HEQCO’s Dialogues on Universal Design for Learning: Finding Common Ground and Key Recommendations from the Sector

HEQCO’s Dialogues on Universal Design for Learning: Finding Common Ground and Key Recommendations from the Sector was written by Rachel Courts, Ken Chatoor, Jackie Pichette, Ofure Okojie and Ryan Tishcoff, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Widespread implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles can benefit all postsecondary students.

A new report by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) offers strategies for Ontario’s colleges and universities to institutionalize Universal Design for Learning (UDL) so that all students can benefit from an inclusive and accessible learning environment.

UDL is a framework intended to improve educational experiences and outcomes by removing learning barriers and addressing learner variability. It was developed by the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) and is grounded in research from the fields of neuroscience, learning sciences and cognitive psychology about how people learn best. The goal of UDL is to develop “expert learners.”

There is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that UDL can have a positive impact on students’ learning outcomes and experiences. Since 2017, two government-organized committees in Ontario have included UDL in their policy recommendations to improve accessibility standards in education. However, institution-wide implementation has been slow at PSE institutions in the province.

HEQCO convened four virtual events, including over 100 participants, between fall 2021 and spring 2022. The goal of these events was to engage a diverse group of Ontario PSE stakeholders in dialogue about the following topics: definitions of UDL; strategies to scale up and evaluate UDL implementation; and approaches to support uptake among faculty. These events were organized and facilitated with support from a steering committee that provided insight and recommendations.

Participants identified numerous challenges to institution-wide uptake including a lack of support or commitment from institutions as well as a lack of clear direction and missed opportunities for collaboration between faculty/staff members. Structural constraints, false assumptions, and a lack of awareness of UDL have also been challenges for faculty attempting to incorporate UDL into their teaching practices.

Based on a review of the literature related to UDL as well as the discussions that took place at our events, HEQCO offers three overarching recommendations for Ontario’s colleges and universities to help institutionalize UDL:

  • Establish UDL as institutional policy.
  • Facilitate opportunities for faculty and staff (including senior administrators) to connect and learn.
  • Evaluate UDL uptake and outcomes to monitor institutionalization progress.

In order for HEQCO’s recommendations to achieve maximum impact, it is important for UDL leaders across all roles and institutions to evaluate their efforts and share the results of their work. If UDL usage is to become truly widespread, expanding the research base is crucial to increasing support for its use and encouraging uptake.