Universal design for learning after COVID-19 | Inside the Higher Ed

We do not know what higher education will look like after COVID-19. We know, however, that there is nothing to return to pre-pandemic academic business as usual.

COVID-19 has accelerated the post-secondary trends that were already well underway before the pandemic. These accelerated trends include:

  • The shift from residential to online degree programs (and increasingly non-degree programs).
  • Digitization and hybridization of housing learning.
  • Challenging economic conditions (rising costs and declining revenues).

A trend that I hope COVID-19 accelerator has shifted towards universal design for learning (UDL). (See Tobin and Behling Reach out to everyone, teach everyone: universal design for learning in higher education2018).

Post-pandemic, all aspects of higher education – and in particular areas of teaching and learning – will be communicated digitally. Even instructional activities that we primarily consider as face-to-face interactions, such as Home lecture courses will include significant digital components.

This shift to digital housing education after COVID-19 to digital will take the form of a continuation of some students learning externally, some classes being taught remotely, and most course materials (lectures, readings, assignments) being created and delivered digitally.

This digitization of housing instruction can provide – given the right resources and incentives – the opportunity to make institutional (and system-wide) progress with the adoption of the UDL.

Crucially, UDL is not about developing and teaching courses that only work well for students who need residency. Instead, UDL is an approach that benefits all students by creating flexible learning pathways and more resources for student engagement, representation, action, and expression. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/

Es Romy Ruukel writes,

“[UDL] means the use of different formats (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, numerical, narrative, etc.) to deliver content; individual and social engagement opportunities and choice of modalities through which students can demonstrate learning understanding. “

The institutional window that supports universal design for learning will be most open when the faculty moves away from remote control and towards residential learning. This transition point will be an option where the best parts of the pandemic-necessary turn for distance learning can be preserved.

This is not to say that each or even most distance learning courses were designed to conform to the basic principles of UDL. Some were, but the speed and breadth of going to distance learning made it impossible for each course to follow best practices in universal design.

Instead, what we have in place at our colleges and universities is a pandemically catalyzed history of broad constituencies within the faculty collaborating with lecturers outside the faculty (instructional designers, educational developers, etc.) on teaching and learning issues.

When COVID-19 hit and face-to-face classes were canceled, large proportions of the faculty sought and received help with course design and delivery. With intentional commitment and coordinated institution-wide action (and resources), we can build on this story to spread universal design for learning throughout the curriculum.

A department-wide commitment to UDL will require a similar emphasis on course continuity, as academic leaders showed during the pandemic. Just as efforts to keep students teaching by remote means were prioritized at all levels of institutions during the pandemic (today as the most virulent), a similar commitment should be made to universalize UDL.

The time when the pandemic finally ends with widespread vaccination will be good to make non-linear progress in diffusing UDL.

Post-pandemic, the faculty will develop and teach in their courses with distance learning in teaching. Professors will look at preserving what worked in distance learning and return to the teaching methods and methods that work best when everyone is together in a room.

In this space, where professors are considering moving back to face-to-face teaching, schools can offer robust levels of help and support. We must all be ready to center this collaboration on the principles of the UDL.

The immediate opportunity after COVID-19 to prioritize UDL at the institutional level is an opportunity that is unlikely to recur.

We should now plan – even in the depths of the pandemic crisis – for a future where universal design for learning is as standard and expected as a curriculum.

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