Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in Action: The Smart Inclusion Toolkit

Alexandra Dunn and Luis Perez

Upper Canada District School Board and University of South Florida

The bell rings and students file excitedly into Madame Viviane’s second-grade class talking about how Yogo has landed on Zubor Island. Zubor Island is on the planet Zergot, a model of which (constructed of recycled materials) resides in the center of Madame Viviane’s classroom. Yogo, representing the Supreme Galaxy Council, is going to meet with Zergot Federation, which comprises representatives (Madame Viviane’s second-graders) from each of the planet’s five tribes (see box 1, "Zergot and Its Inhabitants"). They are going to discuss lowering the force field that surrounds their planet. Today, some of the students are frustrated and angry because Yogo feels that only one of the tribes, the Clicks, has evolved to the point of being safe enough to be allowed to pass through the protective force field. All of the Bibittes quickly assemble in the underground chambers to watch their monitors and the proceedings in the Federation’s Grand Assembly Hall.

As members of this imaginary world, Madame Viviane’s students participate throughout the year in a learning community to realize curricular goals in the areas of science, socialstudies, art, drama, language arts, and mathematics. Learning is structured within the context of an imaginary world where force fields must come down and all inhabitants acknowledge that everyone has strengths and needs. The key idea is that in order to create an inclusive community, we need everyone.

Madame Viviane realized that a one-size-fits-all approach would not effectively reach and teach her diverse group of learners, so instead she cast a universal design for learning (UDL) net based on information gathered from class profiling (Rose & Meyer, 2002) to structure a centers-based approach that capitalizes on identified learning strengths, needs, and interests/preferences across areas of recognition (learning the “what”), strategy (learning the “how”), and affect (learning the “why”; Rose & Meyer, 2002). Madame Viviane realizes that barriers to learning are not, in fact, inherent in the capacities of learners, but instead arise in learners’ interactions with inflexible educational materials and methods.

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Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom

Instead of the teacher standing at the front of the room as the “sage on the stage,” in Madame Viviane’s UDL-based classroom student learning and engagement is a bit different. Although books and blackboards have a purpose, by their very nature they are examples of what the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST; see http://www.cast.org/) refers to as “inflexible educational materials” (Rose & Meyer, 2002). Although common, is the traditional classroom really what “education for all” should be like in the 21st-century classroom?

The 21st-Century Classroom

According to 21st Century Schools, educators need to think of schools not as buildings but as “‘nerve centers, with walls that are porous and transparent, connecting teachers, students and the community to the wealth of knowledge that exists in the world” (2008, “School, Teacher, Learner,” para. 5). The role of teacher needs to shift from primarily an information dispenser to a facilitator of learning. Rather than being textbook-driven or one-size-fits-all, curriculum should be interdisciplinary, collaborative, project-based, and research-driven. The “3 Rs” of the past are being replaced by the “4 Cs”: critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, communication, and collaboration. For 21st-century students, often referred to as digital natives (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008), digital literacy (e.g., information, media) must coexist with more traditional views of literacy. Finally the concept of learners needs to extend beyond the “average” or “typical” learner; there is great variability among learners, especially in today’s increasingly diverse classroom.

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A Context for UDL

CAST’s framework for UDL, based on universal design principles, can be of help to both the general and special education classroom teacher. This framework provides “a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments” that seek to address learner variability in today’s diverse classroom. Rather than recommending a one-size-fits-all solution, UDL “calls for flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual learning needs” (CAST, n.d., para. 2). 

  • The recognition network (the “what” of learning) is engaged when students gather facts and categorize what they see, hear, and read. Practically speaking, educators must consider multiple means of representation by presenting information in different ways in order to accommodate those requiring visual, auditory, literacy, and physical/mobility supports.
  • The strategic network (the “how” of learning) is engaged when students organize and express their ideas. Examples of the strategic network in action include writing an essay or solving a math problem. Educators, then, must provide learners with multiple means of expression so learners can navigate the learning environment and express what they know in different ways. Some learners may provide a verbal response whereas others may respond using a voice output device—different means of expression, but not less valuable.
  • The engagement network (the “why” of learning) refers to affective dimensions of learning, such as how learners are motivated, challenged, and kept interested in the learning task. Educators must make learning relevant by appealing to the learner’s personal interests and life experiences and by providing multiple means of engaging with what is learned and how learning takes place (individually or in groups).

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The Smart Inclusion Toolkit

Although UDL may offer a solution for teaching and reaching diverse learners, its implementation in the classroom environment is another challenge altogether. Determining the manner in which to implement the critical elements of UDL is not easy. The reality is that although many educators have heard the term UDL, making it come to life to create an inclusive learning environment is often a challenge. A key goal of UDL is personalizing learning so that it responds to learner variability. Profiling the needs of a class enables educators to focus not on disabilities, but rather on supports required by one student in the classroom that may benefit all: necessary for some, good for all. These supports are often categorized under auditory, visual, physical mobility, social, communication, and/or literacy supports.

Completing a class profile provides the teacher a clear goal, often with specific supports. It is the first step in a process we have identified to assist in the implementation of UDL within the classroom through a process we have structured around what we have identified as a “smart inclusion toolkit” (see resource 2, “UDL in Practice: Smart Inclusion Research”). The toolkit is meant to assist teachers in ensuring that the critical elements of UDL are in place for all learners, especially those who struggle in the day-to-day aspects of academic and/or social development.

Once the class profile is completed, the next step is to survey the environment and identify tools that will support learners to achieve social and academic participation. Joy Zabala’s SETT (student, environments, tasks, and tools) (see www.joyzabala.com) framework (2005) offers a series of questions designed to generate thoughts and discussion among teachers and related professionals. The process and questions assist the teacher in determining what is known about the student, the demands of the student’s environment, the tasks that are required, and, finally, what tools are available to address these tasks. It is important to note that within a UDL framework, considering teaching and learning goals should precede selecting tools (including technology)—not the other way around. Educators should look critically at all available tools to ensure that all learners in the room are provided multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement in order to be active participants in classroom lessons.

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Assistive and Instructional Technology

In the 21st-century classroom, learning for all students must have real-world purpose. Traditional instructional approaches to teaching, learning, and technology use are enhanced by approaches in line with 21st-century knowledge and skill building. For example, readily available new digital technologies (alongside traditional teaching tools) allow students increased opportunities to realize goals. The smart inclusion toolkit recognizes and supports diversity within classrooms, and blurs lines between assistive technologies and educational/instructional technologies.

The use of technology to support teaching and learning is no longer new, nor is the use of assistive technology (AT) and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools to support students with disabilities. However, AT and AAC tools, by their very nature, are considered and identified for the specific need of the student with a disability. Because of the individual nature of the AT and/or AAC tool, there are usually barriers to overcome for effective implementation within the classroom (see Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology Services for more detail). For example, a distinction between instructional technology and AT often occurs when the student with disabilities is the only student using a specific AT tool/device among a classroom of 20-plus peers. As a result, teachers have difficulty finding the time to learn how to harness the potential of a student’s AT and to support its use within the classroom curriculum, and so AT is not used well by the student or teacher—or understood by those around the student. Findings suggest (Reimer, Riess and Wacker, 2000 ) that these technologies, when seen specific to the unique needs of the individual with a disability, are underutilized by the student and often abandoned. In the smart inclusion toolkit,  the needed tool/device is available, but its use is extended beyond one individual. Check out our wiki for more detail on the smart inclusion toolkit

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The iPad as Part of the Smart Inclusion Toolkit

The application of the iPad (or other tablets) and its accompanying apps exemplifies how the smart inclusion toolkit combines expectations of the 21st-century student

learning outcomes with the appropriate technology tools. The iPad is a unique a personal computing device that can be customized through the use of apps and includes embedded accessibility settings (see resource 3, “Rules of Thumb for Selecting Apps”). A number of factors have drawn educators to the iPad including:

  • Solutions based around the iPad sometimes cost much less than those based around more specialized devices.
  • The device is lightweight enough for even young children and students with motor disabilities to handle and operate on their own.
  • The iPad’s long battery life (about 10 hours) makes it ideal for students who must rely on their device for communication and other needs over the course of a typical school day.
  • The device can be customized to meet the needs of individual students through the more than 200,000 apps currently available.
  • The device enjoys a high degree of social acceptability that appeals to students and parents wanting to avoid the stigma often associated with disabilities.

Despite these advantages, there are some potential barriers to consider when adding the iPad to a smart inclusion toolkit.   As a consumer device, the iPad may not be as rugged as other devices designed specifically for AT use and thus it may be more easily damaged if not handled properly (the purchase of a case along with the device is recommended). The same features that make the iPad highly engaging and visually appealing to some students can also result in undesired behaviors in others (e.g,, students who “stim” when allowed to work with certain apps) if firm boundaries for device use are not in place. Similarly, the iPad has many built-in accessibility features (e.g., watch a video describes the accessibility features of the iPad at http://www.youtube.com/embed/sRM-BC5nf9Y?list=UUeq9beVzTguspIbTaak1uKg&hl=en_US), but there are students who require alternative means of access not yet supported by the iPad (e.g., eye gaze). Several companies are working on bringing full access to the iPad through switch and joystick access, but the support for these alternative input methods is not yet as robust on the iPad as it may be on personal computers.

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Apple claims that the iPad is “useful to everyone. Right from the start” (Apple in Education, 2012), and the company has been a leader in the development of accessibility features for mobile devices that address identified areas of weakness in the student profile in order to ensure active participation. Many educators are not aware that many of these accessibility features are already built in to their devices and just have to be activated in the settings (General > Accessibility). Apple provides solutions in the following areas: vision, learning and literacy, hearing, and physical and motor skills. In the area of vision, devices like the iPad come equipped with the VoiceOver screen reader for students who are blind, along with other accessibility features (Zoom, White-on-Black, Large Text) that make it easier for those who have low vision to see information on the screen. In the area of learning supports, Speak Selection provides text to speech with word highlighting (introduced with IOS 6) to aid with comprehension for struggling readers (Disseldorp and Chambers, 2002; Montali and Lewandowski, 1996). In addition to its support for closed-captioned videos to ensure students who need auditory support can understand the audio portion of the content, the FaceTime and Messages apps help students who are deaf or who have a hearing loss communicate and collaborate with their hearing peers. In the area of physical and motor skills, the iPad currently incorporates features such as AssistiveTouch (see resource 4, "iPad Settings for Accessibility Features") and allows for alternative access (switches). Some learners with motor difficulties rely on alternative means of access “that [have been] cultivated and grown since about 1985 [and which] will not work with the iPad: joystick, trackball, head tracking, eyegazing” (Cooper, n.d., para. 2). However, new interfaces (e.g., iPortal and Komodo Open Lab’s Tecla Access) are starting to come to market that may address many of these alternative access needs.

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The Smart Inclusion Toolkit in Practice

Figure 1 illustrates one of a number of examples of how Madame Viviane addresses learner variability in her classroom, empowering students to successfully achieve the goals of the Ontario curriculum. To support her students in developing their characters and related stories (inhabitants of Zergot), Madame Viviane set up several learning stations: a manipulatives station, a computer-supported station, a SMART Board station, and an iPad area. These areas/stations together are examples of the Smart Inclusion Toolkit in action, implementing the critical elements of UDL through tools applicable to the individual needs of all her students.

Manipulatives Station

Every student in Madame Viviane’s class creates a character, one of the Bibittes. Some use multicolored paper; others draw their creations on plain white paper and make them come to life with markers. Those who require physical/mobility supports they may use a Paint ’n Swirl machine or battery-operated scissors activated by head or finger switch. Some students took photos of their creations for a digital portfolio, and some spent extra time developing graphic organizers describing their creatures.

Software/Computer Station

At this center, students (including those requiring literacy supports) use planning software (e.g., Kidspiration), word-prediction programs (e.g., Word Q), and speech-to-text programs (e.g., Speak Q or Dragon Naturally Speaking) to complete their organizers. For students with severe cognitive developmental disabilities, this is not the time to whisk them out of the class: Madame Viviane prepared templates in IntelliTools’ Classroom Suite 4CrickSoft’s Clicker 5, or SMART Notebook 11 with accompanying picture support to allow them to sequence their stories with their peers.

SMART Board Station

Madame Viviane’s students took photos of their Bibittes, imported them into SMART Notebook 11, and, as a tribe, created various animated stories using SMART Recorder. This activity ensures multiple means of expression, representation, and engagement for students for whom paper-pencil tasks might be a barrier to achieving curricular goals. Some students were able to record their ideas in SMART Notebook 11, and attached the recording to their images. Some switch users used SMART Notebook’s Transparent Background Tool layered over a switch-accessible program (e.g., Boardmaker Plus) to offer suggestions to the team, alongside peers who used their voice and others who used a voice output device.

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iPad Station

On the planet Zergot, Madame Viviane’s students take their digital storytelling to another level by using apps that allow for multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression. After completing their stories in SMART Notebook 11, students exported their files (as PDFs) into Dropbox, and from there into iBooks. iBooks for the iPad allows students and teachers to operationalize multiple means of representation by presenting information not only as text, but with supporting videos, image galleries, and simulations (for those requiring visual supports) and also audio, through the built-in Speak Selection feature (for those requiring auditory supports). Lego’s Life of George app provided Madame Viviane’s students with multiple means of engagement, where learning is made relevant by appealing to the learner’s personal interests and life experiences. Students who were not interested in drawing or creating a Bibitte digitally had the option of using a combination of “real” Legos and the app : They could create their characters out of Legos, and then bring their creation into the digital environment through the built-in iPad camera.

In her quest to provide her students with options to navigate the learning environment and express what they know in different ways (multiple means of expression), Madame Viviane used Toontastic, an app from LaunchPad Toys. This app provides a story structure, options for students to use existing characters or to design their own, and built-in music choices and animation. All students worked in pairs using Toontastic to create and animate their Bibittes, then posted their cartoons to ToonTube a secure site that allowed them to share their cartoons with family and friends throughout the world. The designers of Toontastic even joined the students via Facetime on the iPad to view the students’ stories, interact with the students, and discuss how even young children can become involved in app design. The students and educators in the class also provided feedback for improving the app’s design, in order to make sure the app more closely matches the needs of students with special needs. One of the biggest suggestions that came out of this exercise was that, when considering providing multiple means of expression, app developers need to consider all students, including those who cannot access the iPad directly (e.g., watch an example of this expression in the video “Why Touchscreens Scare Me” at http://youtu.be/j5H4TV-2-Tw).

Madame Viviane and her students can also use AAC apps like Scene&Heard on a second iPad to capture the story page from the SMART Notebook story. Through the use of  hotspots, her students also had the option of using direct touch and/or switch access: all students could express what they knew. Imagine the possibilities if the work of our students in the classroom could reach app designers such the makers of Toontastic, and all apps—not just “special needs” apps—could be better designed to meet the goals of UDL and be accessible to everyone?

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In order to achieve education for all in the 21st-century classroom, the definitions and roles of teacher, student, curriculum, and classroom are evolving. No longer are students passive information gatherers and teachers information dispensers: There is a shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning where creativity, collaboration, the ability to solve problems as they arise, and inclusion are the new currency. This evolution in the education system calls for new tools to be added to smart inclusion toolkits, so that both students and teachers are able to thrive in this new world. The iPad is one example of a tool that by way of its innovative and accessible design has made it possible to speak not of educational technology and assistive technology, but simply technology. Madame Viviane adopted this view of technology, and incorporated the principles of UDL, to provide concrete examples of what inclusive learning environments of the 21st century can look like. In addition, due to the tremendous collaborative work of the Bibittes, Yogo could allow the force fields on planet Zergot to finally come down so all tribes in the galaxy can live together and respect each others’ individual differences. With changing definitions, vision, and tools, it is not only possible but also critical that no child be left on the outside of education looking in.

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21st Century Schools. (2008, August). What is 21st century education? Retrieved from


Apple in Education. (2012). Special educationhttp://www.apple.com/education/special-education/

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R. J. Cooper & Associates. (n.d.) iPad and tablet headpointer. Retrieved

from http://www.rjcooper.com/tablet-headpointer/index.html

Disseldorp, B., & Chambers, D. (2002, July). Selecting the right environment for students in a

changing teaching environment: A case study. Paper presented at the meeting of the Australian

Society for Educational Technology International, Melbourne, Australia.

Montali, J., & Lewandowski, L. (1996). Bimodal reading: Benefits of a talking computer for average and less skilled readers.

Journal of Learning Disabilities, 29, 271–279. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/002221949602900305

Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives.

New York, NY: Perseus Books Group.

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Retrieved from http://www.joyzabala.com/uploads/Zabala_SETT_Leveling_the_Learning_Field.pdf

About the Authors

Alexandra Dunn (alexdunn@smartinclusion.ca) is a Speech and Language Pathologist with the Upper Canada District School Board and Luis Perez (lfperez@mail.usf.edu) is a doctoral candidate at the College of Education, University of South Florida.

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Let’s consider Mrs. Perez and Mr. Williams one final time.  Dependent upon the adopted text/program for mathematic instruction, they consider the evaluation guide together.  Realizing they need to invest time, they complete the review looking to better their teaching this year and for subsequent collaborative years. After completing the evaluation guide together, Mrs. Perez and Mr. Williams look at their scores and consult the accompanying rating/evaluation system. [DA1] Their total score of 20 places the text in the middle of the range with respect to its integration of effective practices, suggesting that their text incorporates some effective practices but could benefit from adaptations. The teachers decide to prioritize adaptations in one of the four bucket areas initially: Effective Explicit Mathematics Teaching Practices (Bucket #3) which averaged an average score of “2” (out of 5).

            Mrs. Perez and Mr. Williams decide to pinpoint three Explicit Mathematics Teaching Practices, explicit instruction and continuous progress monitoring/instructional decision-making, which the teachers both rated a “2,” and multiple response opportunities provided for each learning objective, which they rated a “3.” They notice the daily lesson sequence provides a framework for explicit systematic instruction. An attempt is made to bridge new content with prior background knowledge and recently taught concepts/skills at the beginning of each lesson. The format utilizes a brief activity to focus the lesson coupled with teacher modeling, guided practice through a combination of teacher and/or peer support (e.g., cooperative learning), and independent practice. Although, Mrs. Perez and Mr. Williams agree that the overall structure reflects a systematic instruction sequence, the text is lacking in terms of explicitness in several places.

For example, the modeling section relies on use of an animated video that comes with each lesson. The videos [SS2] [DA3] provide students with visuals, but the videos do not allow students the opportunity to interact with the content (e.g., to manipulate objects or drawings as the video models the lesson’s target mathematics concept/skill) except for responding to predetermined questions that are imbedded in the video. Mrs. Perez and Mr. Williams also observe that the text does not apply a C-R-A [SS4] [DA5] sequence of instruction consistently across lessons and there is a lack of explicit teaching of metacognitive strategies to problem solve and to self-monitor progress. They would also like to see more use of teacher “think alouds,” where the teacher says aloud her/his thinking as they perform a mathematical task, and more of an emphasis on teaching students to “think aloud” themselves as they problem solve. The teachers think that the use of graphic organizers[DA6]  could help with this.  

Their analysis of the guided practice section indicates that it does not provide students with enough scaffolded support [DA7] because typically there are only 3-4 problems or response tasks in this section. Each unit and lesson includes a list of possible accommodations and modifications[DA8]  to differentiate instruction for students with


Supplemental media files

Smart Inclusion Toolkit: Learning Stations (Figure 1)

Zergot and its Inhabitants (Resource 1)

UDL in Practice: Smart Inclusion Research (Resource 2)

Rules of Thumb for Selecting Apps (Resource 3)

Accessibility and the iPad (Resource 4)