Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and web accessibility are interdependent concepts because they share the same objective: to eliminate barriers that limit access to education and information for all people (hence the word “universal”), regardless of their abilities, skills or personal characteristics.
UDL is a conceptual framework that seeks to design inclusive, flexible and adaptive educational experiences for all students. Web accessibility, following Tim Berners-Lee’s ideas about a “universal” web, refers to the ability of websites, platforms and digital tools to be perceived, operated and understood by all users, including those with physical, cognitive, visual or hearing disabilities.
It is conceivable that one of the first steps in designing educational content based on universal design would be that materials published in virtual classrooms, teachers’ personal websites, webquests, shared disks, etc. comply with the Web Accessibility Guidelines (WAG), a set of technical standards and recommendations established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to ensure that websites are compatible with assistive devices for people with disabilities (such as screen readers or alternative keyboards) and offer customization options (text size, color contrast, complementary audio tracks, etc.) to suit users’ needs. These guidelines, in addition to helping a specific group of people, provide another series of more general benefits: ubiquity, improved navigability for slow connections and better positioning in search engine results (accessible design is more usable and this favors positioning).
UDL is based on three fundamental principles that guide the creation of inclusive and effective educational experiences: representation, action and expression. The principle of representation refers to the presentation of information in multiple forms and media so that all learners can access and understand the content. The action principle focuses on providing multiple options and opportunities for action and expression so that students can demonstrate their understanding and skills in different ways. The principle of expression focuses on providing multiple means for expression and communication so that students can show what they have learned and how they have learned it.
Undoubtedly, these principles relate closely to web accessibility guidelines in the quest to remove barriers to information access and education. For example, providing multiple ways of presenting information, such as text, images, audio and video, complies with the principle of representation and also benefits users with visual or hearing impairments who will require a textual description of images or audio with transcription. Similarly, offering multiple options for action and expression, such as the ability to submit a written essay or oral presentation, fulfills the action principle, also benefiting users with motor disabilities who may need an alternative keyboard or voice recognition technology for typing.
Another example of how these concepts complement each other is the principle of expression, which emphasizes the importance of providing multiple means for expression and communication. A design based on this principle will allow learners to choose the way that best suits their individual needs and preferences for navigating the contents of the web site or virtual classroom. This includes the option to participate in online discussions, send e-mails, make presentations, create multimedia material or work in groups. This availability of multiple media benefits users with disabilities. For example, users with visual impairments can benefit from text-to-speech options or audio descriptions of multimedia elements. Users with hearing disabilities will benefit from audio transcripts and the inclusion of closed captioning. Those with cognitive disabilities may benefit from simplified reading options and a clear and structured visual presentation.
Bearing in mind that much of the dissemination of training content will be carried out via the web, and in view of this very close degree of interrelation, it could be said that web accessibility is a way to go in order to reach the UDL, although it could also be said that the principles of the UDL are fully imbued in these technical recommendations and accessibility. Whichever way you look at it, “this is the way“.