Universal Design for Learning, Inclusive Design, and Design Justice: What’s the Difference? (And Does It Matter?)

This winter I’ve had the pleasure of co-teaching (with Amy Collier) a winter term course for Middlebury College undergraduates called Inclusive Design and Design Justice in Practice. It’s afforded me the opportunity to think deeply with these students about the values and practices underlying inclusive design and design justice approaches to designing, writ large — our students are working on design projects that run the gamut from designing physical spaces, to hiring processes, to political processes, to algorithms. During the course, I’ve been grappling with the idea of what it means to practice Universal Design for Learning, or inclusive design, or design justice. They arguably share the core value of addressing design exclusion; indeed, the terms universal design and inclusive design are often used interchangeably. All three of these frameworks are used to address design exclusion by taking into account the needs of people who are typically marginalized by design, so, aren’t they pretty much all the same thing?

In this blog post, I want to explore the ways in which the values and practices of UDL and inclusive design and design justice differ, particularly in terms of the process of how they are put into practice. And while inclusive design and design justice approaches can be applied broadly to design problems across domains, in this post, I’m going to situate my reflection within the context of learning design, because that’s the domain in which I work.

Although we didn’t include Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in our winter term course, I came to inclusive design and design justice through UDL. I was introduced to UDL in my previous role before joining the Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry at Middlebury, as an associate professor of instructional technology in a college of education at a mid-size state university. When the first UDL guidelines were released in 2009, my college as a whole was really interested in how we could integrate the UDL principles into our own courses and course design, for two reasons. First, we sought to reduce barriers to learning for students in our courses. Second, we wanted to model UDL in practice for the current (in-service) and future (pre-service) teachers who were students in our courses, and to help them think about how they could identify barriers in their curriculum and in their teaching, and take action to address those barriers. Of particular interest within my own disciplinary background in educational technology, the UDL framework talks a lot about the potential of digital technologies to provide flexibility in learning design, which creates one avenue for reducing barriers to student learning (although we know that technologies can and do introduce barriers as well). 

UDL has “universal design” in the name, and while the term universal design is frequently conflated with inclusive design, the Inclusive Design Research Centre points out that the universal design approach seeks “one size fits all” solutions, while the inclusive design approach seeks “one size fits one” solutions. Interestingly, the UDL on Campus website describes UDL as a framework for “creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone–not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs,” a definition that explicitly rejects the universal design approach of one-size-fits-all. In that sense, UDL may be closer to inclusive design than other universal design approaches. 

But once we look deeper into how UDL and inclusive design are put into practice, differences begin to emerge. Inclusive design is practiced through an explicitly participatory design process, which sees users as experts in their own experience and lives, and invites user participation through the design process. UDL employs a more traditional design approach, one which is led by an expert designer –  in this case, the teacher or curriculum designer – who identifies potential barriers faced by a set of imagined users (students). In learning design, an inclusive design approach to designing curriculum would include students in the process, perhaps through annotating the syllabus, and providing opportunities for ongoing course feedback throughout the semester (not just at the end of the semester), so that students and teachers can surface mismatches as they occur and work together to address them. 

How about inclusive design and design justice? Although I am newer to design justice, my understanding is that these two approaches share a rejection of the universal “one size fits all” by centering the voices of people who have typically marginalized by design, those who are considered “edge” cases in traditional design approaches. And inclusive design and design justice both share a commitment to participatory practices. One important difference, however, is that design justice is a user-led approach; it has an explicit commitment to liberatory practices and just design processes that are non-exploitative and ensure that co-designers have ownership over the end product. In practice, a design justice approach means that designers make a commitment to working in community with co-designers, while attending to power dynamics within the design process. Designing curriculum from a design justice perspective might include co-designing the syllabus with students, providing a space for students to identify class projects that are impactful for their own lives, and using ungrading to more evenly distribute the power to decide what counts as success among teacher and student.

In the title of this blog post, I posed the question, does it matter? No, and yes. My goal in writing this post was not to declare that one approach is better than the other – and I absolutely believe that if you are applying any of these processes in an attempt to design learning that takes into account learner variability and the barriers that learners face, especially our learners who are typically marginalized by our designs, you’re doing worthy work. And, although for the sake of argument I have drawn hard lines around these 3 approaches, I acknowledge that the lines can blur between these approaches. However, I also believe the frameworks that we choose to work within shape our actions, and so it can be useful to think through the ramifications of our choice of framework. At the start of a design project, it’s worth asking, is my chosen approach a good fit for the goals of the project, my own values and beliefs, and what I’m trying to accomplish?

Core values for Open Pedagogy

As part of our Digital Pedagogy Lab track, Critical Open Pedagogy, Rajiv asked us to articulate our core values for Open Pedagogy. I came into this track without a defined sense of what Open Pedagogy entailed, and so this list represents the intersection of my developing understanding of OP, and the overarching values that I bring to teaching and the design of learning environments in general. These values are influenced by sociocultural learning theory, inclusive design, and an ethic of care.

Without further ado, and with the caveat that these are initial and evolving:

Connected – drawing specifically on the connected learning framework (Ito et al., 2015) to describe the ways in which Open Pedagogy can be used to bridge students’ learning across their learning ecosystem

Transparent – I think that for students to claim their agency in educational contexts, teachers and learner designers need to be detailed, specific, and forthcoming about the expectations, assumptions, and risks built into the learning.

Supportive/Care – not throwing students into OER and OP, but helping them to understand and make decisions about what it means to work in the open

Flexible/multiple pathways – designing learning in a way that offers options for students to learn (and do OER) in ways that make sense for them

Identities and belonging

I’m really excited to join digPINS, and especially to start off with a week dedicated to thinking about digital identity. I geek out a bit in this area (as those on the synchronous Zoom call on 5/9 can attest – sorry!), as my dissertation research used new literacies and social identities frameworks to consider the role that technology played in undergraduate social identity enactment. (Emphasis on identities rather than identity – thinking of identity as socially constructed within discourses, and that we perform or enact multiple identities over the course of a given day – see, here I’m performing my insufferable nerd identity. ;)) Anyway, all of which is to say, that I have Thoughts and Feelings about the topic.

Our “assignment” this week was to create a digital identity map using the Visitor-Resident continuum. As I set out to perform my “good student” identity and create my own V-R map, I opened up the suggested reading to find out a little bit more about the theoretical underpinnings of the V-R mapping activity. I understood it to have been created to push back against the Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants construct which is overly essentializing (I agree, and wrote about it in a 2007 manuscript called Questioning Assumptions About Students’ Expectations for Technology in College Classrooms). I understood the “visitor” identity to be an Internet user who is information seeking/task oriented, and who consumes but doesn’t produce; on the flip side, a “resident” is connection seeking – for either social or task-oriented purposes – and who produces as well as consumes.

But Visitor and Resident didn’t sit well with me; they felt in some way value-laden (not unlike Digital Native and Digital Immigrant). Like, the ideal to aspire to is Resident, with its emphasis on production. In the Zoom chat, Sundi Richards pointed out that it was interesting that I took Visitor to have a negative connotation, and I think this feeling may have been shaped by the fact that before doing this exercise, I read another suggested reading, Why Academics Need a Digital Persona, which seemed to me to underscore the value placed on production in digital spaces (without problematizing things like, vital for whom? for what purposes? when we value digital production, who gets left out?).

Also, Autumm Caines made a comment that resonated with me: that belonging is in the mix when we’re talking about identities. Writing about how social identities are enacted within Discourses, Jim Gee suggests that we perform social identities in order to be recognized as belonging to/by other people (like us) within a Discourse, while at the same time signaling the boundaries of the Discourse – who we are not like, who does not belong. Although Visitor and Resident are meant to be snapshots of practice contextualized within particular times and spaces, they still signal something (to me, anyway) about being an insider or outsider (the specifics of which I’m still trying to unpack, I’ll admit – but, this blog post is due by Friday, and this “good student” will turn it in on time!).

So, instead of completing the V-R map, I chose to play with the triangle map proposed by Donna Lanclos and Lawrie Phipps, which asks you to place yourself on a continuum of actions – creation, consumption, and conversation – rather than align with a particular identity. Here’s the result of my (quick) effort:

Sarah's triangle map of Internet actions and behaviors

It was easier for me to align my tools and platforms with these behaviors and actions; those inside the triangle represent institutional actions/uses, and outside the triangle, personal actions/uses. Some cross the barrier between personal and institutional; I used a directional arrow to indicate this. Facebook, for example, I use primarily to share personal updates with family and friends, but occasionally use to post about my professional goings-on. We had an interesting discussion the Zoom session as to whether/how to assign meaning to the location of the tool within the triangle; Sundi suggested that location could indicate intensity of use, along the lines of the SenseMaker survey method.

Gee defines Discourses as “well-integrated combinations of language, actions, interactions, objects, tools, technologies, beliefs, and values.” I think that the triangle map could be a useful conversation starter for connecting actions and tools to beliefs and values and how those are taken up in digital social identity enactment.

April showers of presentations: OLC Innovate and AERA

When it rains (presentations), it pours (presentations)! This month, I had the pleasure and privilege of participating in conference sessions at OLC Innovate in Denver, and at the American Educational Research Association conference in Toronto.

NOW at OLC Innovate

At the OLC Innovate conference, Amy Collier and I presented Combating Information Pollution Through the Newspapers on Wikipedia Project. We framed the Conversation, Not Presentation session with the question, How can higher ed take action to clean up our (digital) information environment, with students in the lead? We introduced the Newspapers on Wikipedia project as one strategy for engaging students in critical digital literacies explorations that have a positive impact on the digital environment. Check out our slides for more info, including details on how to get started editing Wikipedia.

Connected Learning in Teacher Ed at AERA

Sadly, I wasn’t able to make it to AERA in person, but the Connected Learning in Teacher Ed Network sponsored a structured poster session that included 2 projects I’ve been working on: the CLinTE lit review emerging findings, and wmMOOC project findings. Photos of the posters in action below!

poster presenting findings of integrative lit review of connected learning research
poster presenting findings of integrative lit review of connected learning research
poster presenting findings related to connected learning in the Writing as Making MOOC (wmMOOC)
poster presenting findings related to connected learning in the Writing as Making MOOC (wmMOOC)

What’s Sarah reading and writing? February 2019 edition

While our work often manifests in the creation of digital spaces and technology-supported learning experiences, digital pedagogy is a scholarly endeavor. Here’s what I’m currently reading and writing to inform my thinking.

What’s Sarah reading?

Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice, by Sasha Constanza-Chock

What’s Sarah writing?

Bringing Disability in the Discussion: Examining Technology Accessibility as an Equity Concern in the Field of Instructional Technology, by Natalie L. Shaheen and Sarah Lohnes Watulak

What’s Sarah reading and writing? November 2018 edition

(It’s still November, right? In the category of better late than never, here’s what I’m reading and writing this month.)

While our work often manifests in the creation of digital spaces and technology-supported learning experiences, digital pedagogy is a scholarly endeavor. Here’s what I’m currently reading and writing to inform my thinking.

What’s Sarah Reading?


What’s Sarah Writing?

Guest Editorial in the International Journal of Information and Learning Technology special issue on Equity in Digital Teaching and Learning (co-authored with Rebecca Woodard, Nathan Phillips, and Matthew Farber)

Special issue of the International Journal of Information and Learning Technology on Equity in Digital Teaching & Learning

I’m very excited to share that the special issue that I co-guest edited with Matt Farber, Becca Woodard, and Nate Phillips is finally available online! We sought to bring together articles that explored various topics around equity in digital teaching and learning, with the intent of contributing “…a small move that adds to the ongoing efforts to foreground equity and critically interrogate equitable digital teaching and learning.” You can access the full issue at the IJILT website.

Special thanks to Jade Davis and Sean Michael Morris , who contributed their time and thoughts to the guest editorial. I particularly appreciate the way that both Sean and Jade started by pushing back on the assumptions behind the first question we asked. 🙂  Well worth a read.

National Writing Project Radio episode on wmMOOC now available

Earlier this month, wmMOOC colleagues Vicki McQuitty, Joe Runciman, Stacey Scheper, and I recorded a session of the National Writing Project (NWP) Radio podcast. We talked about our experiences designing and facilitating a teacher professional learning community on the topic of writing as making. Take a listen to the podcast!

Follow the Writing as Making MOOC project on Twitter (@wmMOOC)

Find out more about the Writing as Making MOOC project

image of a pen with various social media logos on the side, and the #wmMOOC hashtag

What’s Sarah reading and writing? October 2018

(I know it’s not quite October yet, but…)

While our work often manifests in the creation of digital spaces and technology-supported learning experiences, digital pedagogy is a scholarly endeavor. Here’s what I’m currently reading and writing to inform my thinking.


What’s Sarah reading?

How to build an ethical online course, by Jesse Stommel in An Urgency of Teachers


What’s Sarah writing?

Examining college students’ uptake of Facebook through the lens of domestication theory

Is a Video Enough? Considering Instructor Presence and Social Presence in Online Courses

small figurine of budda on a green leaf

Recently, DLINQ convened a conversation with Middlebury Institute for International Studies faculty around online/hybrid learning challenges and opportunities, and we asked the group to share words that come to mind when they think about online learning. The participants shared a mix of positive and negative attributes related to their experiences with online learning, ranging from “convenient” “flexible” and “student centered” to “solitary” “distracted” “visually bland, less appealing to the senses” and “requires extra effort to connect and stay engaged.” These latter comments speak to the heart of what many people fear is missing from online learning: personality, a sense of intimacy, a feeling of community and trust. When asked to describe a typical online course, people often think of the hour long video in which the instructor delivers the majority of content, with some follow up quiz questions, and (if lucky) a chance for students to explore their ideas together in a discussion forum; rinse and repeat, week after week. Where in this formula is the opportunity for faculty and students to share their authentic selves within a community of learners?

This question was on my mind as I read Cathy Barnes’ article Where’s the Teacher?  Defining the Role of Instructor Presence in Social Presence and Cognition in Online Education in the book Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning. Framed by the Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) Community of Inquiry model, “which described the concept of interplay between teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence” (Barnes, 2016, para. 4), the article presents a review of literature on research that examines the effects of instructor presence on social presence and student cognition in online learning. While we might expect instructor presence and social presence to be synonymous, instructor presence is separate from, but directly tied to, social presence, which in turn is tied to cognitive engagement. We can think of social presence as a co-constructed emotional engagement in the class community arising from the teacher and students’ ability to bring their personalities into the class. Instructor presence is an important consideration for designing online learning spaces that allow for such a community to emerge.

Drawing on Garrison et al. (2000), Barnes suggests that instructor presence can be embedded into an online course in three ways: 1) in the design of the online learning environment (the ways in which the course is structured and organized, selection of content and how students engage with the content), 2) through facilitation of the course (communication with students, feedback, etc.), and 3) through direct instruction (via, for example, lecture videos). Facilitation is the element of instructor presence that most clearly supports social presence; in their chapter on instructor social presence in the edited volume Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Practice and Research, Richardson and Lowenthal (2017) define instructor presence as “influenced by the frequency, type, and quality of interactions between the instructor and the students.” However, Barnes warns that interaction is a necessary but insufficient element of building social presence. Trust is a component of social presence, and you can interact with content or peers without feeling part of a trusted community of learners. Barnes suggests a number of ways for teachers to promote social presence, including through a focus on shared educational goals, student collaboration, and open and honest communication between all members of the class community.

So to come back to our typical online course described at the beginning of the post, don’t the hour-long instructor videos check the box of instructor presence? While videos may be one option for providing content via direct instruction, relying on long lecture videos as the central pedagogical approach ignores the facilitation aspect of instructor presence; social presence is shut down without an avenue for teachers and students to express themselves, or to demonstrate their understanding. The role of the teacher is, indeed, critical to successful online learning environments; but humanistic online learning design embeds instructor presence in ways that provide space for teachers and students to share their authentic selves within a community of learners.

Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash