my commitment to mitigate the pervasive challenge of educational inequality, ableism, and racism to ensure that all learners are accorded the opportunity to thrive.