Universal Design for Learning: from theory to practice

Ann Heelan , BA.H.Dip. Masters in Education, Executive Director,  Dr. Marion McCarthy, Dr. Mary Liz Trant,



Architects design building so that everyone can walk through the doors and use the building fully.  Similarly educators are exploring how they can create a learning environment so that the full diversity of students in education can walk into the classroom,  be engaged and participate fully.  Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a relatively new framework that provides teachers with a structure and system to respond differently to the increasingly more diverse student population in higher education.  This is important as the National Strategy for Higher education projects that in the coming years there will be a stronger demand for higher education from previously excluded groups including mature students, international students, students with disability  and those from different socio economic backgrounds. 

UDL is a very different way of thinking about learning from the more traditional “talk and chalk” methods.  It is different in that it is not based on the myth of the average student, but on the specific needs of individual learners and in seeing the learning environment itself as a source of potential barriers to learning for many students.  It challenges the educator to rethink how they design that learning environment in all its aspects.  Facilitating learning for a diversity of students is made even more complex because the nature of the learning environment itself is changing.  It is no longer just the classroom but it can take place anywhere with e.learning and open learning and the professional workplace with the increasing use of mandatory work placement on many courses.

This paper reports on the idea of UDL and on the outcomes of a workshop held at the AHEAD/UCD Health Related Sciences Summer School 2013 at which discussion focused on how the nine principals of UDL would work in the context of clinical work placements. The topic of Universal Design for Learning was explored and particular emphasis was given to how these principles could improve the quality of the learning experience of all students in  the context of the real clinical placements sites. The Summer School used a positive enquiry method to open a deep dialogue about competencies, flexibility, technology, boundaries in the context of academic robustness, ethical practice and occupational standards.