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ATD Blog

UDL + Design Thinking = Designing for All Learners

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and design thinking frameworks advance instructional design practice and should frame design from the start. In the first steps of design thinking, effort is focused on understanding by empathizing with the users and exploring the users’ challenges. Then you start to identify by ideation with resulting prototyping steps. Following these, you test the prototypes and implement your new design for the users. In parallel, UDL also tries to empathize with your learners and prototype ways to deliver and assess content.

A UDL mindset fused with design thinking supports continuous improvement in which, after implementation, a designer will use continual improvement to deliver content, evaluate, make changes, deliver newly designed or updated content, and evaluate again in a cyclical manner.

Knowing Your Audience

Talent developers are often encouraged to know their audience. The first phase of the ADDIE model, analysis, is to assess what learners already need to know and what learners still need to know. However, a large percentage of learners who need accommodations remain unidentified. Further, the ways that learners absorb new knowledge and demonstrate learning of new knowledge can vary greatly because, most of the time, facilitators are unaware of their learners’ preferred way of learning. Therefore, a UDL mindset in an e-learning setting allows for a focus on access, not just accessibility.

Access Is More Than Accessibility

It’s important for designers to view course design through the lens of the various ways learners can access the knowledge they need to meet the learning objectives, as well as and different ways facilitators can assess learners’ understanding. Multiple ways for learners to access content allows facilitators to reach a wider portion of learners. Similarly, multiple ways for facilitators to assess learning allows for a wider representation of knowledge attainment. If the only way to assess learning is by writing a large paper, not all participants will be able to display the true ability of their new learning if writing is not their strength.


Sometimes the writing is what you are measuring. However, when it is not, it’s vital to allow participants various ways to demonstrate their learning. For example, if employees are learning how to keep a log needed for safety documentation, then the best way to assess that skill is to have employees show a completed log. If the goal is for employees to learn the components that make up a log and what each component contains, though, there are numerous ways for them to show understanding other than just writing. They may verbally present their understanding or work as a group with a jigsaw demonstration. An extensive list of examples of how to incorporate multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression into an online course that can easily be incorporated into e-learning in the workplace.

If you are a designer with a UDL mindset, you would approach assessing your learning objectives from the perspective of allowing a variety of ways for participants to show their understanding of course concepts. Then continue to evaluate and improve in cycles.


UDL and Design Thinking Model

By merging the principles of design thinking with the principles of UDL, the facilitator moves through the design process toward the success of all learners with continuous evaluation and improvement.
UDL Mindset is a firm inclination to mindfully design instructional experiences that benefit all learners despite how they best acquire knowledge and demonstrate understanding. With continuous evaluations and improvement for the purpose of expanding its value, impact, and potential for advancing learning on all levels for all learners.
UDL Mindset Prototype Model showing Mindset, UDL, Design Thinking, and Cyclical Iterations for Continuous Improvement.

In the first step of design thinking, empathy, applied to UDL, the facilitator first empathizes with the learner’s experience going through the course, considering if the learner will perceive, learn, and retain the desired information to meet the learning objectives. In the next phase, define, the facilitator defines what problems the instruction will solve in ways that learners have multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. During the ideate phase, the facilitator can step outside of normal instructional design and think of innovative ways to reach all learners—for example, having learners submit a short commercial video shot from their phones rather than a three-page paper to show mastery of a learning objective. During the prototype phase the facilitator may outline with sticky notes, drawn-out lesson plans, or designs within an online learning management system (LMS) to see how the different ways to provide content to learners, have participants demonstrate learning and facilitators ability to assess learning may look.

When the course goes live and participants move through the course, the facilitator uses continuous evaluation cycles to “test” and “implement” for continual improvement. These steps happen within the mindset framework and through the lens of UDL so that ALL learners have access to the content, access to demonstrating learning, and access to feedback for improvement.

Want to Learn More?

Join me at ATD TechKnowledge 2021 for the UDL Mindset in E-Learning Design session. We will explore how UDL is more than accessibility, it is a purposeful design for all participants, lessening the need for accommodations, and reaching all learners despite how they best acquire knowledge or demonstrate understanding.

About the Author

Michelle Bartlett, PhD, is a faculty scholar at the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at North Carolina State University where she leads a doctoral program for community college executive leadership at NC State University. Michelle has extensive experience designing and facilitating training for post-secondary education, business, and government programs. Michelle creates programs in executive leadership, universal design for learning, accessibility design in online environments, and instructional design. She serves as professional development trustee for the Association for Career and Technical Education Research and vice president for membership retention on the Research Triangle Area Chapter ATD Board, and she is the co-founder of the UNITE lab.

About the Author

Dr. Suzanne Ehrlich completed her undergraduate degree at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Educational Technology, Training and Development program at the University of North Florida. She has presented and engaged in community-based learning since the start of her career in interpreter education. Dr. Ehrlich has and continues to serve as co-chair of the scientific committee for the World Association of Signed Language Interpreters (2015 & 2019) conference.

Her service has included the co-development and advisory role in the development of mentorship programs for novice interpreters in her local community. She was also recently appointed to the Program Committee for Designers for Learning , a non-profit service-based group focused on instructional design for the community. During her time in the Community Scholars Program, she examined the use of digital service learning in curricula. As part of her development, she presented at the Eastern Educational Research Association (EERA) titled Exploring Service-Learning in a Digital World: Reconstructing pedagogical practices in a Teacher Education Program with Dr. Christian Winterbottom.

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Thank you for this important step. I have been advocating for UDL in training circles for several years now, and I am happy to see that ATD has now embraced the concept as well.
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