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

blue, brown, and green colored pencils lying in a line on a blue background, sharpened tips facing toward you

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?

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