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Book Review: Universal Design in Higher Ed for Inclusive Learning

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University 

Universal Design in Higher Education:  From Principles to Practice (2nd Ed.) 
Sheryl E. Burgstahler, Editor  
Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Harvard Education Press 
2015, 368 pp. 

Figure 1
: Cover of Universal Design in Higher Education:  From Principles to Practice (2nd Ed.) 

Universal design is the idea that properly designed products and physical spaces should be usable by the broader ranges of conceivable users.  In the higher education context, universal design would be as inclusive as possible.  “All campus offerings” would be more inclusive (Burgstahler, 2015, “Promoters and Inhibitors of Universal Design in Higher Education,” p. 288).  
  • Events would be designed in ways that would ensure full accessibility and consideration for human needs.  
  • Physical spaces would be sufficiently flexible to accommodate those with mobility issues or who use wheelchairs. There would be safety mitigations to ensure that those with varying abilities—whether physical and / or cognitive—could be safe, even in emergency situations.  
  • Student services (broadly:  recruitment, admissions, registration, financial aid, recreation, advising, counseling, tutoring supports, libraries, residence housing, student organizations, labs, and others) would be enhanced through universal design, with the provision of inclusive and supportive access for all.  
  • Teaching and learning would be more flexible and adaptive to learner needs.  There would be the typical accessibility endeavors to ensure multi-modal delivery of learning contents but also customized adaptations for learning.  High-value assessments may include multiple types of assessments based on learner needs—but with no less rigor.  
  • All technologies used on campuses would have built-in universal design features to enable intuitive and informed use and built-in robustness against human error.  
  • All professionals in higher education would be inclusive not only in their actions but also in their sensitive speech—to be as inclusive of all others as possible (which is critical for healthy and functioning democracies, with a respect for human rights and respect for differences).
Universal design is not seen as a replacement for accessibility accommodations; rather, it is a proactive way of building in wider possible access to, participation in, and comfort with higher education for the widest possible population of learners.  

If the diminishing STEM pipeline is any indication, the U.S. faces a fast-diminishing pool of potential talent for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related fields because there is insufficient support or guidance or technological access at particular critical junctures in individuals’ educational and professional developments.  Universal design is seen as a way of ensuring that all barriers are removed and that bridges are built to ensure that people may develop to their highest potentials in higher education.  

That is the vision in Sheryl E. Burgstahler’s edited collection Universal Design in Higher Education (2nd ed., 2015).  Institutionalizing universal design in higher education (UDHE) would require a range of efforts, including harnessing resources, raising general awareness, training many professionals, empowering students, working with private industry, promoting research on various aspects of universal design, and otherwise championing such changes—in an environment of fairly severe budgetary, staffing, resource, and time constraints.  To ensure that it is done right, UDHE would have to be advanced based on informed approaches, thought-through standards, and empirical research.  

The state-of-the-art is that the paradigm of universal design “has not yet been widely embraced by colleges and universities” (Burgstahler, 2015, “Promoters and Inhibitors of Universal Design in Higher Education,” p. 287).  If this book is any indication, there are some institutions of higher education where there has been some broad UD progress—the University of Washington, Colorado State University, and Harvard University, and some where there is some research or programmatic progress such as Virginia Tech, Western Illinois University, and the University of Dayton—but the bench of experts seems to still be fairly thin, and there does not seem to be a sense of huge overall progress.  

Building to a Diverse Population of Learners

This text, though, may go some way to advancing the ideas and some effective practices of universal design.  The editor describes “universal design” as a kind of big-tent concept which strives to include a broad universe of learners in higher education and which conceptualizes differing learner abilities as a diversity issue.  In this view, all people are on a multi-dimensional and evolving continuum of abilities and stand to benefit from universal design.  

In the first chapter, she writes of the need to be more inclusive in higher education by not designing to a theoretical normative learner but more to the needs of a broad population:    

“Once the exclusive domain of the young, able-bodied, Caucasian male, the postsecondary student body of today is more than half female and includes significant populations of racial and ethnic minorities, international students, those with low socio-economic status, veterans, individuals whose age is older than that of the typical college student, and other groups; and the student population is expected to increase in diversity in the coming years (The Lawlor Group, n.d.).  In particular, the enrollment of students with disabilities, once rare, has grown to an estimated 11% of the student body in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).  Many of the disabilities students report are ‘invisible,’ including those that affect abilities to learn, pay attention, and interact socially.  Veterans of recent wars are adding to the growing pool of college students with multiple disabilities” (Burgstahler, 2015, “Universal Design in Higher Education,” p. 4).    

Many learners may fit within multiple minority status categories.  Simply providing accommodations for learners who ask for it leaves out many who qualify for such supports but do not claim them.  Approximately 60% of the students who received special education services in high school do not seek such accommodations in their post-secondary education. The thinking is that an “accommodation-only” approach alone may not be optimal:  

  • “The process for securing accommodations marginalizes students with disabilities by requiring a segmented process for gaining access.
  • An accommodation does not always result in content and experiences equivalent to those of other students.  
  • Accommodations can create an unnecessary dependency on a student service office.  
  • The value associated with an accommodation does not extend to students with disabilities who choose not to self-disclose nor to other students in a class who might benefit from it.  
  • An accommodation for one student does not in and of itself make a course of other offering more accessible to students in the future” (Burgstahler, 2015, “Universal Design in Higher Education,” p. 10).    
In a sense, an important change will be one of attitude, of positively and proactively facing the universal design challenge:  

“What might be the first response of a professor when a student who is blind enrolls in her art history class? Would she look forward to the unique perspective this student brings to her field and classroom?  Would she be eager to learn how a person with a visual impairment might experience art?  Would the tone and content of her communication make the student feel welcomed?  An important first step in creating a welcoming and inclusive classroom environment for all students is to truly value diversity in its many forms, including, in this case, to see differences in visual abilities as simply a normal part of the human experience, rather than an extraordinary burden to be dealt with” (Burgstahler, 2015, “Universal Design of Instruction: From Principles to Practice,” p. 31).  

Disability has been conceptualized for a long time as a feature within the individual. Universal design thinking reconceptualizes this as a shortcoming of the environment instead, with the solution to make design changes in physical spaces, tools, procedures, and attitudes.  

What Would "Universal Design" Look Like?

What would a generalized process of universal design look like? The editor conceptualizes it as follows:  

“Identify the application -> Define the universe -> Involve consumers -> Adopt guidelines / standards -> Apply guidelines / standards -> Plan for accommodations -> Train and support -> Evaluate” (Burgstahler, 2015, “Universal Design in Higher Education,” p. 19).    

The State of the Research into Universal Design

A research team conducted a review of the literature (and a qualitative metaanalysis) on universal design by extracting peer-reviewed articles (published between January 1, 2000, and September 30, 2014) from four databases in order to capture a sense of the field.  They found only four articles which met their inclusion criteria from 2000 – 2007 and then 15 from 2008 – September 30, 2014.  They found some works which used action research and qualitative research methods as the primary methodologies.  The authors only found one work with a “true experimental design and included random assignment of subjects to the control and intervention groups” (Roberts, Satlykgylyjova, & Parks, 2015, “Universal Design of Instruction in Postsecondary Education:  A Literature Review of Empirically Based Articles,” p. 68).  

The authors extracted helpful recommendations for effective practice from various research works, such as offering students structured choices for learning at various junctures of their studies, using rubrics for graded assignments, and providing a study guide or outline of contents provided in advance (p. 75).  They suggest that the field would benefit from more empirical research, particularly quantitative-based large-scale randomized control trials involving universal design interventions as well as disaggregating various UD endeavors and testing their relative efficacy with different subgroups of learners.  

Jenna W. Gravel, Laura A. Edwards, Christopher J. Buttimer, and David H. Rose’s “Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education:  Reflections on Principles and their Application” describe a multi-year live experiment in the application of universal design to a university course, the semester-long T-560 “Meeting the Challenge of Individual Differences” taught through the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).  The students had three main areas of expertise:  human development, technology in education, and teaching and curriculum development (p. 82), and these areas informed some of their insights. The authors designed and integrated universal design endeavors in their classes as works-in-progress. They emphasized the importance of being open to feedback from a wide range of individuals from various stakeholder groups.  They described how graphical learner notes were shared among the course members in highlight different ways to thinking and knowing. They described the need to move from passive lectures to more hands-on and minds-on types of learning. They showed how electronic texts should be enhanced with voice-assisted reading and embedded vocabulary definitions; further, they observed how printed texts tend to be fairly fixed and harder to augment with accessibility features (p. 90).  Another UD endeavor involved going to a social media platform for team learning.  They used a group learning rubric to engage their learners in appreciating the unique contributions of the various team members to the learning. 

Jeanne L. Higbee’s “The Faculty Perspective:  Implementation of Universal Design in a First-Year Classroom” spotlights some universal design approaches in universal instructional design (UID) that align with the seminal work of Chickering and Gamson (1987):  
“Components of UID, which are based on the work of Chickering and Gamson (1987), include (a) creating welcoming classrooms; (b) determining the essential components of a course; (c) communicating clear expectations; (d) providing constructive feedback; (e) exploring the use of natural supports for learning, including technology, to enhance opportunities for all learners; (f) designing teaching methods that consider diverse learning styles, abilities, ways of knowing, and previous experience and background knowledge; (g) creating multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge; and (h) promoting interaction among and between faculty and students (Fox & Johnson, 2000; Opitz & Block, 2006, as cited by Higbee, 2015, “The Faculty Perspective:  Implementation of Universal Design in a First-Year Classroom,” p. 102).  

Such observations support the argument that much of universal design aligns smoothly with pro-learning practices found in other areas of learning research.  One critique of UD is that it does not consider cultural aspects of learners or their social identities’ “intersectionality” in real-world identities.  Some have proposed integrating the multicultural instructional design model with UID to address some of these issues (Higbee, 2015, p. 111).  

Since UD is student-centered, their experiences with UD-mediated learning is a critical part of the feedback.  Imke Durre, Michael Richardson, Carson Smith, Jessie Amelia Shulman, and Sarah Steele’s “Universal Design of Instruction:  Reflections of Students” captures the reflections of learners with various types of disabilities.  These learners mull what sorts of teaching interventions were effective for them. They emphasize the importance of instructor inclusivity and approachability to motivate learners. They emphasize the need for faculty to be prepared and to make interactions accessible for all participants.  They emphasized the importance of having large visual aids in face-to-face learning contexts and also to have tactile aids.  They pointed to the importance of having regular and detailed feedback to learners to improve their work.  Learners expressed the importance of having instructor support to access necessary accommodations for their learning.  Several contributors to this chapter emphasized the importance for the learners themselves to be self-aware of their own learning needs and to be willing to share about their disabilities with the instructor—and to not shift responsibility for their own learning elsewhere.  

Inspirationally, one learner (unidentified) wrote of an exemplary instructor’s approach: 

“One instructor offered to teach me verbal concepts of synoptic meteorology that other students learned by completing weather maps. When I asked him a few months before the beginning of the class what he thought might be the best way for me to participate in this highly visual work, he offered me the approach of weekly one-on-one meetings.  I very much appreciated his willingness to go out of his way to help me learn the material in a manner that was effective for me” (Durre, Richardson, Smith, Shulman, & Steele, 2015, “Universal Design of Instruction:  Reflections of Students,” p. 129).   

Engaging Invisible Disabilities

Al Souma and Deb Casey’s “The Benefits of Universal Design for Students with Psychological Disabilities” sheds light on the so-called “invisible” disabilities, often related to perception, cognition, symbolic processing, memory, learning, and other factors.  These authors propose various testing strategies that may be applied to benefit learners with particular learning preferences, which they describe as “expressive,” “team or group support,” “collaborative,” “reflective,” and “technology-competent” learners (p. 136).  

In Craig L. Spooner, Patricia L. Davies, and Catherine L. Schelly’s “Universal Design for Learning Intervention in Postsecondary Education: Results from Two Effectiveness Studies,” the authors share their sense of optimism about universal design:  

“With its emphasis on diversity, inclusion, multimodal learning, and technology, universal design in higher education (UDHE) holds the potential to ameliorate some of higher education’s most pressing challenges, including low rates of persistence, retention, and degree completion” (p. 139).  

The authors, all at Colorado State University, address their efforts to capture learner feedback on UD endeavors through surveys. They write:  “To accomplish our research goal, we needed to (1) operationalize the three UDL principles into a set of observable, measurable teaching practices, linked as closely as possible to commonly acknowledged good teaching practices in higher education; (2) create a UDL student questionnaire designed to measure student perceptions of the training’s effects; and (3) develop a training program” (p. 141).  In these endeavors, the authors built their interventions based on Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles, selected adult learning theories, student engagement research, and critical thinking research (pp. 141 - 142).  

Angling for Administrative Awareness and Support

In Karen A. Myers’ “Incorporating Universal Design into Administration Courses:  A Case Study,” the author describes the introduction of UD in courses for student affairs professionals with teaching methods that simultaneously model universal design.    

Leanne R. Ketterlin-Geller, Christopher J. Johnstone, and Martha L. Thurlow’s “Universal Design of Assessment” wrangles with how to ensure that the often high-stakes assessments in higher education may be as universally accessible as possible.  They explain:  

“To develop an assessment that addresses both validity and accessibility concerns, instructors are faced with the challenge of identifying the intended target skills, the access skills necessary to be successful on the assessment, and accessibility approaches to support students’ demonstration of their knowledge, skills, and abilities. For the latter, many features of UDA approaches that emerged from K-12 education are applicable in postsecondary education” (Ketterlin-Geller, Johnstone, & Thurlow, 2015, “Universal Design of Assessment,” p. 167).   

Another approach is CAST’s “accessibility through flexibility” by offering multiple ways for students to show their knowledge and skills. The authors call for additional research on applying UDA principles to assessments and assignments in postsecondary education and finding out what effects there are from that.  

Broadly speaking, student services include a range of supports to enable higher education learning.  Sheryl E. Burgstahler’s “Universal Design of Student Services:  From Principles to Practice” describes these services:  

“These services include recruitment and admissions, registration, financial aid, recreation, advising, and counseling services; computer, engineering, and science labs; tutoring and learning centers; libraries; housing and residential life; and student organizations. She also shares a framework for applying universal design (UD) to make any student service unit more welcoming to, accessible to, and usable by all students. The framework includes guidelines, practices, a process, and resources” (Burgstahler, 2015, “Universal Design of Student Services:  From Principles to Practice,” p. 179).  

Burghstahler (2015) provides a way forward for student services professionals to design their services universally:  
  • Identify the service
  • Define the universe (the overall population and the range of diverse characteristics) 
  • Involve consumers 
  • Adopt guidelines / standards 
  • Apply guidelines / standards 
  • Plan for accommodations
  • Train and support
  • Evaluate (“Universal Design of Student Services:  From Principles to Practice,” pp. 182 - 183) 
Alice Anderson, Rebecca C. Cory, Pam Griffin, Patricia J. Richter, Scott Ferguson, Eric Patterson, and Lacey Reed, in “Applications of Universal Design to Student Services:  Experiences in the Field,” propose a student services accessibility checklist:  

“planning, policies, and evaluation
physical environments and products
information resources and technology 
events” (p. 192).   

They describe a successful welcome week event informed by universal design planning and execution:  

“One institution that wanted to make its Welcome Week more welcoming to all new students used universal design principles to examine current practices and make more aspects of the orientation accessible. First, campus signage was examined to ensure that accessible entrances to buildings were easy to find and that there were large-print and braille signs in all buildings.  Next, the school arranged the schedule for Welcome Week to be simple and predictable:  academics in the morning, exploration of clubs and employment in the afternoon, and major social events in the evening. Each required session was repeated multiple times to allow students options to plan their own schedules and eliminate the likelihood of fatigue.  Finally, all students were given a guide to Welcome Week, available in print, alternate formats, and online, allowing participants to access at their convenience the schedule of activities and session handouts. These universally designed improvements to the traditional Welcome Week activities created a more welcoming, accessible, and navigable program for all students” (p. 199).  

Burgstahler’s “Universal Design of Physical Spaces:  From Principles to Practice” emphasizes the importance of mobility, safety, choice, and comfort for people in physical locations.  “UD addresses issues not only for individuals with disabilities but also for those who are short and tall, are excellent or poor readers, are right- or left-handed, speak a variety of native languages, and have other characteristics, only some of which are defined as disabilities,” writes Burgstahler (p. 205).  In terms of physical space use, Elisabeth Goldstein’s “Applications of Universal Design to Higher Education Facilities” observes the importance of having user-friendly control systems in smart classrooms.   “Radical flexibility” in the classroom environment offers features for ergonomics, adjustable tables (that may be raised or lowered, that may be folded), rolling chairs, and accommodations for technologies.  

In another work, Burgstahler’s “Universal Design of Technology:  From Principles to Practice” touches on the complexities of building technologies that are universally designed and user-friendly, based on the following main areas:   output/displays, input/controls, manipulations, documentation, and safety (Burgstahler, 2015, “Universal Design of Technology: From Principles to Practice,” pp. 235 - 236).   

Not only do software tools have to be reliable and robust and secure, they should provide users with intuitive interfaces and context-sensitive help.  There should be sufficient hazard warnings for software tool users, to mitigate against potential harms from mis-use.  Information displays should be accessible.  Technology tools must function well with various input devices and controls.  For websites, the W3C has offered WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) to enable Web accessibility (Burgstahler, 2015, “Universal Design of Technology: From Principles to Practice,” pp. 237 - 239).  In this work, there is a helpful checklist for assessing the accessibility of an institution’s technologies and to plan steps to comply with government calls for technologies accessible to all students (pp. 242 - 243).  

Terrill Thompson’s “Video for All:  Accessibility of Video Content and Universal Design” emphasizes the broad uses of video in higher education and the need to make these videos accessible not only through captioning but through accessible video players.  Thompson observes that many with visual acuity issues will listen to the audio linked to a video, but the audio offers incomplete information transfer—since not all of the visually-conveyed information is in the audio alone.  In some cases, it will be important to offer supplementary contents to ensure parity with those learners who are fully able to use the visuals and audio in the video.   How in-video narrators represent the contents is also important, such as if they read through the slides.  For those who are both deaf and blind, it may help to have a text transcript in Braille.  The author makes an important point about Able Player, built on the HTML 5 media application programming interface (API) that enables users of that player to set caption preferences, audio description preferences, transcript preferences, language preferences, and other aspects.  

Roberta Thomson, Catherine S. Fichten, Alice Havel, Jillian Budd, and Jennison Asuncion, in “Blending Universal Design, E-Learning, and Information and Communication Technologies,” explore how to apply universal design to e-learning, given the enablements and affordances of various e-learning tools.  

Kimberly E. Bigelow’s “Raising Awareness of Universal Design in the Engineering Curriculum: Strategies and Reflections” describes the author’s experiences with integrating universal design into the engineering curriculum (at the University of Dayton in Ohio) in order to educate students “who will go on to design all sorts of products, processes, and services, about the need to practice design with a fundamental consideration for all of those individuals who may use, maintain, repair, or otherwise interact with what has been developed” (p. 297).  She found that using ill-structured and complex design challenges for student projects highlighted both the benefits of universal design but also areas where there were competing design objectives.  

Faculty Development and Universal Design

Susan Yager, a faculty developer, shared “Small Victories:  Faculty Development and Universal Design” in the face of a challenging research university culture, with a tendency to place major pressures on faculty and often to focus more on research and grant funding than on teaching.  In many university courses, the student enrollments are so large that faculty themselves are not aware of the unique needs of learners.  While Yager shared a number of lessons learned, she also made a heartening point:  

“If I learned anything about universal design as a faculty developer, it is that universal design is good teaching:  it helps instructors to think of students as individuals and promotes planning for learners with differing strengths and abilities.  Universal design is also a boon to students with strong tendencies or preferences that might impede learning but do not rise to the level of a documented disability.  Universal design offers what one might call a diverse approach to diversity, a habit of thought that creates options rather than limitations” (Yager, 2015, “Small Victories: Faculty Development and Universal Design,” p. 313).   

Sally S. Scott and Joan M. McGuire’s “A Case Study Approach to Promote Practical Application of Universal Design for Instruction” offers a number of mini-cases and scenarios to spark reflection and conversations around universal design in instruction.   In this work, the coauthors showcase the nine principles of universal design for instruction:  
  • Principle 1:  Equitable use 
  • Principle 2:  Flexibility in use
  • Principle 3:  Simple and intuitive 
  • Principle 4:  Perceptible information 
  • Principle 5:  Tolerance for error 
  • Principle 6:  Low physical effort
  • Principle 7:  Size and space for approach and use 
  • Principle 8:  A community of learners 
  • Principle 9:  Instructional climate (pp. 317 - 318) 
Donald E. Finn, Elizabeth Evans Getzel, Susan B. Asselin, and Virginia Reilly’s “Implementing Universal Design: Collaborations across Campus” describes a number of efforts at Virginia Tech to promote universal design:  hosting disability awareness workshops, conducting outreach to the campus community, setting up a universal design planning committee, providing incentives for faculty participation, building collaborative partnerships, offering trainings in multiple formats, and assiduously embodying universal design in the approach.   

In Tara Buchannan and Rachel E. Smith’s “Collaborations for Usable Design: A Case Study in Partnerships to Promote Universal Design in Higher Education,” the authors describe serendipitous and collegial efforts to bring universal design to Western Illinois University.   


This text is highly readable, with practical insights and firsthand experiences with universal design in the real.  There are well-captioned photos of learners in action.  This text contains a number of voices with unique insights, from administrative, faculty, staff, and learner perspectives.  Universal Design in Higher Education:  From Principles to Practice is comprised of five sections:  
  1. Introduction (Part 1) 
  2. Universal Design of Instruction in Higher Education (Part 2) 
  3. Universal Design of Student Services and Physical Spaces in Higher Education (Part 3) 
  4. Universal Design of Technology in Higher Education (Part 4) 
  5. Promotion and Institutionalization of Universal Design (Part 5) 
Sheryl E. Burgstahler is the founder and director of DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) and Access Technology Centers at the University of Washington.   

Additional Resources

There are some online resources which are referred to (and sometimes even included) in this book. Some related links are included below.  

University of Washington’s DO-IT Center:

UW’s DO-IT and The Center for Universal Design in Education (with a Knowledge Base of resources):

Universal Design in Higher Education:  Promising Practices – PDFs (70 pp., free downloadable):  

A Checklist for Inclusive Teaching:

AccessCollege (of the DO-IT Center):  (including The Faculty Room, The Student Services Conference Room, The Employment Office, The Student Lounge, The Veterans Center, The Board Room, The Center for Universal Design in Education, and STEM Lab)  

National Center on Universal Design for Learning’s UDL Guidelines Graphic Organizer:    

About the Author 

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  She recently worked on a committee to support accessibility in online learning at K-State.  That committee put forth a list of suggestions to the campus CIO just before a number of budgetary challenges affected the campus.  Her email is  

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