Using UDL and Adult Learning Theories to Create Inclusive Online Spaces in Higher Education

Wendy Kraglund-Gauthier offers a brief personal introduction.  Her session will take place Friday June 2nd at 9am.

Wendy Kraglund-Gauthier is an educator, instructional designer, and researcher with over 25 years’ experience in K–12, post-secondary, and adult learning classrooms in the Northwest Territories, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and online. A life-long learner with learning disabilities herself, Wendy’s lived experiences as a student and educator and accessibility advocate fuel her passion and energy. Her focus is on achieving and facilitating sound teaching pedagogy, including ways technology can be used in face-to-face and online classrooms to promote collaborative, safe learning for students of diverse ages, abilities, and backgrounds. She nourishes her adult education roots through her teaching and her active involvement as an Executive board member with the Antigonish County Adult Learners Association and as a portfolio practitioner for various local community-based programs.

Picture of Wendy Kraglund-Gauthier

On learning UDL by teaching UDL

Bonnie Stewart offers us some insight into her experience with UDL and the themes of her presentation.

Sometimes, in teaching, a happenstance discovery can shift the course of your entire practice.

UDL was that discovery, for me. In late 2014, I was hired to design and teach a fully online course in adult learning, as part of an Adult Education program I coordinated at UPEI. The learners in the course were primarily instructors themselves, from our local college as well as our university B.Ed program. As an educator, I operate from the premise that in teaching adult learning, I should design my courses to enact and embody the principles they communicate, and so I wanted to make sure the course was built on the concepts it was intended to convey. I wanted to encourage the students to grapple with course concepts from both learner AND teacher perspectives.

In order to succeed in that endeavour, I had to make sure the course was learner-centered, self-directed, and designed to draw out and respect learners’ prior knowledge and interests, all in an online format.

How to bring learners into an unfamiliar online context without reinforcing teacher-centered pedagogies? While I had longstanding experience teaching online, and in participatory settings, doing so while making it all align with the tenets of adult learning was a new and welcome challenge. I felt the course was a powerful opportunity to model meaningful and participatory learner-driven online learning, and so in order to create that experience I went looking for some new and emerging concepts that would help me engage learners. And when I searched for interesting short videos to explore “increasing engagement with students,” I happened on one about UDL.

I liked the way in which UDL offered a broad conceptual approach to inclusivity: a way for me to offer my learner-instructors an approach to meeting their own adult learners “where they are,” without anybody needing to ask. I was new to the idea of UDL, but brief reading led me to a depth of resources, and I included the video and a short article in our course syllabus and our weekly readings. I designed a week of the course around UDL, incorporating the video, some readings, and activities based on UDL principles of “multiple means” – of representation, engagement, and action/expression. But that’s where I stopped, that first year. UDL was just one of a number of one-week topics that I introduced learners to, as a way of opening thinking about difference and engagement.

I hadn’t yet fully begun to take my own advice, and engage with it as both a teacher AND a learner.

A year later, I was offered a second opportunity to teach the course, and the chance to sit back and reflect on what had worked and what I wanted to try to change. I was proud of the positive feedback I’d gotten from students about the first iteration of the class: many learners who’d initially been hesitant about the online format had expressed real appreciation for the participatory and meaningful work we’d done together. I was looking for ways to build on that success, and particularly to deepen the social learning and community of practice elements of the course.

When I went back to the UDL video I’d included, I wondered…could UDL be used to foster and enable deeper sharing and connection among learners? In the first year of the course, UPEI students from Education and Nursing had worked together with Holland College instructors from all different programs – including practical nursing – to share perspectives on learning in common fields and domains. In this sense, the course design was in keeping not only with its adult learning principles, but with what Lave and Wenger (1991) call community of practice. Communities of practice focus on learning together in areas of shared interest – in the case of our class, conversations about shared growth had emerged, based on participatory prompts and design, not only in relation to adult learning and to the common domains in which people taught or practiced, but also in relation to online learning itself.

I knew, as coordinator of the Adult Teaching program, that a few participants in my second iteration of the course had very limited comfort in online and even text-based spaces, let alone with online learning. I had tried hard in the first course to build a sense of social learning and social presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000) into the Moodle environment that was our primary site of instruction, but social learning did not minimize the text-heavy nature of forum discussions. I recognized that with this second group of students, UDL might offer me an opportunity to genuinely welcome instructors with low literacy levels, digital and otherwise, into a less exclusive community of practice, and enable meta-learning about online learning at the same time.

So in redesigning the course for its second year, I delved deeper into my own understanding of UDL, and tried to ensure that multiple means of representation, engagement, and action/expression were core to ALL weeks of the class, rather than just the one that covered UDL as a topic. I added more visual and video content to my Moodle design, opened up the assignments to enable a greater number of non-writing-based responses, and created prompts that encouraged learners to connect over their shared online learning curve as well as shared professional interests.

I had a lot to learn. I made an effort that second year, and then an even deeper effort in the course’s third year. If you’d like to hear more about what I tried, and how it worked…come to Bringing User Experience to Education: UDL and Inclusion for the 21st Century! In my “Practice What You Teach: UDL and Communities of Practice in Adult Education” presentation Thursday morning, June 1st, I look forward to outlining how UDL’s minimization of barriers to participation had an effect on my course in its second and third iterations, particularly, and served as a positive contributor to social learning and engagement for the adult learners I taught. I’ll share examples from what I did, and explore some of the benefits experienced in combining UDL with a social learning/community of practice approach in adult education. Hope to see you there!

OER development within a UDL landscape

Donald Moses and Meghan Landry discuss the reflection currently undertaken by the UPEI Library about the relevance of OER in a UDL landscape:

The Robertson Library at the University of Prince Edward Island is in the process of creating an online guide for faculty, staff and students on Open Educational Resources that will be showcased at the UDL Conference. Based off the Alberta OER Toolkit, we have created several headings, including textbooks, journals, course materials, repositories, open data, images, videos and Creative Commons licenses. Our mission is to compile all the necessary information and resources in a “one-stop-shop” for users to simplify the transition to using OER in the classroom.

However, the bigger picture is not the availability of resources–there are plenty–but the process of implementation and convincing important stakeholders of the adoption. These stakeholders include senior leadership and administration, faculty, instructional designers, librarians (potentially), and of course, students. Librarians have adapted to this change and our role in recent years has been evolving. In order to keep abreast of change, and to deal with continual budget cuts, the OER route has been a necessary and practical one. Educating users on the fundamentals of OER–reuse and repurpose–is also an important role we have undertaken at the Robertson Library.

Our presentation will touch upon how you, as a stakeholder, can overcome barriers to change and become involved in OER, within an UDL landscape, and more broadly the Open Education movement. Change and adoption can happen at any level.


UDL and UXD: Inclusion as Access and Equity, Learning as Meaningful Experience

Christina Bosch, Keynote Speaker at the Conference, offers us a first glimpse at the topics she will be addressing come May 31st.

Practitioners in education care about the work that they do — usually pretty deeply. Probably as a result, they have clear intentions behind their work and immediate goals for the learners they work with. Yet in education it is also notoriously difficult to have enough time, energy, and reflective space to think about the long term, or to envision the future we are working towards. Given education systems that are tied to political systems, paradigms and funding alike change frequently compared to other forms of social organization. Given educational programs that progress according to ages and abilities — rather than developmental milestones or interests — goals and meaning in learning can become muddled. And given the bureaucracy and logistics that define schooling, thinking beyond the increments of three or nine months — let alone two or four or six years — is nearly impossible. Furthermore, as John Dewey pointed out and as remains the case, education lacks a unifying philosophy; therefore, trying to envision the future is a particularly difficult exercise in our field. At the same time, we know that the work we do in the present is a fundamental link to the future, albeit a nebulous one: our current everyday efforts to be better teachers, better students, mentors, colleagues, neighbors, and participants in society shape what is to come.

I heard a designer named CJ Maupin say that design is “the act of seeing something we want to make better, and then making it better.” It would thus seem that design and education, as actions, are quite alike. The disseminated implementation of UDL is an example of educators wanting things to be better. When I first learned about UDL as a reverse-inclusion classroom teacher, it was perhaps a bit daunting, but it also made sense, because it just seemed like a logical way to make learning experiences better. I think that what underlies the spread of UDL in schools and classrooms is this intention make access to learning better, and improve equity in learning as a result. That’s a pretty decent vision for the future.

That said, it’s not a new vision. Over the course of the last century, countries have progressively adopted laws and resolutions against limiting or excluding individuals from access to education; yet inclusion remains an unattained goal regardless of continent, GDP rankings, and PISA scores. With respect to inclusive access, UNESCO states, “It is about being proactive in identifying the barriers and obstacles learners encounter in attempting to access opportunities for quality education, as well as in removing those barriers and obstacles that lead to exclusion” (UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, 2013).

This sounds a lot like a UDL approach: UDL views barriers to learning as the products of variable interactions in environments, rather than as inherent mutable characteristics of learners. While removing barriers to equitable access is a key priority, the ubiquitous challenges in achieving high quality inclusive education locally, nationally, and internationally suggest that there is some other pervasive obstacle, or problem, impeding access to learning for all.

This is where design may hold particular promise in education. If design is about improving, it is also about first identifying the right problem to improve upon.

UDL emerged from the field of design (i.e., architecture), but is asks us to begin somewhat differently; not with a problem, but with a goal. In its overarching goal to foster expert learners, UDL as a framework aims to develop purpose, motivation, resourcefulness, knowledge, strategy and goal-orientation in learners. The UDL principles work towards these goals by directing designers of learning experiences to consider multiple entry points into learning, and multiple ways that learners can engage with their environments. But why are these goals necessary in the first place? What is the problem that UDL solves, and does identifying such a problem provide the UDL framework additional leverage?

I think that the problem is not just access, but equity. Equity in learning is foundational in UDL, but achieving it in practice is enough of a challenge that I wonder how our initiatives, interventions, and instruction might benefit from really grappling with what it implies. Equity may be best achieved through ubiquitous access to learning experiences that are meaningful, or as John Dewey would say, “educative” (since humans are making meaning and having experiences all time). Without designs that lead to equitable, i.e. accessible and thus meaningful, learning, education will continue to marginalize people. The principle of multiple means of engagement moves in that direction, but the guidelines and checkpoints can really only be effective if they align with a problem, not just a goal. If the problem is that students have access to learning but can’t draw meaning from it, any strategy to engage them will come up short.

Thus, how can we feasibly design learning experiences that will provide all learners with that necessary and yet elusive quality — meaningfulness?

User Experience Design (UXD) in particular provides some guidance by emphasizing that we have to ground our problem solving in concrete examples (user research, and perhaps empathy). UXD values the insights that can come from the extreme cases, i.e., ‘the margins’; and UDL further posits that these are key to designing solutions that will work well for the broadest range of people. When schools and curricula employ an access-only model of inclusion, and fail to emphasize the importance of equity in inclusion, they lock themselves out of the potential of diverse learners. We then — often inadvertently but perhaps sometimes by design — create learning experiences and environments that do not align with the needs and skills of the learners, because they are not designed with their experiences, their definitions of what is meaningful, as the central consideration.

UXD, as a process, is fundamentally about asking questions about goals of stakeholders, making sense of answers, and then using those to organize information with “human experience as an explicit outcome and human engagement as an explicit goal” (Jesse James Garrett). At our conference, I am going to ask a lot of questions about education and experience. I may offer some answers — definitions, really — based in the scholarship of influential thinkers, as well as personal anecdotes, but it is my goal for attendees to make sense of my ideas by comparing them to your own answers, based in your experiences. It is certainly my “explicit goal” to organize information into what I hope will be an engaging keynote, and thus tentatively complete the UXD process. If you don’t leave this talk, I’ll at least have achieved the “explicit outcome” of you having an experience.


Importance of the student voice in the UDL reflection process

A student’s views on UDL

The learner voice is an essential part of UDL, the cornerstone really of the whole reflection process.  We thought it important, early on in the build up to the conference, to stress this focus by interviewing a UPEI student who is a member of the Organizing Committee of the Conference.  Here is a brief conversation with Lili Liu.

What, as student, made you join the Organizing Committee of the June Conference on UDL taking place at UPEI?

There are two main reasons. First, I am a student on the Master of Education, Leadership in Learning program within the Faculty of Education at UPEI. I am currently working on my research thesis: The Voices of High School Students with Learning Disabilities: Focusing on Challenges and Barriers. I have a passionate interest in UDL, inclusive education, or any topic which is related to students with Disabilities. I try to do my best to promote UDL, which I believe would be beneficial for all students with and without disabilities.

The second reason is that I want to gain experience organizing a conference. I have attended several presentations at different conferences. Giving a presentation at a conference is not as hard as organizing it. As I get more involved, I realize that it is very complicated, and the experience I can gain from it is invaluable.

What does UDL mean for you?

That’s a great question. For me, UDL means being accepting of all learning patterns. Though I don’t have a learning disability, it is very important to me as sometimes I need extra help. For example, I like using a laptop to take notes instead of writing them down on paper. So, this is basically my learning preference. Most importantly, it gives me a sense of security with regards to the learning environment, which also reduces my anxiety.

Learning and school are at once emotional and cognitive. Basically, learning is emotional work whether it be for students or teachers. Just think: when you look back at your day or your role, it’s not strictly academic. For some students, going through school every day is intensely emotional and extremely stressful. So, helping students reduce this stress is also what UDL means to me.

In your MEd course what UDL strategies have you witnessed in action and how have they been helpful to your learning?

 Give students multiple and flexible opportunities to express their ideas.  Offer learners multiple ways to complete an assignment.

Yes, these are very helpful for me. For example, there was a course where I chose and taught a relevant topic to the class. This is a very special way for me to push myself forward to learn new concepts, and become very comfortable with them. Teaching each other can be motivating and directly promotes our learning activities.

Multiple ways to complete an assignment is awesome. As far as I can see, there are tons of approaches to encourage students to achieved learning outcomes. And the key is to base this on the choices the students make, rather than the instructor’s decisions. Sometimes, I choose a presentation instead of writing an essay. It is about the process of making a decision that helps demonstrate what I have learned, while giving me a sense of responsibility. I feel I can do this better though autonomous choice than the way my instructor imposed on me.

What do you feel is the relevance of UDL for International Students?

The biggest issue around International Students is inclusion. When initially studying in a foreign country, fitting into that culture is a primary objective. In school, we worry about fully understanding Profs. When International Students experience UDL, the focus shifts to the learning environment and to seeing it being adapted for students with diverse backgrounds, so that this learning environment can become congenial to them.

Moreover, if we consider that many students with diverse backgrounds experience difficulties with their English skills such as not understanding what their instructors say because they speak too fast, or they need to write something down that they don’t always grasp or know how to spell, this makes UDL very appealing to international students.

In Canada, most International Students need courage to ask questions in the presence of the whole class. In my personal experience, let alone that of International Students with Disabilities, it can be intimidating. If an instructor creates an environment for learning where they feel safe and less stressed, it will be easier and more enjoyable to learn.

What are your hopes for the conference?

As a student, and also as one of the committee members, I hope the 2017 UDL Conference will convey the importance of UDL to the public. I believe this conference can value different voices and backgrounds in promoting UDL implementation. Also, it can encourage and nurture further UDL promotion in schools and among teachers getting started. So I hope that after this conference, the participants will feel empowered to begin by making small changes that align with UDL intentions and allow students’ voices to be heard.

Lili Liu is a student from China studying on the Master of Education Program in Leadership in Learning at University of Prince Edward Island in the Faculty of Education. She is interested in research in the field of Universal Design for Learning, Learning Disabilities, Inclusive Education, the Social Model of Disability, and eating disorder. Her current research focuses on high school students with Learning Disabilities across Prince Edward Island.


Advocating for the implementation of UDL in our education system. By David Lepofsky, Visiting Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School

I look forward to speaking at the May 31-June 2, 2017 conference on strategies for advocating for the implementation of UDL in our education system. As one illustration, on April 3, 2017, the Special Education Advisory Committee of the Toronto District School Board, which I chair, passed a comprehensive recommendation to TDSB on needed reforms to promote inclusion for students with special education needs. In that motion, among other things, was the following:

Recommendation 9. Ensure Universal Design in Learning Is Used in Classrooms across TDSB

TDSB should develop, implement and monitor a plan to ensure that all teachers and teaching staff understand, and effectively and consistently use, principles of Universal Design in Learning (UDL), and differentiated instruction, when preparing and implementing lesson plans and other educational programming. For example:

  1. TDSB should survey its front-line teachers to find out how much they now know about or were trained in UDL and differentiated instruction, how much they incorporate UDL and differentiated instruction into their lesson plans, and what supports would assist them to practice UDL and differentiated instruction in their teaching.
  2. TDSB should develop, implement and monitor a comprehensive plan to train its teachers, other teaching staff, teaching coaches and principals on using UDL and differentiated instruction principles when preparing lesson plans and teaching. Training on UDL and differentiated instruction should be mandatory, not optional.
  3. TDSB should include knowledge of UDL and differentiated instruction principles as an important criterion when recruiting or promoting teachers, other teaching staff and principals.
  4. TDSB should ensure teachers are provided with appropriate resources and support to successfully implement the UDL training.  This could include appropriate adaptive technology and sufficient planning time for teachers who are sharing a team-teaching role. TDSB should also develop strategies for monitoring and assessing how effectively UDL and differentiated instruction are incorporated into lesson plans and other teaching activities on the front lines.
  5. TDSB should develop a specific strategy for monitoring and reinforcing the use of UDL and differentiated instruction in situations where a teacher in a regular classroom has very limited exposure to their students with special education needs, e.g. where a student, placed in a special education class, only spends an hour per day in a regular class.
  6. TDSB should review any curriculum, text books and other instructional materials and learning resources used in its schools to ensure that they incorporate principles of UDL.
  7. TDSB should ensure that teachers in the areas of science, technology, engineer and math (STEM) have resources and expertise to ensure the accessibility of STEM courses and learning resources. This should include ensuring that any math coaches hired under the new Ontario Government math strategy have the expertise in UDL and differentiated instruction, to effectively assist teachers in meeting the needs of students with disabilities.
  8. TDSB should provide teaching coaches with expertise in UDL to support teachers and other teaching staff across TDSB.
  9. An annual UDL/differentiated instruction training report should be presented to SEAC and TDSB trustees. It should include the training done in the past year and planned for the following year; including summary of the training content, audiences and learning outcomes.


Since the late 1970s, David Lepofsky has been active in a volunteer capacity, advocating for new laws to protect the rights of persons with disabilities in Canada. In 1980, he appeared before the Joint Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons on the Constitution of Canada, on behalf of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind for an amendment to the proposed Charter of Rights, to guarantee equality rights to persons with disabilities. The efforts of a great many combined to lead Parliament to pass the disability amendment to the Charter.

David will be offering a plenary on the Thursday morning of the conference as well as a workshop later that day.  

Why discuss UX in Education?

While UX has been a crucial lens in Industry for quite some time, the field of Education is still reticent to embrace it. Why the sudden pressing need to change this status quo? And why does this Conference focus on UX?

Universal Design for Learning has made giant strides in North America over the last five years, in both the K-12 sector and Higher Ed. There has been rapid growth and spread across sectors and across the continent. Communities of practice and hubs of excellence have emerged. The Second Pan-Canadian Conference on UDL will be the occasion to celebrate this coming of age. However the UDL discourse runs the risk of remaining theoretical and irrelevant unless it tackles a significant hurdle: one cannot genuinely implement UDL in the classroom if one does not take the time to consider the learning experience from the learner’s perspective. Hence the unavoidable UX angle.

I am always surprised at how even seasoned UDL practitioners still avoid discussing the learner experience. They will happy try to tackle potential barriers but will do so within a process that is exclusively based on their own experience and feel of the classroom. Why are we so reticent as a field to do embrace the notion that the learners have their own UX?

When I bring up the concept of UX in the Masters courses I teach, it usually takes in-service teachers several weeks to grow even moderately comfortable with the concept. The power dynamics remain strong in schools: the global ethos is still that we as teachers are there to make decisions; learners are there to accept them. We have internalized the notion that learners know little, that they can make few decisions and are incapable of voicing lucid and constructive preferences. And unfortunately quite a few teachers embark on their UDL journey with these thoughts still firmly in place.

To be effective a UDL approach in fact needs to be grounded on a firm understanding that youth have their own culture, ways of thinking, as well as their own preferences and use of the resources they encounter. Our views, habits, use of tools and resources, and even our interpretation of knowledge vary widely from theirs. We will be unable to carry out a genuine ‘barriers analysis’ of our curriculum and classroom practices without first becoming curious about the learner perspective. This is why it is so essential to become comfortable with the notion of UX and to use it effectively to deepen our understanding of what UDL needs to achieve when transforming the classroom experiences we design.

The relief is that industry has, for some time now, developed a wide and fascinating use of UX. The field of Education at this stage merely needs to bridge this gap and borrow concepts, lenses and research which have now matured, in order to transform the teacher-centric school cultures that are too often still prevalent. This is a giant step forward this Conference hopes to trigger so that ‘UDL of the 21st century’ might be built on a genuine understanding and appreciation of the learner experience, rather than just a teacher-centric perception of what this ought to be.

We hope that the learner voice will permeate this event, that the notion of UX will feel congenial to many as they leave the Conference, and that the field as a whole will move towards an interpretation of UDL that pays more than lip service to the notion of ethnographic exploration of the learner experience from within youth culture.

Frederic Fovet is a member of the Organizing Committee of the Second Pan-Canadian Conference on UDL, and Program Chair. He is an Assistant Professor (Fixed Term) in the Faculty of Education, UPEI. He is also an Inclusion and UDL consultant.

The Call for Submissions is still open till May 1st. Visit:

Tis the season!

Spring 2017 has seen a remarkable activity around UDL. First the AHEAD Ireland Conference, in early March, brought together practitioners and advocates from around 23 countries to examine UDL implementation in Higher Education. In many ways this gathering also examined essential questions about what UDL means in terms of conference organizing and participant engagement, and broke new frontiers. The UDL-IRN annual Summit took place immediately after, bringing together renowned voices and new implementers; it gave further momentum to the debate around how to unroll UDL effectively in the K-12 sector.

The UPEI June UDL Conference now gets ready to carry the torch for a few more months of buzz and exploration around UDL, this time across sectors. The conference will include five streams and hopes to bring together the full cross-section of stakeholders: Higher Ed instructors, K-12 teachers, Student Services, Instructional Designers and Students. UDL implementation is a rich, complex and multilayered process and this conference hopes to evidence the interconnectivity of these voices within the process of roll out within institutions.

UDL advocates are therefore particularly spoiled this spring and the UPEI conference will represent the last chapter of a three month buzz of international activity, dialogue and networking around the topic of UDL implementation. It is unsurprising that this global voice is gaining in momentum and eloquence. EDUCAUSE recently named it as one of the seven ‘2017 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning’ (ELI, 2017). Regardless of your sector or your institutional affiliation, UDL is – it can be said unequivocally – a framework, a lens on teaching and learning that you cannot avoid or disregard as pedagogy progressively metamorphoses for the 21st century.

Whether you are only just dipping a toe in the water, or are a seasoned implementer seeking a high level dialogue around the intricacies of full implementation, the June UPEI Conference on UDL, Bringing UX to Education: UDL and Inclusion for the 21st Century, will offer you a taste of this tantalizing, global, networked discourse taking hold of Education. See you there! #udlpei17

ELI (2017) The 2017 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning. Seven things you should know about… EDUCAUSE. Retrieved from: