Learners are becoming increasingly diverse, displaying different needs and preferences (Goddard, 2003). As education providers seek to find tools and methods to make inclusive education practical and manageable for diverse students, Universal Design for Learning presents a credible solution. The nature of student learning experiences, their attention in studies and their results in relation to learning outcomes have resulted in an increased emphasis on education providers to enhance their capacity to support diversity (Bracken & Novak, 2019). In recent years, the UK government has sought to increase widening participation to include more students from groups that traditionally were unrepresented in Higher Education while simultaneously encouraging universities to maintain or further strengthen student retention (Jones & Thomas, 2005). In January 2017, the UK’s Department of Education (DfE) published a report entitled “Inclusive teaching and learning in higher education as a route to excellence”. The information was explicitly developed to inform strategic leadership within the HE sector on how to design and implement inclusive practices and assessment processes. Throughout the report, Universal Design for Learning was explicitly identified as a conceptual framework to facilitate inclusive practices. “The principle of Universal Design for Learning recognises that learning variability is the rule rather than the exception, and as such can be considered to be good teaching practise” (Department for Education, 2017:11). The report also cited that “very few HE providers have embedded inclusive practice across their degree programmes beyond pockets of good practice” (Department for Education, 2017:27). To teach effectively, we must understand the principles that apply to everyone and have the flexibility to adapt these principles for an individual experiences. When learning design does not address learner variability, many students will inevitably have a sub-optimal student experience (Davies et al., 2013).
The student experience
Within educational environments, decisions need to be made about the pedagogical strategies, sequence of activities and the technology and tools used to support learning (Bannan-Ritland, 2003). The rapid shift to predominantly online teaching prompted by the coronavirus pandemic is challenging the accepted standard of educational delivery. Covid-19 has brought about the most significant disruption to global education systems in history (Azoulay, 2020). The closure of schools and campuses worldwide has forced 1.5 billion students in over 190 countries into a new era of education. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 2.38 million students were studying at UK higher education institutions in the 2018/19 academic cycle (HESA, 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a rapid paradigm shift to deliver educational programmes predominately online. Although blended and distance learning are not new concepts within education, working at this pace and scale presents significant challenges for educators, institutions, and students. Before the pandemic, harmonising inclusive and effective pedagogy with the affordances of technology remained an elusive and challenging concept to align consistently (Hammond & Manfra, 2009). Many Universal Design for Learning advocates now hope that Universal Design for Learning will be at the core of curriculum design and development in this new era. Applying the principles of Universal Design for Learning using technology is becoming commonplace (Benton-Borghi, 2013). Technology allows for significant affordances, thus creating an additional opportunity for practical adoption. Although technology is not a prerequisite for implementing Universal Design for Learning, creating multiple paths of engagement, representation and expression can be practically facilitated through technology-enhanced learning. Technology can enable shared virtual spaces for learners to participate and collaborate in learning in new and innovative ways. From enrolment to graduation, nearly all aspects of a student’s university experience are now intertwined with online platforms (Hooper & Rieber, 1995). How the virtual spaces are presented, curated, interacted with is key to a productive learning experience. Across these virtual spaces, educators need to return to the critical question of; how can a student approach or interact with this successfully? Designed environments and materials are created to fulfil a purpose or serve a need. In the context of virtual learning environments, this involves creating procedures, processes, and materials for students (Merrill et al., 1996). Every product and territory has a “user experience”, regardless of whether it is considered or actively improved. The quality and clarity of these designed environments and materials often determine whether a student feels confident completing learning activities or engaging with materials (Castañeda et al., 2007). Every touchpoint or interaction between a student and an institution can be categorised as a user experience. The challenge now for educators is how to make these spaces as engaging and effective as possible. Phrases like “universal” and “everyone” should also give us a pause. So often, these ways of talking about people often flatten or suppress differences instead of understanding the different requirements for users (Courage & Baxter, 2005). Learning design needs to remain accountable to its students. It is also important to remember we are designing for individuals. The needs for people at the extreme ends of the ability spectrum can look very different. Whilst learning providers struggle with the complexity of designing and delivering curriculums to an increasingly diverse student population, the emphasis on measuring student success through learning outcomes remains a constant requirement (Maher, 2004).