Why your curricular materials should be more like a vegetable peeler: introducing Universal Design for Learning

In April of 2016, the University Ad Hoc Committee on Technology and Accessibility published a report on “Accessibility of Information Technology at Princeton.” Among the recommendations of the committee was a charge that “The University should study the need for accessibility around course content, library reserves, and classroom technologies.” The study also mandated that the Digital Access Steering Committee should consider establishing “minimum standards for digital accessibility in all teaching and meeting spaces.”

What does that mean for the design of course materials at Princeton?

This post is an introduction to the topic of Universal Design for Learning, which posits that artifacts designed for a specific limited population often benefit a much wider group of people because the ease-of-use is “built-in.” The first examples of this observed phenomenon were architectural. For instance, doors that open automatically when you approach them, or accessibility ramps– necessities for people in wheelchairs. However, many able-bodied people opt to use these accommodations under certain circumstances. You might find a ramp more useful if you are walking hand-in-hand with a toddler than stairs, or prefer the automatic door if you are carrying an armload of boxes.

One company that has based its success on Universal Design is OXO, a manufacturer of popular kitchen gadgets. (You may have one of their tools in your own kitchen.)

The company name and logo was chosen because it reads the same upside down, sideways and backwards:

OXO began designing products for a particular audience — those with limited dexterity. The handles of their tools tend to be large, slip-proof, and easy to grasp with either hand. However when these products appeared in the market, an odd thing happened. People who had no particular problems using other types of tools in their kitchen started to buy OXO products because they were more effective. OXO tools reduced fatigue, had safety features built in, and were equally comfortable for left- and right-handed people. This is an example of “ease-of-use” being an integral part of product design. OXO explains their design philosophy in this way:

OXO is dedicated to providing innovative consumer products that make everyday living easier. We study people—lefties  and righties, male and female, young and old—interacting with products and we identify opportunities for meaningful improvement. Our thoughtful, “question everything” process and relentless attention to detail uncover the best solutions for life’s everyday tasks.

OXO’s adherence to the principles of Universal Design have made them a leading global manufacturer of mundane tools.

So, why should your curricular materials resemble a vegetable peeler?

There was a time when you wished to peel a potato, you may have reached for this tool:


This tool worked OK. It was good at peeling without wasting food, no matter the level of your knife skills, but the handle design was lacking. It was difficult to grasp, hurt your hand after long tasks, and while safer than a knife, it was pretty easy to also peel one’s knuckles. Its use was designed for right-handed people because the blade swiveled more in one direction than the other.

If you had some knife skills in the kitchen, you may have used this:


This was an expert solution to the problem. If you were experienced in the use of the tool, your potato peels were thin; this knife works equally well in both hands; but even experts sometimes cut themselves.


The OXO Good Grips line of kitchen products changed an industry because their peelers had a level of accessibility that was not available previously in a market that was based on assumptions and ‘norms.’ One kind of tool fit the inexperienced cook (the uncomfortable old-fashioned peeler); another fit the cook with developed knife skills (the paring knife); and most people are right-handed.

In a classroom, being unusual–culturally, physically, mentally, socially, and with regard to prior knowledge of the subject matter is exactly what is “normal.”

How can you apply these universal design principles to curricular materials, including handouts, web sites, assignments and assessments?

Like OXO, you should “question everything.”

If your have a student with a declared disability in your course, you will be instructed how to accommodate that individual’s special needs in unambiguous ways. Accommodation is an important legal requirement in higher education, and helps us to be more inclusive in our teaching. However it is likely that that person will get a different version of your course materials than others in the same class.

However, what if you were to approach your course curriculum with the principles of Universal Design in mind, so that all students benefit from being thought of as individuals? You might try to design a single product that meets or at least anticipates most needs, including those of the person who has a stated disability.

Designing a usable product starts with four simple questions:

  1. Who will use it?
  2. What are their goals in using it?
  3. How effectively will it work in achieving these goals?
  4. Where and how will they use it?

Notice that all of these questions focus on the user.This type of design strategy set students up for the successful completion of goals. And that begins to sound much like any well-designed course.

Good course design is user-centric, universal and inclusive. It accommodates the widest variety of people, and allows them to have the greatest chance of achieving learning goals, with a clear way to measure achievement. Like the vegetable peeler, these criteria avoid broad assumptions (the user is right-handed; the user is an unskilled knife user) and instead, allows the majority of people to succeed. Universal Design as applied to education doesn’t focus on disabilities; it focuses on abilities.

How are some ways you can make your course materials more universal:

  1. Provide machine-readable text for handouts, lecture notes, and instructions. Digital text is always machine readable. Text that can be cut and pasted can be reorganized to include in notes; it can be resized, it can have it contrast changed, and it can be read — literally out loud– by tools common in all computers and tablets.
  2. Make sure multimedia materials have alternate avenues to understanding, including alt-text on images and closed captions on videos. While these are obviously of benefit to people with disabilities (and legally required in some circumstances) they might also help students in ways you can’t anticipate, for example assisting in technical vocabulary acquisition, helping a non-native speaker, and reinforcing a video’s unclear spoken content with a written backup
  3. Ensure that your lectures are accessible to everyone. Can your students all see the screen well, no matter where they sit in the room? Can they hear you speak? Consider pre-recording critical parts of lecture for review, or providing your slide deck in advance so that everyone can see what you are presenting. Providing lecture materials in alternative formats can help students take advantage of learning strengths
  4. Vary your types of assignments and assessments. While the research paper and high-stakes exam are effective methods of instruction, you might want to include other types of learning, such as peer-to-peer problem solving, low-stakes tests that can be repeated without penalty, and varied assignment types: spoken presentations, multimedia assignments, and more frequent short written exercises or problem sets. Getting “good” at something is often best achieved in a system that tolerates failure and repetition


Abilities, like people, come in all shapes and forms. Want to learn more about Universal Design in Education? The National Center on Universal Design for Learning provides some helpful examples of how you might make your curricular materials more accessible to the broadest range of learners.




Posted by June 21, 2016