August 12, 2020

How Universal Design for Learning Principles Improve edTech Tools for Every User

Now more than ever, parents and educators are searching for edTech products that target instructional gaps revealed during this past spring’s unprecedented dive into remote learning. For parents and teachers of students with special needs, identifying software for special needs education takes on even more urgency.

During remote learning, special educators must manage the unique needs of each of their students virtually while facing limitations to one-on-one instructional time. Students with special needs require structure, consistency, and differentiated support to reach their individual goals. Additional barriers, like family access to technology, prevent special needs students from receiving the consistent, immediate feedback they require to thrive.

In many ways, students with special needs are ideal edTech users. Through edTech products, students receive self-paced learning, immediate feedback, explicit instruction, and can even replay or reread content on their own time. When you ensure that your learning products are not just inclusive but accommodating to students with special needs, you improve usability for all learners.

Quite simply, everybody wins.

Evaluating Your edTech Tool Using Universal Design for Learning Principles

The UDL framework is based on the most frequent finding in educational research: every learner responds differently to instruction.

According to the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), UDL highlights individual differences and seeks to understand their impact on the learning process instead of ignoring variations as errors. Understanding these differences is critical to designing both effective instruction and impactful edTech products.

Applying a UDL framework to edTech products ensures that features align with educational best practices. This improves the UX for all students, while also being especially effective for students with special needs.

UDL guidelines also support personalized learning, which is “tailored to [students’] individual needs, skills, and interests, and enable[s] them to take ownership of their learning.”*

Typically, edTech tools implement personalized learning and adaptive features effectively. Applying UDL guidelines can only strengthen these features and make them more accessible for all users.

How the UDL Framework Helps You Design Software for Special Needs Education

Meeting accessibility benchmarks is crucial in edTech, but there are additional benefits to using the UDL framework in product design. By meeting more students where they're at, you'll improve the UX for all of your users. After all, that's our goal as UX designers!

New to applying UDL principles to edTech tools?

We've broken down how providing multiple modes of engagement, means of representation, and means of action and expression will make your next learning tool more accessible for students with special needs.

Provide Multiple Modes of Engagement
  • Maximize student choice and autonomy with customizable rewards and badges, as well as personalized color palettes, themes, or layouts. This is especially important for students with special needs who may have adverse reactions to specific colors. For example, students with autism spectrum disorder experience strong physical reactions to the color red.
  • Design labels with clear graphics to address the needs of multiple learners at once.
    Allow students to customize activity timing and sequencing.
  • Increase self-advocacy by allowing students to set their own goals.
  • Design opportunities for self-reflection and response. For example, create an informal post-activity "quick check" to allow students to assess their own comprehension and record any lingering questions to return to later.
  • Include visual representations of activity flows, like task lists or timer visuals, to make the activity predictable.
  • Include customizable options for alerts and tool tips for students who require support transitioning between activities.
Provide Multiple Means of Representation
  • Beyond ensuring your product meets WCAG 2.1 and accessibility standards, there are additional considerations that optimize user experience for all learners:
    • The ability to customize text size, volume, font, or notifications to offer appropriate presentation of materials for specific learners.
    • The ability to customize reading levels for content. For example, high school students using an app to learn high school content may actually read at a first or second grade reading level.
    • Captions and written transcripts for video and audio, as well as speech-to-text for spoken language.
    • The ability to enable vibrations instead of sound effects or alerts, as well as alt text or spoken descriptions for images and animations.
  • Build a vocabulary feature. With hover, click, or hyperlink interactions, a user can determine the meaning of unknown words.
  • Ensure that critical information and vocabulary is available in first languages for students and provide the option to customize the language of the product's dictionary.
  • Alleviate frustration for students who struggle to decode by utilizing audiobooks.
  • Use explicit prompts for sequences or step-by-step instructions. As with design choices, written content should be clear enough for students on the spectrum who may struggle with metaphorical or playful language.
Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression
  • Design activities that allow students to solve problems using a variety of strategies.
  • Utilize a gradual release model that scaffolds for students when they struggle with a specific activity or question. Provide immediate, explicit feedback when possible.

Whether you're rolling out new products for the fall or strengthening your existing tools, UDL principles are ideal benchmarks. The UDL framework helps you design accessible edTech software and support the learning goals of every student. After all, our goal as edTech designers should be to create accessible software that meets students where they are—no matter what their needs happen to be.


*Source: Students at the Center Overview: Engaging All Students in College, Career, and Civic Success (Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future, 2013). Print.

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Published by: Monica Sherwood in Product Development, UI Design, UX Design