University of Vermont

University Communications


Learning by (Universal) Design

$1 million grant aids accessible learning program at UVM

By Jeffrey Wakefield Article published October 29, 2008

Edelman and Shelton
Susan Edelman and Larry Shelton, co-principal investigators on a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, say the program they'll help develop over the next three years will be a resource for faculty to improve the academic experience of students with disabilities, though the strategies they learn are likely to benefit all learners. (Photo: Sally McCay)

When an international student struggling to understand Larry Shelton's lectures met with the human development and family studies associate professor after class several years ago, Shelton asked if making recordings of his lectures available on his website would be helpful.

The audio files Shelton began posting helped not only the struggling student, it turned out, but many other students in the class, as well. Since making a habit of posting his lectures, Shelton has received a steady flow of emails from students saying, in essence, “thank you, thank you, thank you,” he says.

Although he didn’t know it, Shelton was experiencing first-hand a principal truth about universal design for learning, a pedagogical approach gaining traction in higher education. UDL, as the approach is known, emphasizes up-front planning, rather than after-the-fact retrofits, to make course material accessible to students with disabilities and other special needs. By meeting these needs in a systematic and strategic way, its advocates say, UDL helps all students learn more effectively.

A three-year, $1 million U.S. Department of Education grant won by UVM’s College of Education and Social Services and Center on Disability and Community Inclusion in September will speed UVM’s ability to integrate UDL into its instructional ethos.

The grant is timely: the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act by Congress this summer mandates that all colleges receiving federal funding adopt the principles of UDL.

New challenges
Thanks in large part to the impact of IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which gave pre-K-12 special needs students access to specialized instruction beginning in the 1970s, many more students with disabilities are prepared to attend college today than in the past.

At UVM more than 600 students in over 1,300 course sections taught by 700 faculty identified themselves as having a disability in the spring 2007 semester, with many more, research would indicate, choosing not to self-identify.

The issue for higher ed, says CDCI faculty member Susan Edelman, the grant’s project director and co-principal investigator, is that college faculty are often unprepared to meet this new teaching challenge — unlike K-12 teachers, whose schools are required to put supports in place.

“The difficulty is that many faculty are used to teaching their content areas in a specific way,” Edelman says. “UDL requires us to think more proactively about how information is received, processed, and internalized by students” and to make the necessary adjustments as courses are planned.

Tried and true UDL tactics include posting lectures as Shelton did, creating organized syllabi that function as detailed course maps, making overhead materials available on faculty websites in advance of class, providing students with a range of testing options, and employing new technologies that help distractible students stay focused in class.

Support available — for those who want it
Year one of the grant will be devoted to research, information collection, and program design, with fall 2009 tentatively set as an implementation date.

But even before it takes final form, UVM’s approach to UDL — as spelled out in the grant proposal — is clearly visible.

At its heart are two concepts: the program is meant to be a resource for faculty not a mandate, and its content will be delivered primarily via three consulting teams made up of a faculty member, a technical specialist, and a graduate assistant tailoring their support to individual faculty members’ needs.

Consulting teams will first approach those faculty teaching the largest classes with the largest number of self-identified special needs students.

The program also aims to reach newly hired faculty and graduate fellows via a UDL sequence delivered during orientation and will fund the creation of a comprehensive library of UDL resources, which all UVM faculty, students, and staff can use.

Informing UVM’s program are the lessons of an exploratory, three-year grant administered by the University of Massachusetts at Boston and led at UVM by Edelman and the directors of UVM’s Center for Teaching and Learning and Access offices, among others.

Through the grant, a UDL team was formed that included eighteen faculty and teaching staff who voluntarily incorporated a UDL project into their teaching.

A strength of UVM’s proposal is its adaptation of the nationally acclaimed consulting teacher model developed at UVM in the 1970s. UVM veterans like Edelman have a deep understanding of the model, which makes a team of specialists, including those with classroom experience, available to teachers for consulting, not training, based on individual challenges teachers are confronting.

“What I’ve done for a number of students is make changes so they can learn more effectively. And each time, I’ve improved my courses in ways that help everyone," says Shelton, also co-principal investigator on the grant. "What UDL does is guide us in designing our instruction more effectively from the beginning. I'm excited by the possibility of being able to make a difference for students at UVM, not by telling faculty what to do, but by showing them what the resources are.”