Universal Design and Technology

Using the iPad as a Catalyst for Universal Design

by Andrew Ryder, Professor of Theater at Seattle Pacific University

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) asks teachers to focus on creating the most accessible classroom experience for the greatest number of students. The intent is to think about all the different ways students might access, connect with, relate to, build on, and interpret the course content, and then to provide as many "on-ramps" as possible given the physical and technology infrastructure. UDL encourages diversity of representation, action, and engagement, as seen below in the chart prepared by CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology.

UDL Guidelines


A visual representation of universal physical access can be seen below, in this photo of the blended ramp and steps at Vancouver, British Columbia’s Robson Square, designed by Canadian architect Arthur C. Erickson in 1980.

accessible staircase in zigzag design


Designing learning is much more complex than designing physical spaces, but the image is a helpful metaphor. Details on the building can be found at http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Robson_Square.html.


Using an iPad in a connected classroom, where students are encouraged to bring and use various electronic devices, can assist in establishing the key practices of UDL. The iPad facilitates quick shifts between different representations, from presentations to videos, whiteboards, or internet searches, using apps like HaikuDeck, Doceri, Vimeo, and Google, among many others. And unlike a fixed desktop computer station, the iPad, with Apple TV or other technologies such as Splashtop, allows the instructor to be anywhere in the room. But representation is about more than presentation tools. Multiplicity in this category also includes the ability for students to select the channel which works best for them, and provides alternative information for both visual and auditory materials. The iPad, particularly in a classroom where presentation and practice materials are distributed electronically, and where students have access to their own devices, facilitates this kind of flexibility, while also offering the opportunity for students to link to vocabulary, examples, and other relevant context.

Haiku Deck Screenshot

These electronic tools make the incorporation of this kind of background information relatively seamless. It can be provided via the so-called "flipped classroom," where students gain background knowledge in advance of the class meeting, then work together to deepen or apply that knowledge in class. Or it can be developed via individual or small-group work in class to provide various pieces of the context, using connected devices.


At first glance, the next category--Action--seems antithetical to the use of electronic devices in the classroom. In my discipline of theatre, we prioritize face-to-face interactions over mediated ones. But there are ways in which the iPad can provide for a range of means of expression even in the theatre classroom. For one, recording video using these devices can provide for self and peer assessment of performances, presentations, and rehearsals, encouraging reflection. Or students who aren’t able—for whatever reasons—to perform in front of the group can prepare a video of their performance and show that to the class for their response.

Individual Lesson Plan Template

Some student expression, even in the theatre classroom, may be done using electronic media. For example, in a unit on lesson planning for theatre, students work in groups on shared Google Documents which are also shared with me. They edit these documents both in and out of class, but both ways I can observe and respond to their work as it is created, instead of just when it is submitted for a grade. By creating templates in advance, I can provide as little or as much scaffolding as is appropriate to the stage of the assignment. And having input during students' study and preparation time can provide a clearer sense of developing study skills. This has led to much stronger final products, because those products are no longer first drafts without feedback. This approach can be applied to all kinds of student writing assignments.


Finally, different kinds of engagement need to be offered in the UDL-sensitive classroom. Electronic tools like the iPad can increase student interest, persistence, and self-regulation. When presentation and practice materials are designed in engaging ways, and—more importantly—when they ask students to perform authentic learning tasks with built-in choices, students are more likely to deeply connect with them. In a connected world, maintaining and learning with and through those connections can be more compelling to learners, and can model the appropriate and effective use of educational technology.

Theatre students standing in a groupThe most straightforward way to use online tools to establish interest, develop persistence, and encourage self-regulation is through individual projects completed at the learner's pace outside of class. These tools can also be used to prime students for collaboration in class. For theatre teachers, who want students to be on their feet interacting throughout their class time, this can provide important preparation, whether through reading game descriptions, preparing materials, or learning historical context.

Studnets making shapes of letters with body

Clearly, these categories interconnect and overlap. For example, preparation materials students work on outside of class provide multiple representations as well as engagement. The iPad is only one device among many which can connect with and capitalize on many available online resources. But its size makes it particularly convenient to use, in the classroom, at home, and in the office. Most importantly, working with these kinds of tools encourages us as teachers to rethink our pedagogy, making our classrooms and lessons more student-centered and accessible to all kinds of learners in all kinds of ways. And anything which gets us thinking, re-thinking, and experimenting with higher education, which has been delivered similarly for centuries, is a good place to start.

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