Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education

In the winter of 2018 at the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Orlando, Florida, I attended a breakout session presented by Thomas O’Shaughnessy and Conor Hartigan, two nearly lifelong friends that are also colleagues in the assistive technology department at the University of Limerick in Ireland. Together they presented, “Assistive Technology in Education: An Irish Perspective.”

Their session opened my eyes to the universal struggles that we face as advocates for equitable access to the curriculum in all levels of education, especially when it comes to the implementation of assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning.

In the time since ATIA, I’ve remained in touch with Thomas and feel lucky to call him my friend. It’s within this friendship that he so graciously agreed to share some of his higher ed experiences and perspectives from across the pond.

- Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education - written by Thomas O'Shaughnessy

Ireland haThomas O'Shaughnessys changed significantly in the last 25 years. It is now seen as a leader in terms of technology, science and medical advancements and is well on its way to becoming a global technology hub. With a heavy emphasis on education, our universities have developed reputations for developing highly skilled graduates in every area of employment from business, technology and engineering to science, the arts and education. These higher education bodies have developed programmes to accommodate a range of learners from different backgrounds including socio-economic disadvantaged, asylum seekers, mature students and students with disabilities.

While initiatives like the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) in Ireland promotes inclusion for students with disabilities at higher level in terms of an access route, are these students appropriately accommodated in Higher Education?

The National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education for 2015-2019 in Ireland was designed to ensure that the student body entering, participating in and completing higher education at all levels reflects the diversity and social mix of Ireland’s population. It discusses the mainstreaming of many supports that currently support this social mix including students with disabilities.

This argues that the current systems are changing and as they further develop we may no longer have a need for specialised supports to accommodate this social mix. Realistically speaking, this is currently still far away from the truth. However, one support that could help alleviate a lot of these issues involved in supporting this social mix is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can accommodate individual learning differences. It is called Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

However, when it comes to UDL in higher education in Ireland, we seem to fall well short of our American counterparts. I’ve been to my fair share of UDL themed conferences (AHEAD (Irish Organisation), ATIA, etc.) to know that the implementation of UDL in a classroom stateside is one thing, the implementation of UDL in higher education in Ireland is entirely another. Principals and school administrators have far more influence at school level than their counterparts in higher education. Teachers can also take control of their set curriculum much easier than academics in higher education.

Unfortunately, we are now in an era where business models drive many universities and other higher-level institutions where research income and reputation (ranking) take precedence over teaching and learning. We see senior academics buying their way out of teaching to further focus on research. Academics that are needed to help drive UDL change, replaced with younger less experienced educators too inexperienced to initiate any change like UDL.

This business shift is coming from the top down, exactly where the adoption of UDL should originate from. However, since UDL often comes with a cost (time, resources, etc.) are higher education institutions interested in driving UDL forward? Are academics for that matter?

When we do see academics engage it is usually when the push comes from the top down or when priorities arise related to statistics on student engagement or student progression. We could begin to discuss incentivising the UDL approach, but should we have to? Are financial and other rewards the only way we can get buy-in?

UDL requires lecturers to allow students multiple means of representation in order to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge, multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know and multiple means of engagement supporting how learners differ markedly in how they can be engaged or motivated to learn.

While I’m sure in theory we all recommend this framework, do academics have the resources to support this framework and do they have the multiple rubrics needed to implement it? Would they have the support to inform their department or faculty? A colleague of mine said recently “UDL is great if you have unlimited resources and buy-in from everyone” and for me, this struck a chord.

The biggest problem incorporating UDL in Higher Education is the lack of buy-in from the top. UDL will only ever work in Higher Education by employing a top-down approach where the president/senior academics buy-in from the start and where UDL is mandated into every new academic contract.

Unfortunately, interdepartmental politics, accountability (lack thereof) and attitudes make some initiatives hard to employ at higher level. In my experience most academics still don’t even know what UDL is and unfortunately there are many who simply don’t care – they don’t currently see it as a priority or their responsibility. How do you convince a lecturer to spend three times the time (approximate guess) developing class material to support UDL when nobody is requiring them to? They will almost always argue ‘time and resources’ – I know, I’ve seen and heard it.

I love reading books like Dive into UDL, attending talks by UDL experts like Kate Novak and seeing images like (Em)Powered by UDL. My excitement however quickly dampens when I realise how difficult it is to organise UDL at third level and even, at times, in schools. Who will train the staff, who will pay for this, would the staff attend? (even if it is mandatory) Who will drive it?

We have seen some small shift; University College Dublin is making strides to incorporate UDL in their everyday practices although I’ve yet to see how this is being handled and deployed. In October 2018, The Universal Design and Higher Education in Transformation Congress (UDHEIT2018) will be held at Dublin Castle, it will be an exciting conference that will give a proper insight into the current situation. There will be a focus on the creation of the state’s first technological university - based on the merger of Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown.

Apparently all three (yes, I said three) presidents of this new technological university are advocates of UDL and they have put UDL as a cornerstone of this merger. I await this conference with equal scepticism and anticipation. Too often have I attended UDL conferences where the theory didn’t meet the practice, where “UDL practices” were not real UDL practices. Too often have I left more disappointed than when I arrived. I want practical solutions on how it is implemented, not theory on how it could or should work. For me, for UDL to be successful the answer lies with teachers and teacher educators.

Too often these days I hear “give it to the teachers”, however UDL is one area where I generally think teachers can make a real difference. We need to train (our already overburdened) student teachers about UDL and its importance. Let them incorporate its principles in their class through lesson plans and let them show every student that there are multiple ways in which tasks can be represented, engaged with and completed. Let them see the teacher using it and let it become the norm where when their students graduate they will be able to incorporate multiple approaches to everyday issues. Let them use readily available (what will hopefully become standardised) resources to achieve this. Then and only then will we see a change in attitudes and practices needed to fully utilise the UDL framework.


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Comments 1

Guest - Rachel on Thursday, 20 September 2018 17:25

I am so grateful for this perspective and awareness of how UDL is going In countries other than our own! Thank you so much for being a guest blogger, Thomas!

I am so grateful for this perspective and awareness of how UDL is going In countries other than our own! Thank you so much for being a guest blogger, Thomas!
Guest
Thursday, 28 October 2021

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