By Karen Pedersen-Bayus

A version of this article was originally published in the  Alberta Education School Technology Branch newsletter, “Tech.News”.

When barriers are reduced, increased participation and achievement are the result.

With his iPad in hand, Erik enters his grade 7 classroom with his peers. There is jostling as the students make their way to their desks. Backpacks are rifled through, technologies placed on desks, notebooks are opened. Erik settles into his seat beside Marc, his desk mate.

For a couple of weeks this social studies class has been gaining an appreciation of the distinct roles of, and the relationships among, the Aboriginal, French and British peoples in forging the foundations of Canadian Confederation. Today, the focus is on discussing the different ways aboriginal societies were structured. Erik listens to Mrs. Anderson with the rest of his class as she introduces her lesson using her electronic whiteboard. Following a short discussion, the class is divided into collaborative teams. A couple of students are chatting as they search for related topics on Wikipedia. Erik, given the task of researching examples of shelter, food and clothing, opens his iPad and begins a Google Image search. The educational assistant walks around clusters of desks checking that students have understood the assignment. She pauses beside Erik, who has Down Syndrome, and suggests he search for a particular key word. He scrolls through images and smiles as he decides on the one he wants.

In the described scenario, Mrs. Anderson takes these notions into consideration as she pro-actively plans her lessons through the lens of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). She refers to the learning outcomes outlined in the Program of Studies and clearly identifies key concepts or essential understandings. She is careful to separate the means for achieving the goals from the goals themselves. Her students have access to technology, she provides a variety of learning experiences and she regularly monitors progress. This allows her students flexible pathways or options for participation and achievement.

Universal Design for Learning is a pedagogical framework that includes all learners.

Focused on the proactive design of the learning environment and of curriculum (programs of study, learning and teaching resources and assessment), decisions are made to identify then reduce or eliminate barriers to learning. UDL encompasses three principles that address 1) the way information is presented to the learner, 2) the way in which the learner demonstrates what he or she knows and 3) the means by which learners are engaged (Rose and Meyer, 2002). When barriers are reduced, increased participation and achievement are the result.

Universal Design for Learning is about proactive design

The origins of Universal Design for Learning are in the barrier-free movement of the 1950’s that was embraced by designers of buildings, products and communities. When architects attend to principles of universal design, they design structures to accommodate the widest spectrum of users possible. Designing for all, instead of for the mean, eliminates the need for after-the-fact adaptation as accessibility features are planned for and integrated into the design at the outset. Attending to the needs of special populations in-creases usability for everyone.

Reflect on the idea of proactive design as you view the entrance to Robson Square, a landmark public plaza in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Robson Square pic-K
What affordances are there when ramps, handrails and steps are designed in an integrated fashion at the start?

What are the benefits of choice being available to everyone?

Is the desired outcome still the same?

Curriculum can also be intentionally and systematically designed from the beginning to meet the variability of diverse learners. When there is flexibility built into instructional methods, resources and assessment, learning goals are made achievable by students with wide differences in their abilities. The UDL guidelines website provides more information.

Striving for increased flexibility in learning environments begins with a focus on learning outcomes.

Reflecting on the analogy of the entrance to Robson Square, once goals are clearly defined, flexibility can be offered in the pathways to achieving the goals and supports can be present as needed. By ensuring that the means for achieving the goal are not included in the goal itself, flexibility can be offered in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways they are engaged. Basham and Diedrich (2012) state that clear goals, aligned with content standards, is a critical element to implementing a UDL approach.

Technology plays an essential role in creating multiple pathways for engagement and achievement.

In Edyburn’s (2011) view, technology offers advantages over traditional instructional tools (chalkboards, textbooks, paper, pencils) by being able to provide the means for increased access and understanding. The inherent flexibility of digital technologies enables easier and more effective customization of curricula while maintaining high expectations.

Based on the three principles of Universal Design for Learning, the UDL Guidelines pro-vide a way to make decisions to reduce or eliminate barriers.
The National Center on Universal Design for Learning states “The goal of education in the 21st century is not simply the mastery of content knowledge or use of new technologies. It is the mastery of the learning process. Education should help turn novice learners into expert learners—individuals who want to learn, who know how to learn strategically, and who, in their own highly individual and flexible ways, are well prepared for a lifetime of learning.”

Technology to Support Diversity

The goal of education in the 21st Century … individuals who want to learn, who know how to learn strategically and who, in their own highly individual and flexible ways, are well prepared for a lifetime of learning.

Accessibility features are at your fingertips!

Technology to support diversity is already available in your classroom.

Start by exploring these accessibility features:




You can read more about the UDL Guidelines and their organization on their website.

The following videos also provide information on UDL:

Designing Curriculum that Works for All

UDL Guidelines Structure

In Alberta, inclusion in the education system is about ensuring that each student belongs and receives a quality education no matter their ability, disability, language, cultural background, gender, or age.

For more information about this article contact

Karen Pedersen-Bayus at
or by phone at


Basham, J. and Diedrich, J. (2012). Universal Design for Learning Implementation and Research Network

Rose, D. and Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning. Alexandia, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Edyburn, D (2011). Harnessing the Potential of Technology to Support the Academic Success of Diverse Students. NEW DIRECTIONS FOR HIGHER EDUCATION, no. 154, Summer 2011 © Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library ( • DOI:10.1002/he.432

Photo Credit: Katy Warner