This essay documents the process of a year-long faculty pilot group in a western U.S. state university that applied disability studies scholarship to collaborative implementation of universal design for learning (UDL) and inclusive practices in teaching. In addition to faculty, library instructors, disabled student representatives, diversity and equity administrators, and disability support staff were involved in this group. The goals were to deepen knowledge about disability history, exclusions, and current innovations from disability communities; to increase knowledge and skills in accessible pedagogies, specifically in UDL; and to expand commitment and community among faculty participants in order to scale up efforts in our institution beyond the pilot group. This essay documents the experiences of the learning group, which consist of an overview of the curricular framework, a discussion of qualitative research from focus group interviews with faculty participants, and insights gained from the process, including unexpected collaborations, community building, and innovative ideas for institutional support and transformation.
As the field of disability studies has grown, with courses, interest groups, and programs expanding in colleges and universities, those invested in the field find themselves laboring to improve academic access for students, staff, and faculty in their respective institutions, much like ourselves. Disability studies scholarship has provided important critical engagement with access issues including analyses of structural barriers and intersectional ableist inequities in academic settings. Moreover, scholars have provided theoretical tools to expand the terms of what access actually means. In her path-breaking work, The Question of Access, Tanya Titchkosky (2011) reconceptualized access as an interpretive site, one that reveals perceptions of and relations to disability. As she explains, "Exploring the meaning of access is, fundamentally, the exploration of the meaning of our lives together—who is together with whom, how, where, when, and why?" (p. 6). In an analysis of the bureaucratic approach to accommodations, she argues that students, staff, and faculty with disabilities are often positioned as "half in" and "half out" (p. 27) of university life. Disabled students echo this concern, and many feel the barriers or supports they encounter very personally. Alyse Ritvo, for example, transferred out of an Ivy League university because of its dismissive attitude toward her physical access needs. She contrasts her experience there, where her status as a "second-class student" was clear and painful, with her experience at the University of California at Berkeley, where she was treated as "a full, valued person who was always welcome…to participate in every aspect of campus life" (2017, p. 31).
Through policies and adaptability, institutions communicate powerfully to students about how the academy actually values them. Crucial to institutional belonging are faculty attitudes and approaches to students with disabilities. On one side, faculty can be resistant to accommodations or rigid in ways that impede student progress; on the other side, they can be compassionate collaborators who actively support the success of their disabled students—of all their students. Margaret Price (2011) has made significant contributions to the conversation about breaking down barriers for students. Critically engaging with mental disability, from learning disability to neurodiversity to psychiatric diagnoses, her work exposes the structural able mindedness of classrooms, institutional practices, and intellectual discourse. Price's book, Mad at School (2011), offers a powerful invitation to reimagine the social, emotional, and intellectual expectations embedded in "kairotic spaces" (p. 58) of the university, such as classroom discussions, office hours, oral presentations, group work, and even informal gatherings. Price challenges readers to reimagine academic participation and rigor with mental and physical disability at the forefront, and to provide inclusive and expansive "ways to move" (2011, p. 87) and succeed in higher education.
In an effort to engage critically with these larger questions of access, a disability studies faculty (M. Jarman) and an instructional design expert (C. Boggs) in the campus teaching and learning center at a rural western university, initiated a faculty learning community to pair disability studies insights with Universal Design for Learning. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a pedagogical approach that works to remove access barriers at the point of instructional design. While UDL shouldn't be expected to solve all complexities of access, when applied within a larger context of disability studies, UDL provides a powerful pedagogical philosophy, strategic design processes, and technical tools for implementation. Since the 1980s, under the leadership of David Rose, CAST (a not-for-profit research and development organization) originated UDL and continues to provide research and training to K-12 and post-secondary educators on innovative instruction. The overarching framework of UDL stresses flexibility in learning across three key domains: multiple means of engagement; multiple means of representation; and multiple means of expression. UDL also frames these, respectively, as the why, what, and how of learning. From a design perspective as faculty, this means providing students with multiple ways to excite their interest in a topic and paying strategic attention to motivating student learning. In order to broaden the representational component, faculty could expand the curricular content, including the types of materials they present to students. This might mean supplementing academic readings with podcasts, interviews, visual timelines, videos, and active learning activities, among other elements. Finally, in terms of expression, UDL encourages instructors to provide diverse assignments, and even to offer choices to students in terms of how they demonstrate mastery of course material. Our overarching goal for our learning community was to bridge the practical and strategic tools of UDL with the theoretical substance of disability studies, in effect, to collaboratively imagine "ways to move" that would actively engage students with and without disabilities in our classrooms.
In our university, interest in expanding faculty and institutional commitments to inclusive pedagogy and increasing access equity has grown in recent years, and this project represents a multidisciplinary response to mobilize action in this area. With support from an internal "Innovation in Teaching" grant, Jarman and Boggs invited ten faculty members to participate in a year-long learning group (fall 2018 - spring 2019), in which participants would implement course changes in the spring semester. In addition to faculty members, library instructors, disabled student representatives, diversity and equity administrators, and disability support staff were involved in the group. From this interdisciplinary group, we identified a research team to ensure that the impact of the project was captured using empirical methods. A qualitative study was designed to focus on faculty experience and perspective shifts. We conducted focus groups before and after implementation of UDL course elements by the faculty pilot group. The web analysis software, Dedoose® was utilized for initial data analysis, followed by an iterative process of coding by the research team.
Goals for the pilot group included the following: to deepen knowledge about disability history, exclusions, and current innovations from disability communities; to increase knowledge and skills in accessible pedagogies, specifically in UDL; and to expand commitment and build community among participants in hopes of scaling up efforts beyond the pilot group. This essay documents the experiences of the learning group, which consist of an overview of the curricular framework, a discussion of qualitative research from focus group interviews with faculty participants, and insights gained from the process, including unexpected collaborations, community building, and innovative ideas for institutional support.
When UDL is implemented effectively, students indicate a higher level of engagement and appreciation for instructional responsiveness to their diverse learning styles and needs. In an undergraduate health sciences course with over 50 students, Kumar and Wideman (2014) found that students overwhelmingly utilized the UDL elements of the course. In fact, several students thought the course "should be a model for all others" (p. 140); empowered to make decisions about some course materials, weights of assignments, and due dates, they felt more ownership of their learning. In another larger scale study (Davies, Schelly, & Spooner, 2013), 386 students were surveyed across nine introductory psychology classes, to assess the effectiveness of UDL features of the courses. Student responses were compared to those in control group sections, which were taught by instructors who had not received UDL training. Notably, students mentioned and appreciated UDL strategies, listing the following as the most impactful: having well-organized, accessible materials, including resources in multiple formats, receiving outlines and summaries of key concepts at the beginning and end of classes, and integrated use of accessible instructional videos. Another study from Belgium (Griful-Freixenet et al, 2017) looked specifically at how students with disabilities were served by the implementation of UDL. Ten college students, most of whom had learning disabilities, participated in semi-structured interviews focused on reasonable accommodations, attributes of good teaching and class structure, and barriers to learning. Students identified many helpful UDL strategies such as having access to class notes, instructional materials ahead of time, and concept summaries or outlines. They also appreciated learning processes such as scaffolding, modeling and cooperative learning. This study reinforced, as scholars in disability studies have asserted (Knoll, 2009; Price, 2011; Dolmage, 2017), that learning barriers are not fully removed through UDL, and that meeting the access needs of one student occasionally creates barriers for others. Ultimately, researchers suggest implementing UDL while monitoring student progress individually in order to make needed adjustments.
While more research is needed on the impact of UDL on student learning and success, especially for students with disabilities, our pilot group was focused on increasing faculty investment in UDL as well as their confidence to innovate for accessibility. Although the literature on faculty perceptions toward UDL and inclusive design is somewhat limited (Roberts, Park, Brown, & Cook, 2011), recent studies indicate a generally positive attitude toward UDL among faculty (Cook, Rumrill, Tankersley, 2009; Dallas, Upton, & Sprong, 2014). At the same time, positive attitudes do not necessarily translate into broad implementation of UDL strategies and techniques in courses (Dallas, Sprong, & Kluesner, 2016; LaRocco & Wilken, 2013; Lombardi et al, 2011), and this gap between openness to and implementation of UDL emerged as an important finding in this review of research.
Izzo, Murray and Novak (2008) conducted a mixed-methods study on faculty perspectives toward UDL in higher education, in which they surveyed 271 faculty and teaching assistants. The researchers followed up with focus groups which ultimately included 92 faculty members and teaching assistants. The major finding was that participants from both groups believed UDL was the most needed instructional training. Based on these findings, Izzo, Murray and Novak (2008) developed an online training module to increase instructors' ability to incorporate UDL in their teaching. In another broad study, Lombardi, Murray, and Gerdes (2011) used a 31-item Inclusive Teaching Strategies Inventory (ITSI) they developed, which is a self-reported questionnaire that measures higher education faculty attitudes towards academic accommodations and UDL strategies. The results of their study of 289 higher education faculty were similar to those of Izzo, Murray, & Novak (2008). This 31-item instrument measures six dimensions of UDL: (a) multiple means of representation, (b) inclusive teaching strategies, (c) accommodations, (d) campus resources, (e) inclusive assessment, and (f) accessible course materials. Notably, this study revealed more favorable attitudes toward UDL and providing accommodations among faculty who were either female, non-tenured, part of the college of education, or had previous disability-related training. However, this study did not assess the extent to which faculty implemented UDL strategies and techniques in their own teaching.
The influence of prior disability experience, training, or background with students with disabilities on faculty perceptions is reflected in several other recent studies. Dallas, Sprong, and Upton (2014) used non-random sampling to survey 381 faculty at a Midwestern University to examine attitudes toward Universal Design for Instruction (UDI). Faculty were generally favorable, but faculty with increased years of teaching experience, especially with prior disability training demonstrated even more favorable attitudes. These findings were confirmed in two follow-up studies (Dallas and Sprong, 2015; Dallas, Sprong, & Kluesner, 2016), which specifically indicated that faculty with previous disability-related training or previous experience teaching students with disabilities had positive attitudes towards accommodations and UDL concepts. Interestingly, one study revealed that faculty were quite willing to make accommodations for students with disabilities, but less willing to make changes for the general population of students, even when changes were requested (Dallas & Sprong, 2015). Another study indicated faculty with previous disability training were more likely to implement UDL strategies in their courses compared to faculty members without such experience (Dallas, Sprong, & Kluesner, 2016). In effect, research over the years to understand how faculty perceive UDL has revealed mixed views. Generally faculty have expressed interest in UDL topics, however, they have also indicated some level of hesitancy when asked to invest time and resources in intensive activities or to make major teaching modifications. Some of these researchers (Dallas and Sprong, 2015) make suggestions such as scaffolding UDL training from introductory to advanced concepts in order to provide more course specific techniques. Notably, none of these studies investigated institutional or colleague support, or lack thereof, for faculty implementation; such campus support could have direct bearing upon faculty learning, innovation, and ability for comprehensive course redesign.
Moore, Smith, Hollingshead, and Wojcik (2018) investigated implementation of UDL from a faculty and larger institutional perspective. Participants were identified for their leadership and work in expanding UDL in higher education, and all were faculty members of diverse ranks in Education departments. Through semi-structured interviews, researchers pursued the overarching question of how to successfully implement and scale up UDL in post-secondary education with findings focused on institutional investment and scaling models. From these interviews, they mapped out four levels of UDL implementation: 1) individual faculty members, 2) professional learning community or department driven, 3) initiated by a college, often education colleges, 4) initiated at the university level. Interviewees also used strategies of linking UDL to other initiatives such as STEM expansion, common core standards, and university learning requirements. One participant called this a "Trojan horse" strategy, where UDL was implemented as crucial to addressing university or college level challenges or enhancing new initiatives.
Design of Pilot Group
The design of this pilot learning group fits into level 2 in the model above. We intended to educate and empower individual participants from across the university to better serve disabled and non-disabled students, and we were hopeful that participation in the group would result in unexpected collaborations and ripple effects within the institution. In other words, we openly encouraged members of our group, independently or interdependently, to apply UDL in the form of a "Trojan horse" to related initiatives in their departments and colleges. To that end, faculty participants were hand-picked for their commitment to inclusive pedagogy, cultural diversity, and social justice; in fact, many have led efforts to improve teaching practices to enhance student success. Some teach in fields grounded in these philosophical orientations such as Social Work, gender and disability studies, or Native American and Indigenous Studies. Others work directly with students in bridge programs, first generation students, first year students, and with students from under-represented groups. The pilot group also included a few administrators, disability support staff, and students with disabilities who had been advocates for campus and event accessibility as participants and mentors.
The pilot group worked together for one academic year, which was divided into three phases: 1) philosophical reorientation, 2) syllabi redesign, 3) implementation with technical support. The first phase spanned across the fall semester, and focused on a disability studies orientation to accessibility and UDL. Before embarking on specific classroom strategies, we worked to contextualize inclusion within a historical framework of systemic exclusion and ableism; moreover, we wanted participants to engage with UDL as a process, not a solution. As Kristina Knoll warns, "The concept of universal design must always be tempered by a commitment to recognize and address unforeseen barriers and needs of individual students" (2016, p. 127). Like Knoll, we drew from feminist disability studies pedagogy to underscore the importance of designing for maximum inclusion, while also being prepared to respond to unexpected accommodations or other forms of "disability oppression through dialogue, awareness, and collaboration in our classrooms" (Knoll, 2016, p. 127). In order to better understand the unique barriers and discrimination faced by students with disabilities, we selected Academic Ableism, by Jay Dolmage (2017) as a text for the group. In this paper, we provide some detail of how we used this text to maximize our commitment to and understanding of accessibility and to productively orient our engagement with the UDL curriculum.
Dolmage analyzes historical and contemporary academic barriers using keywords of institutional approaches to access: steep steps, the retrofit, and universal design for learning (UDL). He maps these approaches as "spatial metaphors" from the field of disability studies that "nicely articulate the ways space excludes, the way space can be redesigned, and the ways space can be more inclusively conceived" (2017, p. 41). Tracing the steep steps of the academy, Dolmage critically analyzes the history of higher education through intersectional lenses, tying contemporary ableism to enduring racial, gendered, and economic inequities. The metaphor of "steep steps" is not only reflected in the iconic architecture of universities, but in the worldview, orientation, and practices of the academy. Indeed, the early elitism of higher education was defined by its exclusions: people of color, women, people with disabilities, the working classes, among other groups. Although contemporary universities have opened their doors to all students, those from historically marginalized groups continue to struggle against systemic legacies of inequity. Students with disabilities, in particular, are forced to navigate attitudes, built environments, and systems redesigned in the post-ADA era that continue to impede their success. The paradigmatic images of the "retrofit" include ramps, elevators, and other physical modifications, but from a systemic perspective, the retrofit—as afterthought or add-on—often reanimates ableism by forcing students with disabilities into a fatiguing cycle of making access requests, negotiations, and denials. Echoing Titchkosky's frame of "half in" and "half out" (2011, p. 27), Dolmage argues that retrofits would be better understood as "abeyance structures" (2017, p. 77), as fixes and processes designed as much around holding back access as they are successful in providing it. In effect, even as students are provided more resources, the ableist belief systems at the foundation of academic culture are left largely unchallenged and intact.
In recent years, disability access has come under the umbrella of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in higher education, and many institutions have introduced universal design (UD) and universal design for learning (UDL). These strategies were foundational to our faculty learning group, but as co-facilitators, we wanted to contextualize UDL as a process and philosophy, not as a catch-all solution. As we discussed UDL, we remained mindful of the extra labor required of students in navigating accommodations and gaining access, and of strategies we could employ to lessen that burden in our classrooms. With such caveats in mind, Academic Ableism provided important contextual roadmaps for maximizing our group's efforts to engage with UDL. Conceptually, Dolmage argues for reanimating UDL as a verb—as a manner of trying, being in process, and seeing space as having expanded possibilities (2017, p. 116-17). In maximizing design as an ongoing process, he suggests thinking in terms of "deep accessibility" and "transformative access" (2017, p. 118-19), both of which were useful for our learning community. Deep accessibility pushes faculty, staff and administrators to address access expansively across physical, cognitive, and sensory domains. Transformative access challenges those of us committed to meaningful inclusion to move beyond allowing or providing (2017, p. 119) access or accommodations, and into an active process of rethinking these conceptual structures altogether. 1
As our group engaged with historic exclusionary practices as well as the myriad contemporary challenges facing students with disabilities, we also began our curriculum on UDL. The online modules on UDL were developed by Eric Moore 2 (Black & Moore, 2019) and generously shared with our group. The curricula in disability studies and UDL continued throughout the year, but the first phase provided the most in-depth focus on disability studies perspectives in connection to the philosophical and pedagogical approaches of UDL. The second phase, spanning winter break, focused on syllabi and process redesign for courses that would be taught in the upcoming semester. During this period, faculty members worked more intently with UDL training, and group facilitators offered technical assistance. Part of this process was a faculty "boot-camp"—a full-day workshop delivered by Eric Moore, a national expert in UDL, in which faculty members worked on specific course innovations. The changes pursued by individual faculty participants varied widely; some focused on multiple modalities and flexibility across the semester, while others focused on redesigning specific assignments and assessments, and all participants worked to integrate more digital, creative, interactive content to enhance learning. As facilitators, we wanted faculty to take on changes they could manage without feeling pressure to change everything at once. The third and final phase, spanning spring semester, focused on implementation of changes to course structures. During this period, the group continued to meet and discuss Academic Ableism, especially critical questions about UDL, as our group became more engaged in the process. Meetings also consisted of specific ideas for supporting students with learning disabilities and time to compare participant experiences with implementation. On a weekly basis or upon request, faculty participants were offered technical assistance in UDL or pedagogical strategies addressing inclusion.
This study was approved by the University's Institutional Review Board prior to initiation. In order to gain insight into the impact of the pilot group, a total of 12 faculty members participated in six face-to-face focus group discussions which lasted approximately one hour each session. The research team designed qualitative interview questions to focus on faculty experience and perspective shifts. The research team (all five co-authors) consists of a sub-group of faculty participants, the pilot group co-facilitators, and librarians who participated in the year-long sessions and supported faculty members with library resources (detailed below). In order to best understand the learning among faculty participants, we conducted focus group discussions at the beginning and end of the project's implementation semester. Each focus group included three or more participants, and questions centered on these issues: most useful strategies and new knowledge informing course redesign, specific examples of changes, including barriers and technical support needed for implementation, and how strategies were designed to enhance student access, success, and engagement (Krueger & Casey, 2009). Initial focus groups were conducted after participants completed their review of UDL modules and participation in a UDL workshop facilitated by Eric Moore. The focus group discussions were audio-recorded using Zoom ®, the data were transcribed, and later analyzed by the research team. It is important to note that as a measure to minimize interviewer bias on the focus group data, the interviews were conducted by the librarians on the team and not faculty participants.
During the data analysis phase, members of the team independently reviewed two interview transcripts each to generate the initial codes using the web analysis software, Dedoose®. Firstly, each coder read through a transcript to familiarize themselves with the responses. Secondly, each coder reread the transcript and assigned codes and descriptions of each code. After the list of preliminary codes were developed, a team meeting was held to review the range and similarities amongst the codes. Some codes were combined by the end of the meeting as coders agreed that some codes were too similar in meaning, while a few other codes were modified based on consensus. Codes were then normalized and definitions for each code were created with the input from all coders. By the end of the meeting a codebook was created in Dedoose®. All transcripts were then reassigned to be coded based on the developed codebook (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Lastly, another team meeting was held to categorize codes into themes/sub-themes based on the frequency, extensiveness, and specificity of the comments made. This detailed level of analysis was done with the data gathered from the focus groups conducted at the beginning of the project, prior to its implementation and again with the data gathered from the focus groups conducted at the end, after implementation.
The initial analysis revealed ten themes and provided an understanding of the impact of the UDL pilot group. The original ten themes (Table 1) remained consistent from the design through the implementation phase. With further data analysis based on the theme descriptors, discussion amongst coders, and use of visual mapping, these were condensed into the following five overarching themes:
- Inclusive pedagogy
- Sense of community (multidisciplinary)
- Intentional course design and flexibility
- Student access, accommodation, and engagement
- Resources, tools, and library support
While we acknowledge that these themes are interrelated, each emerged as important in its own right. Table 1 provides a detailed list of the original and condensed themes, and the final five themes are described in depth below.
Course Design & Course Strategy
Intentional (Design and Students)
Resources & Tools
|Condensed Themes at the End of the Project|
Sense of Community (multidisciplinary)
Intentional Course Design & Flexibility
Student Access, Accommodation, & Engagement
Resources, Tools, & Library Support
Table 1 Focus Group Themes
In terms of inclusive pedagogy, at the beginning of the project, most faculty participants mentioned their desire to offer a more inclusive approach to their teaching and interaction with students. This theme included participants being prepared and thinking about how to present UDL to their classes. For some faculty, inclusive pedagogy meant removing barriers to give each student equitable access to learning with a "goal to humanize the classroom," while others extended the charge to also mean promoting inclusivity and diversity in the classroom. While the commitment to inclusive pedagogy was reemphasized at the end of the project, participants' comments were centered around approaches they took to drive inclusive pedagogy in their classes throughout the semester. This theme is illustrated here by one faculty at the beginning of the project:
I want to offer a more inclusive pedagogy…designed with more anticipation of variability. One that is more democratic. I'm going to try and break down the hierarchy of the classroom. I'm nervous about it, but am looking forward to seeing if it works.
At the end of the project, participants talked about ways in which they demonstrated inclusive pedagogy in their classes, as they began to make meaningful "incremental changes," so as not to overwhelm themselves and the students.
The main thing I tried to make more accessible was assignments and quizzes by giving more time for things. It seemed like students liked this. I also tried to give them multiple options to present the information [and] assignments.
I also encouraged students to consider alternative ways to complete assignments, with specific reference to threaded discussions. Instead of just having the option to provide written responses, students could upload videos or graphical representations or other multimedia types of presentations. Although this wasn't new in my classes, I made a concerted effort to present class content using multiple diverse mediums and worked with students from the beginning of the semester to break down large projects into specific segments and scheduled checkpoints along the way to ensure students' success.
Student access, accommodation, and engagement was another common theme that the majority of faculty discussed extensively as interconnected to inclusive pedagogy. It focuses on faculty's thoughtfulness in ensuring that they include students' active participation in the development of their classes, as they strive to overcome barriers to access that students may have without the need for students to request formal accommodation. As one faculty aptly puts it at the beginning of the project: "one should really be thinking about the environment being disabled, not the student." Ways in which faculty said they demonstrated this concept during the project's implementation are captured in the following statements:
Similar to X (faculty), giving students lots of opportunity to bring their own growing/increasing knowledge to the class via group work, was a good thing. I felt they were more excited and engaged with the others. I gave enough time to process and the students felt the content wasn't quite as overwhelming. They had time to digest and process.
I think the students were more relaxed as they recognized that they had the freedom to make choices and approach the material in ways that they wanted to. I was able to tap into their strengths and we were able to focus on areas that we might not have considered prior to the students being given more choices.
In relation to intentional course design & flexibility, all participants voiced their plans to be more intentional about personalizing the learning space and figuring out ways to reimagine students' participation to ensure that their input mattered in the course. This theme also included participants being prepared to invite student input and then being willing to respond, adapt, and integrate flexible approaches. In this process, some faculty wondered how to be flexible and provide enough structure:
I really liked when Eric (UDL expert) talked about how in a writing class you look to offer more of a menu of options, even if it's not the final product. I would like to learn more about how I may address different learning styles and approaches to an assignment that will keep students invested and help them understand the material. How do you offer different avenues for an assignment and not lose half the class?
Some faculty talked about what aspect of UDL they were planning to be more intentional about implementing, and what they wanted students to gain:
[I] hope that they will take away more flexibility in academic writing, and flexible deadlines. I want them to advocate for their own learning and hope that this enhances their own engagement. I want them to question why we don't do these things in other classes.
I'm thinking a lot about how to replace differentiated instruction with UDL, as I really like the idea of changing one thing at a time. Not having to change everything at once feels more manageable. I can think about it incrementally. I'll work on giving different choices for the final project in my grad class. In my undergrad class, I'll be giving alternative test questions, not just multiple choice.
Following the implementation, faculty talked about intentional design and offering a wider menu of flexibility in their classes. Participants were "intentional" about redesigning course elements such as assignments and being flexible in terms of presentation format and deadlines. Acknowledging the importance of disability services for some students, several group members made a point of going beyond traditional disability statements to add broader ranging and personalized accessibility statements to their syllabi. The theme is illustrated below by some participants:
I find out what is meaningful and manageable for the students by checking in frequently. I'm more intentional in doing this as well as identifying pitfalls that students have had in the past and identifying them upfront – this sets the stage for them to be more successful as they move forward.
Also, there is no good way to accommodate every person, every time. But, if you create a flexible framework it makes it better. Often more people in the class would benefit from a specific accommodation. It's not just about students who are documented with disability services, but the range of flexibility benefits everyone. I used more small group discussion, did movies with closed captioning when it was available, and tried to do more one-on-one meetings with students to see what their needs were and address that more frequently. In doing so too, they got my full attention.
I was much more flexible this semester. I offered students more choices in how they could demonstrate knowledge. For example, I had a threaded discussion where students could upload a video or some other digital object that contributed to their discussion instead of a written response if they wanted to.
Having a sense of community, in this case among multidisciplinary colleagues, was enthusiastically discussed throughout the pilot group period and beyond. This was not necessarily an anticipated outcome when the project began, but one which occurred organically. Participants used sentiments such as "having support from the group," "learning from the team," and "being able to rely on consistent support from each other throughout the project" to describe their appreciation for the multidisciplinary learning community that developed. Participants felt that being part of the pilot group was a great resource in and of itself. Having this community of faculty from departments across campus helped reduce the feeling of isolation by each member. Knowing that other faculty in the group had similar challenges or successes for implementing UDL and that their student reactions were also wide ranging, helped participants keep going. Also, the meetings provided informal settings to brainstorm ideas that would work better. The pilot group was therefore seen as a vital support to faculty's ability to understand, plan and implement UDL in their classes. Although this pilot group was directed at faculty learning and building collaborative momentum, the year-long learning community brought together many interested people from different parts of the university community, and who will continue to have long lasting working relationships. The value of the community is captured in these quotes:
The group is very helpful. The group at large is helpful because it normalizes the process for you – there's no ideal way of implementing UDL. It's different for everyone; everyone wrestles with different areas of implementation. It's okay for UDL to look different in different classrooms.
[The group provided] …affirmation that some of the things I am doing are right. I am struggling and so is everyone else [and this] makes me feel less anxious. I enjoyed the conversation, enjoyed the library resources.
The group at large helped make me more consistent. The collaborative work was helpful. Just having the space for it and talking about it was the most important.
Being part of a collective group in the fall was wonderful and drove the way I redesigned the class. I need insights from colleagues, and I got that. Being in a community and society of getting people who are also learning was very helpful. Also, having solitude to walk away and research and read and then come back and learn from colleagues about what they are doing and building on that.
Appreciation of resources, tools, and library support was a common theme amongst faculty participants. Group members emphasized the multiple resources and tools that were made available to the pilot group to first deepen their understanding of UDL and to then design and implement UDL in their classroom setting. These included different levels of institutional resources and support such as funding availability, the notable resource of the campus libraries and librarians, as well as technical support in using the learning management platform (Canvas) to appropriately and efficiently utilize UDL. Many were surprised by the ways the library emerged as a major source of support; in fact, during the pilot year, several faculty pivoted from relying on disability services to capitalizing on the librarians' expertise and support in utilizing tools, software and other resources to enhance student access and success. An exciting partnership developed between library faculty, the institutional support of the libraries, and the learning community at large.
Working with the librarians has helped us see things institutionally. Librarians are backing us up with materials, making them accessible. That's awesome!
And libraries, definitely. Consulting with the library experts was a huge help.
The group also gained a deeper appreciation for some of the institutional support that could be leveraged toward enhancing UDL and inclusive pedagogy moving forward. Other key resources included: having a module on UDL available to participants which they could access any time; attending an expert workshop on UDL; having weekly meetings or training sessions; collaborations with the campus teaching and learning center to offer "drop in" training on accessibility and other teaching support.
The online course shell was useful, but everything needs to be gone through again. Eric's visit was very useful in helping me conceptualize UDL and translate that to my students.
Having something concrete was helpful (modules, workshop and training sessions). Understanding there is a deep body of supporting research was also helpful. I started at ground zero (at the beginning of the project) and I realized I was not alone with not enough information. I feel more versed now. I loved Eric's visit and the differences between what he gave us and the information at the lunch. We realized we have come a long way, levels and layers.
All the tools helped me to realize that it was more about changing my way of thinking and my own stance/space of the class. I learned to listen more to what students say to me and figure it out with them collaboratively about what we were going to do. I felt less rigid. For the final projects I did expand the possibilities and some of them took advantage of that.
Learning multiple ways to pitch assignments and design assignments was influential.
As reflected by the literature reviewed above, most research on UDL implementation has previously been done in Education departments, especially in teacher preparation. Our study was unique and added to this literature in that we had representation from different colleges on campus. These included Education, Health Sciences (Pharmacy, Social Work and Wyoming Institute for Disabilities), Arts and Sciences (Native American and Indigenous Studies, Gender and Women's Studies, Psychology and English), and the Libraries (Student Success and the Center for Teaching and Learning). Faculty participants came from different disciplines, levels of teaching experience, and ranks. Reflective of these differences, they addressed UDL implementation and inclusive pedagogy in a wide range of classes using a variety of learning strategies—from writing and research-intensive assignments, to science exams and project-based learning, to multiple choice assessments and creative, oral, and digital presentations of work.
Overall, the five emergent themes in this study showed how a sense of community developed from this multidisciplinary group and helped reduce isolation or silos among faculty members committed to enhancing the inclusion of students with disabilities. Even as each faculty participant worked to implement changes in their own classes, sharing ideas, experiences, and having greater access to resources and tools from libraries and the campus teaching and learning center brought about a greater sense of collaboration around teaching and supporting students as well as a shared intention to advocate for UDL across campus. Involving students with disabilities in the planning group was a natural consequence for being true to the principles of disability studies, and their input and contributions underscored the importance of partnering with students in their learning.
Group members deepened their appreciation of the complexity and importance of a philosophical engagement with access in the praxis of inclusion strategies and UDL. By praxis, we refer both to the application of anti-ableist teaching strategies and to the critical reflection and mutual support within the group during the semester. One key factor in classroom dynamics was making access an overt and visible framework. As Tanya Titchkosky points out, if we think of access as a form of social action, access becomes a process and an "interpretive relation" (2011, p. 3) between and among people. This sense of expanded, interpretive relationships with students was evident in our group. Many faculty members noticed a distinct shift in classroom dynamics when they made inclusion central to their approach. By encouraging ongoing, collaborative discussions about access with students, in relation to class participation, group activities and other assignments, students responded with constructive suggestions; as well, relationships deepened between students and faculty and among student peers.
Through intentional access strategies, faculty felt they had established a stronger foundation for being flexible with assignment design, assessments, and group projects. Several participants found that increasing flexibility resulted in greater student engagement and more innovative and thorough work, without compromising on content knowledge or rigor. This kind of flexibility can be a source of general resistance to inclusive design, so we want to highlight two external support factors contributing to this pilot group's success. First, having a peer learning community where faculty members were able to discuss their strategies, implementation successes and challenges, and informally reflect with colleagues increased their comfort level with implementing redesign elements. Second, having technical and instructional support from facilitators and greater access to institutional resources, especially library resources, discussed below, proved to be invaluable during the implementation phase and beyond.
Many of these campus resources, including departments, administrative entities, and specific colleagues committed to increasing disability inclusion, were involved from the beginning as natural partners in this process. As mentioned above, the University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), which is the department that houses the disability studies program, was a natural partner. Faculty members designed and participated in the project, and staff members, especially from the assistive technology program, offered technical guidance and consultation. The campus disability services staff were involved and supportive of the pilot group, but as faculty members moved to the implementation phase, their needs were often better addressed within the peer group, and by instructional designers who provided rapid and specific technical guidance.
Ultimately, the faculty learning group's most promising and productive natural partnership was with the university library. In addition to providing the primary meeting space for the UDL pilot group, the library also provided research support, access to materials, and technological training. The two librarians who were added to the research group—the Instructional Design Librarian and the Student Success Librarian—also served as unbiased focus group facilitators. Additionally, because librarians at our institution do not carry traditional teaching loads, they were able to bring a unique perspective to the research team in terms of how UDL could potentially expand beyond the classroom and be applied to library services, resources, and information literacy instruction. This realization within the group prompted several pilot group faculty members to take advantage of library resources and programs that promoted UDL, such as the Alternative Textbook Grant Program, which encourages faculty to adopt, adapt, or create Open Educational Resources for their classes.
Conclusion: Limitations and Ripple Effects
Since this study was done with a small group of faculty members on a western US campus, the study findings need to be understood in that context and may not be applicable to other, different regions. However, the diverse disciplines involved in this pilot did provide an example to be followed by other campuses in implementing UDL across disciplines and departments. Also, while this study was on faculty learning and growth, a natural next step would be to examine student engagement and learning outcomes in relation to inclusive pedagogy. While this study was limited in scope, several exciting institutional ripple effects can be traced to our pilot group. First, UDL and inclusive pedagogy have now been integrated into the curriculum within our university center for teaching and learning. On our campus, this center employs several instructional designers who actively support faculty on campus. Newly hired faculty and seasoned instructors regularly work with the center to enhance their classes in small and large ways. For example, in response to covid-19, and the institutional shift to primarily virtual and online instruction, over 300 faculty members, which would represent more than forty percent of all full-time faculty, enrolled in week-long instructional sessions over the summer. All of these included UDL and inclusive pedagogy strategies for synchronous and asynchronous online instruction.
Another distinct outcome of the pilot group has been the integration of UDL and disability studies approaches into faculty training programs for instructors teaching first year students in our university Bridge program. Students in this program are admitted to the university with support, and some of these students navigate their college learning with disclosed and undisclosed disabilities. Faculty working with these students understand some of the barriers they face; thus, asking instructors to integrate UDL tools and critical disability perspectives made sense within the shared values of the program. As one of the pilot group participants and bridge mentor teacher explained, "We already were striving to create inclusive classrooms, and UDL training gives us power, permission, inspiration, and motivation to make sure the most vulnerable students in our midst can thrive while learning with us." Within two years of the pilot group, twenty-four teachers had been trained specifically in UDL and disability studies as part of teaching cohorts that share implementation successes, challenges, and reflections to improve outcomes for marginalized students.
Another ripple effect of the UDL pilot group was within the university library. The role of the library throughout the pilot group adapted and changed based upon the needs of the participants. At times, the two librarians provided instructional support to the faculty. To support the re-designed UDL courses, they worked to procure materials for instructors by buying physical books and eBooks for instructors. These purchases sought to lower the pay wall and ease accessibility barriers for students by promoting zero-cost for textbooks. In addition to purchasing materials, the librarians also promoted the adoption, adaptation, and creation of open educational resources (OER) in the redesigned courses to provide a true zero-cost textbook option for instructors and their students. They continued to provide traditional library support by working with participants on designing research assignments to incorporate information literacy. The librarians also worked to provide technical support for the pilot group, showcasing tools like Mentimeter (a live-polling service), Canva (a graphic design service), and others to help instructors incorporate technologies that support inclusive pedagogies. Because of the shared commitment and collaboration between the ECTL and the UW Libraries, the librarians worked to empower the pilot group to be innovative in the changes they made to incorporate UDL. This partnership has very clearly helped to develop new relationships and further existing partnerships between the university library and various departments. This became quite evident in the focus group interviews where participants regularly mentioned the support and access that the librarians on the research team brought to the pilot group. One participant even mentioned that the whole experience opened her eyes up to the level of support available throughout the university, especially within the library, and how it was easy to forget just how much help there is if she were just to ask.
As a result, the two librarians working on the research team ended up doing much more than helping with the focus groups and providing institutional support to the group. They took the core concepts of UDL and began applying them to the information literacy instruction sessions that they teach throughout the academic year. Since librarians typically do not carry semester-long teaching loads, but instead will teach one information literacy session for many classes each semester (typically called a "one-shot" session), they realized that the UDL principles and concepts needed to be adjusted to reflect the framework of their field. They started small and began incorporating elements of UDL into one-shot information literacy instruction sessions by providing students with multiple ways to access and interact with the material. Feedback was immediately positive, and the librarians realized that designing one-shot instruction for different learning styles and abilities was critical to the core tenets of inclusivity in librarianship.
Overall, all the participants in the pilot group gained greater contextual understanding of historic disability exclusions which now frame deeper commitments to remove institutional and pedagogical barriers and promote accessible, inclusive learning environments. Collaborative learning communities of this type hold the promise of increasing access to the academy and building collective momentum for ongoing institutional transformation.
The authors would like to acknowledge the Ellbogen Center for Teaching and Learning for TIE Fellowship funding for faculty participants as well as the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities for in-kind and technical support of this project.
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Portions of this discussion of Academic Ableism by Jay Dolmage were previously published in a review essay by Michelle Jarman.
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Eric Moore is a UDL and accessibility specialist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He works to train faculty in post-secondary education to innovate and apply UDL strategies to increase student access and success.
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