UDL Research in Higher Education

Research focused on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is plentiful; the problem is it is not plentiful for higher education. In 2016, Mohawk College began its journey to implement UDL. However, we found ourselves adrift in a sea of research that did not apply to our context, our learners, or our environments. The question became what to do: Trial and error? Try to extrapolate from K to 12 research? Use American studies? Or embark on our own research journey? The strength and challenge of UDL is that it, like learning, is contextual. How it applies to a particular learning environment is also heavily influenced by the context. We opted for a rather large research project and, if your institution is implementing UDL, I hope you do too!

At Mohawk College, we needed:

  • To understand the priorities of our learners and faculty
  • A data-informed strategic direction for further UDL implementation
  • Clear implementation goals for Mohawk College to strive for
  • Direction regarding resource allotment

In March of 2018 we completed the Universal Design for Learning for Technology-enabled Post-secondary Courses at Mohawk College research project, which was made possible through an eCampusOntario grant, and got what we needed. In addition, we gained a great deal more: Validity of the use of UDL in higher education, confirmation of our implementation priorities and process to date, and affirmation that the tools and resources that we had initially developed were in line with needs. I also gained access to accommodation statistics and learning management system information through some critical conversations that I likely would not have gotten otherwise.

Completing a large research project is difficult…that is all I can say about it, it is difficult in a variety of ways. Initially, I felt the timing of the grant was less than ideal: I had been the UDL Curriculum Consultant for a matter of months and had no idea who or how we would even find folks to survey. However, as I reflect on where we are at with our UDL implementation today, I am glad we did it. I am even glad about the timing. Upon reflection I might suggest that there is no ideal time for a large research project. I recommend you do it anyway.

So, here is my pitch for why you should embark on this UDL research journey too: 1) As mentioned, UDL is highly contextual and so is its implementation. Current resources focus on general implementation and technology applications vary. Implementing UDL is a massive undertaking, it needs to be right if you are going to get buy in and support within your institution. 2) Canadian higher education needs more data. Ontario higher education needs more data. I need more data! Much of the current research is an extrapolation of K-12, it is not specific to post-secondary education and is often focused on American legislation. 3) We will all benefit from your data and implementation in higher education. 4) I truly believe, now that I am on the other side, the benefits of institution-specific UDL research outweighs the effort and time involved.

As I was writing this entry I was forced to revisit my foibles and, if I may, I would like to share some of my key learnings:

  1. Set clear goals and concise deliverables. Everything may not turn out just as you envisioned it, but you will at least have a plan to deviate from.
  2. Find your supports and champions before you start (or very early on).
  3. Plan/start your Research Ethics Board (REB) application early because when you are working with semesters a late REB application can have a significant impact.
  4. It does not have to be all or nothing. With minimal time and/or funding you can do a review of common accommodations, audit your LMS capabilities, or informally survey faculty at professional development offerings or departmental meetings.

My fingers are crossed that you are going to start your own UDL research. If you need help, Mohawk College is here for you.

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