Understanding UDL from the Dark Side: Perceptions of the Marketplace


The Universal Design for Learning Implementation and Research Network (UDL-IRN) held its 2015 Summit recently at the Gulf Park campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. The Summit had an exceptionally engaging lineup of “UDL-Talks” and breakout sessions that shared insights and collaboration ideas regarding the current and future state of UDL in K20.

At times, academic researchers get nervous about EdTech Vendors misrepresenting UDL in the marketplace. As the only EdTech Vendor on the UDL-IRN leadership team, I often joke that I’m the lone representative from the “Dark Side.” Instead of shying away from this potential confrontation, I took it head-on at the Summit, presenting a UDL-Talk titled, “Understanding UDL from the Dark Side: Perceptions of the Marketplace.”

UDL Has an Awareness Problem


The goal of the presentation was not to contest the viewpoint of the academic researchers. Actually, the presentation fully embraced it. Those of us who are huge proponents of UDL don’t always see that UDL has an awareness and marketing problem in the marketplace.

UDL is a solid, research-based framework for ensuring exceptional learning opportunities for all students. Yet the power in the UDL framework is not well known, and unfortunately, often misunderstood and misrepresented. Practitioners (classroom teachers, professors, etc.) have little to no awareness of UDL. Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey of Personalize Learning shared that only one out of approximately 100 teachers polled during recent professional learning sessions in Los Angeles had actually heard of UDL. Similarly, in Knovation’s recent National Survey on Digital Content and Curriculum, 116 educators (many District-level Curriculum Directors) ranked UDL as the least important attribute for organizing learning resources and aligning to District curriculum (12th out of 12). They can’t rank it higher because they don’t know what it is.

Places (states, colleges, districts, schools, classrooms) that embrace UDL see substantial and fundamental changes occur. UDL creates an increased focus on serving all learners, ensuring they have quality opportunities to access and engage the curriculum and express their learning outcomes. While the principles of UDL are strong, the awareness and marketing are not sufficient yet.

Addressing Misconceptions within the EdTech Community

Unfortunately, at present, the awareness and clarity within the EdTech Community is no better. In fact, many of those who are aware of UDL believe it’s isolated to Special Education. There is a misperception that UDL is an “IDEA thing,” not an ESEA concept. In other words, they miss the strength of leveraging UDL to create educational opportunities for ALL learners. UDL’s support for accessibility limits the greater appreciation of how it means so much more.

Even if the market awareness and demand for UDL becomes stronger, we still have the really important issue of skilled understanding and capable implementation of the concept within the EdTech Vendor community at large.

Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D., and James Basham, Ph.D., do a nice job of explaining some of the Common Misconceptions and Realities of UDL in their whitepaper “A Blueprint for UDL: Considering the Design of Implementation”. On page 9 of this whitepaper, they mention that the “tool is just a tool; how that tool is utilized to engage learners, offer a different representation of information, or allow learners to express their knowledge is the path to UDL implementation.”

This is so true. Technology is NOT the answer, but a major enabler and equalizer. Therefore, the more intelligent the design of EdTech Vendor solutions, the easier it is for teachers to be the type of “learning engineers” and “iterative designers” that Dr. Nelson and Dr. Basham are calling for in their UDL Blueprint.

Converting EdTech Vendors into UDL Jedi Masters

To reach scale, the UDL community needs to bring EdTech Vendors into the fold. Although supporters of UDL implementation may be tempted to avoid the “Dark Side” of the EdTech Vendor community, I’m advocating that they embrace it head-on and use the power of their wisdom and experience (their “Force”) to turn us away from the darkness of our ignorance. It’s important that the UDL Community provide practical, easy-to-follow guidelines for education software designs with the goal of not only providing reference implementations for example pieces of software, but also including best practice UDL Guidelines for EdTech Vendors.

We need to challenge ourselves to work beyond our comfort zone and reach out to others who can be “force multipliers” for UDL. And whether you like it or not, the “Dark Side” (the EdTech Vendors) can be a powerful force multiplier – one that would better serve ALL learners if they were converted into UDL Jedi Masters!


3 Replies to “Understanding UDL from the Dark Side: Perceptions of the Marketplace”

  1. I am a classroom teacher and am considered to be a classroom innovator. I will start by admitting I had to look up UDL. I found a short video that did an excellent job of explaining what UDL – Universal Design for Learning – actually is. http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.VRshsYb3arU
    Here’s my take: The concepts are ones teachers consider when evaluating resources and designing lessons. How will my students access the knowledge I want them to have? How will I incorporate resources to address multiple learning styles and needs? How will my students “show what they know”? Will I offer more than one way for them to demonstrate mastery? How will I design my lesson for maximum student engagement? All of these questions are ones that fall into the parameters of UDL. Teachers consider these things when planning. I think teachers ranked the ideas low on the scale because the terminology is unfamiliar, not because the ideas are unimportant.
    For me, the takeaway from the surveys you reference is not that the ideas are not relevant, timely, important, and necessary for 21st century learning. The takeaway is that the industry and educational leadership need to help add the terminology into teacher language. Everyone involved in education should be a UDL Jedi Master.

  2. Steve, I applaud you for taking this on and calling your post that it is coming from “the Dark Side.” Thank you for mentioning us. Kathleen McClaskey and I have been trying to encourage educators to focus on the learner, how they learn best, and use UDL as the framework for personalized learning. There are EdTech companies that frame their adaptive learning system or LMS as “Personalized Learning.” This confuses the educational marketplace. UDL does have an awareness problem. The issue we found difficult for teachers is how the UDL principles are presented. We took the principles and have streamlined them so teachers can create a Personal Learner Profile (TM) and Class Learning Snapshot (TM). Check this post on

    If teachers can redesign the learning environment using UDL, they reduce the barriers in the curriculum and maximize the learning. Recently I asked several groups of educators at different conferences in California if they knew about UDL, Only some had ever heard about UDL but thought it was only for Special Education. There were many who had never heard of it. Only one in a crowd of 100 was aware of UDL as a way of designing instruction to meet the needs of ALL learners.

    Teachers only know what they know as a learner themselves or when they went through their teacher education program. In many cases, they are mandated to use the existing curriculum, meet the standards, teach to the test, or follow a pacing guide. When we bring up UDL for lesson design and to transform their classroom, teachers are concerned about adding one more thing on their very full plate. UDL provides the strategies to scaffold the skills learners need to become self-regulated expert learners. As you so eloquently wrote, UDL principles can work for all learners. However, we found that if it is folded under the personalized learning umbrella as the framework, it tends to make more sense for educators and EdTech vendors.

  3. There’s a great article by Kim Greene titled, “The Growing Case for UDL”, that originally appeared on Scholastic’s blog site (having trouble finding that URL now) and recently appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Scholastic Administrator. Please check it out and learn more about why ALL of us, as Susan Menkel points out, should be UDL Jedi Masters.


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