Universal Design for Learning Is About Access

Leonardo Tissot
Leonardo Tissot and Thomas Tobin
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Quick Take: Author, speaker and professional consultant in accessibility/Universal Design for Learning shares his thoughts on inclusive educational design practices.

Budapest, Hungary

Thomas J. Tobin, Ph.D., works for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he is currently serving on a Fulbright Grant at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. Tobin is an internationally recognized consultant, author, and speaker on quality in distance education. In this interview, he discusses with E-Learn Magazine the importance of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how its impact on educational access – including people with disabilities and all other students in need of inclusive design solutions to continue studying – is becoming more widespread, particularly in colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

Back in the late 1990s, Tobin was hired by a college in Pennsylvania to help them create their first online courses. One of the faculty members who wanted to teach an online course on accounting and business sadly went blind after suffering from diabetes. As a young faculty developer at the time, Tobin tried to figure out ways for the professor to continue teaching and searched for experts who were already researching inclusive teaching methods for disabled instructors. Unfortunately, nobody was studying it back then – except for Norm Coombs, a specialist at the University of Rochester who was just setting up a consortium to help faculty members with disabilities, but whom Tobin didn’t know about at the time.

“The end result was that I assigned several graduate students to act as his eyes, and the blind professor was able eventually to teach his online course. We had to stop after a few semesters, though, because I discovered that my grad-student solution might have been violating student-privacy laws,” says Tobin. However, this initial “almost failure,” as he calls his first experience trying to help someone with a disability, lighted a spark inside him that led him to look around and ponder: “If it was this hard to help this professor, who are the other people whom we are not serving well?” Rural learners, workers who are unable to attend classes on campus, people with family responsibilities – and not only individuals with disabilities – could be helped.

“That is why, to this day, I don’t talk about accessibility – I talk about access. And that’s what Universal Design for Learning (UDL) does very well,” reveals Tobin. In this in-depth interview, he shares more about his background and why UDL can become a game changer in the education industry.

Photo Thomas Tobin Faculty developer. Professional consultant. Author and international speaker on quality in distance education.
Thomas Tobin, Faculty developer, Professional consultant, Author and international speaker on quality in distance education.
Leonardo Tissot

Tells us a little more about how you started out researching UDL?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

It was around the year 2000, only two years after I started working with this professor who became blind, that I got in touch with the neuroscientists at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Boston. They are the ones who discovered that we need to have three things present so our brains pay attention: we have to be engaged, we have to be able to understand what it is that we are studying, and we have to say it back in our own words or demonstrate the skill in our own way. And that’s what UDL looks like.

Leonardo Tissot

How would you sum up the current state of Universal Design for Learning and its adoption in higher education institutions? What do you consider to be the main challenges for its implementation?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

In the K-12 world, UDL has been a part of the legal requirements for designing courses and teaching for about 15 years now, throughout the United States and also in many Canadian provinces. However, just because it is the law, it does not mean everyone knows what it is and how to implement it. That is true with our elementary and high school colleagues, and it is doubly so at the higher education level, where there is no legal requirement for colleges and universities to adopt UDL, or any other inclusive or accessible design practices in the way that we put our learning interactions together.

We have statistics that show us that only about 10% of faculty members have adopted any kind of inclusive design practices in colleges and universities. That number could be much higher. I’ve consulted with more than a hundred colleges and universities across North America, and the thing that gets in people’s way is that when we talk about inclusive design, they make an elemental mistake. They think about their interactions with students with disabilities – when they request extra time on a test, or documents in a different version or other formats – and those requests often come at the last minute. It can seem like a lot of work for the benefit of only a few students. So, the emotion that that can come up for faculty members is often a negative one. They can be afraid of what they’ll need to do next, or confused about where they’ll go to find resources, or even mad. I have heard faculty members question whether they are giving students with disabilities advantages, or if it’s fair for the other students, or say that they are angry because they need to do extra work to make those individual accommodations, often in a very short period of time.

Now, UDL actually has nothing to do with those accommodations. Accommodations are about making one change, one time, for one person. And faculty members are correct – it’s a lot of work and it’s often a surprise that comes at the last minute. UDL, on the other hand, is a way to think ahead of time, before students enter the classroom. It’s a way to think about how we can make the process of the learning interactions in our courses go more smoothly for us and for our students. It’s a little bit of work ahead of time to save yourself a lot of fuss and headache later on. And everybody benefits from it.

Using audio, video and text formats helps students with different barriers to learn better. Learn more about the best tools to help you put UDL into practice with your students.

Leonardo Tissot

So, would you say UDL could be more spread out in America’s universities by now?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

Yes. UDL has been around since the late 1990s, and it could be more widespread in higher education by now. Within the last three years, however, many professional organizations like EDUCAUSE, the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) and the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network have started to see the importance of accessibility for all distance learners. It is now a hot topic, and that is why my colleague Kirsten Behling and I wrote the book “Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education” that is coming out in November, 2018 from West Virginia University Press. It is really the right time to start talking about UDL, and what we want to do is make it simple enough so people can get started and then dive deeper with other resources.

Leonardo Tissot

How many colleges and universities have UDL programs in place?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

There are still very few formal UDL adoptions in higher education. It has not been adopted as a formal rule that all courses offered must be inclusive. But there are a number of larger colleges and universities, such as the University of Cincinnati, the University of San Francisco, and McGill University in Montréal, who are leading the way in adopting UDL principles across their curricula. They adopted UDL as a part of how they design their courses in all their departments and subject areas. In the United States, these colleges and universities tend to be the ones that got sued by students for not having accessible content, and now they have put formal programs in place as a result.

In Canada, however, there is no national law requiring accessibility. Certain provinces have laws, but others do not. Canada is now in the process of adopting a nationwide accessibility law to cover physical spaces, like buildings, but also learning interactions like courses at universities. A lot of Canadian colleges and universities have started to look at UDL in a more concentrated way. I was recently invited to work with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary; a lot of colleges and universities are starting to think about inclusivity and accessibility as a core part of how they design their interactions.


Everyone Can Learn Better with Universal Design for Learning

Leonardo Tissot

In your experience, how do UDL and academic effectiveness relate to each other, considering that both concepts, in some way, deal with the pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

UDL is one part of the overall package in the academic effectiveness concept. What every single one of the elements presented in this concept have in common is a sense of presence and interaction among the people who are involved in the learning activities. So, when we talk about educator empowerment and engagement in the design (since the professor is not necessarily in the same place or at the same time with the learners), it is important that the learners feel that they are supported, that they know who their instructor is, and that they can ask him or her questions and interact in an open way. UDL asks that there be more than one way for students to get information. For example, there could be a lecture video, but there could also be a text transcript of that video.

And that is not only for students with disabilities. Imagine you have student athletes going to an away game on the team bus, and they have poor internet connections on their phones. If they can’t watch a professor’s video, they still have the text transcript of that video, and they just found more time for studying. UDL also asks for multiple ways for students to demonstrate their skills back to the instructor. If an instructor gives students an option to write a three-page paper, maybe he will also give one other option, like students putting their phone cameras to good use: pretend that they are a reporter talking about an assignment, for example. And as long as those two versions of the same assignment have the same objectives and requirements, the instructor can grade them in the same way.

Academic effectiveness has a lot of different parts to it, and faculty members might look at that and say: “boy, that’s a lot for me to do all at once.” Faculty members also tend to look at UDL in that way, so the official definition from CAST is “multiple means of engagement, information presentation, and skill demonstration.” However, in our book, we tell readers to look at UDL as “plus one” thinking. If you have an interaction that takes place between students and the materials, students and each other, students and the professor, or students and the wider world, just make one more way to have that interaction and you will be doing UDL. By simplifying it down to that “plus one” idea, it gives faculty members and course designers a useful and limited way to get started. They are much more likely to experiment and try things, and this also ensures that they actually do the work.

What Does Academic Effectiveness Mean? To Blackboard, academic effectiveness means empowering excellence in teaching and learning. Learn more here

Leonardo Tissot

UDL can be put into practice with or without technology. However, in the 24-hour-a-day-connected world we live nowadays, what do you think is the role of technology in UDL? How can it help spread the idea of learning opportunities for every student?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

Before 92% of college students had smartphones, UDL was largely a classroom-based set of principles. I think the real potential of UDL was unlocked once widespread access to information and internet communication technology became possible. Now that you have most students with phones in their pockets that can receive video, play back audio — where they can do research right there from their gadgets — it allows us to think about truly “any time, anywhere learning.” And so, if you’re looking at the Blackboard mobile application that is responsively designed, it allows students to go into the LMS, and, if they have choices of how they move through the interactions in their courses, then they will choose what is useful for them in that moment.

I’m sure you’ve heard of learning styles: people saying, “I’m an audio learner,” “I’m a visual learner.” Well, learning styles don’t really exist — at least, not as destiny. If you are primarily a visual learner, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something by listening to it, and it doesn’t mean that you learn by reading all the time. It just means that you are strong in that area, at that moment. Circumstances can dictate our learning preferences; they can change from moment to moment. Sometimes, we do what we would prefer, and sometimes we can do only what is available to us. So, placing options in the design of our courses, and having more choices for students in how they interact with materials, with each other, with faculty members, and with the wider world is what allows students to make choices based on circumstances, which is a great thing. Imagine a father who must drop his daughter off at school, and then has 45-minute commute to work. If he could listen to course lecture notes via his phone car speakers, he can keep up better with his studies. So, technology really has unlocked the potential for UDL to reach out to people with all kinds of different barriers in their lives.

Leonardo Tissot

You have a video presentation titled How to Talk to Faculty Members About UDL. How can educational institutions make faculty members aware of the importance of offering more inclusive and accessible experiences for learners?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

Educational institutions can make faculty members aware of the importance of offering more inclusive and accessible experiences for learners by not focusing first, or only, on students with disabilities. I have to be careful when I say that, because I am an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. What I mean by that is that it is easier for educational institutions to tune out disability-based arguments, because they think: “they are talking about work that applies only to a small percentage of our students, and besides, I don’t have any students with disabilities in my classes.” But the truth is, up to 30% of students in any college class have some type of learning barrier – be it a physical disability or a learning disability. And most of the challenges students face are invisible.

Up to 30% of students in any college class have some type of learning barrier – be it a physical disability or a learning disability. And most of the challenges students face are invisible.

Three Things Faculty Members Should Ask Themselves

How UDL Can Help Answer Them

Illustration How many times in the semester do your students ask you the same question by e-mail?1. How many times in the semester do your students ask you the same question by e-mail?

If you know that students are going to ask you the same question repeatedly, that is a good place to put UDL into practice. When you send an email message to your students, you could also post a video to explain what comes next. The students would then pick one communication method or maybe both, and they would know what’s going on, while saving the faculty member time.


Illustration Where do your students always get things wrong on their tests and quizzes?2. Where do your students always get things wrong on their tests and quizzes?

If you give students a written study guide, and you also make an audio version of it, pointing out where there is something students always get wrong in your class, that helps the faculty member avoid re-teaching those concepts.



Illustration Where do your students always ask for a different explanation?3. Where do your students always ask for a different explanation?

For such challenging concepts, give them choices on how to consume the content (you can explain it in class, then explain it again in a recorded audio or maybe in plain text) and also choices on how they can demonstrate their skills. If you can grade a paper and an audio podcast in the same way, then you can give them the “plus one” choice, so they feel they have a better sense of control over how they are able to demonstrate their skills. Choices must be limited, so that when you’re grading, you know what you’re looking for and what to expect, as well.

Leonardo Tissot

Is there a way to measure if people with disabilities are getting ahead with their education? Are they attending higher education, or do they give up on studying more often? If so, why is that?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

The answer to both of those questions is yes. We see an awful lot of students who come to college who have been diagnosed in K-12 with disabilities, but some choose not to disclose this in college. We also see a lot of learners who were never diagnosed with anything, but who discover during their college careers that perhaps they have a disability that could be documented. Those numbers are between 20% to 30% of all students. One of the biggest challenges is that, because of the stigma around disability, many people do not feel comfortable to seek out help and they feel they must rely on themselves. And many faculty members do not understand people who have barriers due to disability. It’s not just a case of “could you try harder?”

But, there are ways to work with learners and help them get around their barriers. UDL, I should note, is a way to reduce barriers, but it will never remove barriers. So, there will always be situations where we will need to make accommodations — to make one change, one time, for one person. However, UDL allows many people never to have to say, “please treat me differently.”

Leonardo Tissot

In your career, you’ve been able to help students from rural workers to blind people, who otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to study. Can you share interesting or remarkable experiences throughout your career where promoting UDL and academic effectiveness has been done successfully? What were the results?

Photo Profile Thomas Tobin

Sure. Imagine Katie, a student in one of the universities where I worked. She was a junior level Education major. I met Katie in an unorthodox way: Her professor, who was teaching a junior-level educational methods course, said to me, “Tom, I have a student whom I know is cheating, but I cannot figure out how.” He showed me one of Katie’s papers, submitted in the beginning of the course. It was poorly written, disjointed, with no clear ideas. Then, he showed me one of her papers that she had just turned in that week. It had a clear thesis, it provided details, evidence, and examples to support her points, and the conclusion was logically sound — it was simply well written. And I thought, “this is cause for concern.”

So, I said to my colleague, “have you run this through SafeAssign [a Blackboard tool that helps prevent plagiarism]?” He said “yes,” and the software considered it as an original piece. He had also thrown text portions on Google and couldn’t match them with anything else. I called Katie and asked her how she had put her paper together. She said that, ever since she was a little girl, she had wanted to be a teacher. She got decent grades in high school, but when she was a freshman in the university, she found it more difficult to pay attention in class and her grades started to slip. A professor even said that maybe she wasn’t cut out for college. By then, she was about to be kicked out of the university for poor performance. In desperation, she went to the writing center.

What my colleagues in the writing center discovered was that, when asked to write about what she had learned in class, she couldn’t do that. But when asked to talk about it, she could, making logical connections about the content. So, the writing center staff helped Katie to use software that transformed her spoken words into text in a word processor, and the quality of her work improved so fast that her professor thought she was cheating.

Katie’s story is not really a UDL story because we made one change, one time, for one person. But imagine if Katie’s professor had designed course interactions so she had some choices about how she took in the information – video, audio, or text. Later on, when other professors adopted some inclusive design practices, Katie had a much easier time. In fact, I’m happy to report that Katie graduated, and she is now a social studies teacher in a school district outside of Chicago. Designing more inclusive learning methods using UDL lowers barriers for everyone, not just students with disabilities, and helps to make struggles like Katie’s the exception rather than the rule.

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Thomas J. Tobin, Faculty developer, Professional Consultant, Author and International Speaker on quality in distance education. 


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