Universal design and #activelearning

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@derstudi

Following on from the previous post on Decolonising the active curriculum, this post looks more closely at some of the seven principles of universal design to explore how they can inform the active learning space – its pedagogy and physical-digital context.

Background and further links to universal design can be found in this useful Wikipedia article.

Note, the principles set out here are not specific to teaching and learning, but address usable design in general. I consider them in terms of their pedagogic use however.

I present each of the seven principles and its key points followed by a brief reflective commentary on active learning design.

The Seven Principles of Universal Design

Principle 1: Equitable use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  • It provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.
  • It avoids segregating or stigmatizing any users.
  • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety are equally available to all users.
  • The design is appealing to all users.

Active learning commentary

Universality means we respond to either individuals or the whole group and we avoid categorising participants by any other extraneous typology. This means the academic can communicate expectations for the whole group more confidently, while recognising individuals will approach their learning according to their personal motivations, strengths and dispositions.

The learning environment should feel equitable and encourage peers to respond to each other as co-participants, not according to demographic biases. This reflects a professional ethos. This equitable basis is appealing to all users, if it can be enacted, because it preferences learning rather than irrelevant biases, assumptions and anxieties that can create barriers to learning.

Principle 2:  Flexibility in use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  • It provides choice in methods of use.
  • It accommodates right or left handed access and use.
  • It facilitates the user’s accuracy and precision.
  • It provides adaptability to the user’s pace.

Active learning commentary

Active learning aims to promote learner self-direction, determination and autonomy. It should engage the learner through stimuli and should develop their sense of curiosity. The learner is an agent of their own learning, motivated as a navigator and negotiator to incrementally construct, reflect on, apply and make sense of their learning. This allows the learner to set and meet their own standards for excellent work, looking beyond extrinsic measures for quality.

Principle 3: Simple and intuitive use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

  • It eliminates unnecessary complexity.
  • It is consistent with user expectations and intuition.
  • It accommodates a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  • It arranges information consistent with its importance.
  • It provides effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

Active learning commentary

The teacher’s role is to establish the learning context, set and clearly communicate tasks, and ensure the learning environment is rich, meaningful, challenging and full of feedback. Participants have the skills to confidently engage and access information and guidance as needed.

Principle 4: Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

  • It uses different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
  • It provides adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
  • It maximizes “legibility” of essential information.
  • It differentiates elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
  • It provides compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

Active learning commentary

While the learner assumes a navigator identity, the learner is clear about what is expected. The learner, in this respect, is scaffolded by information, signposting and other structures so that they can immerse themselves deeply in their topic and the task in hand.

Principle 5: Tolerance for error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  • It arranges elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.
  • It provides warnings of hazards and errors.
  • It provides fail safe features.
  • It discourages unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

Active learning commentary

Active learning is challenging, and both motivates and stretches the learner. The goals the learner strives to attain are not always attainable but the act of learning involves meaningful activities or processes that deliver deep learning outcomes nevertheless. Failure in an active learning space can have great value if the learner uses unmet goals as a learning opportunity.

Activities, such as projects, require a methodological approach with frequent opportunities for reflection and feedback.

Principle 6: Low physical effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

  • It allows user to maintain a neutral body position
  • It uses reasonable operating forces.
  • It minimizes repetitive actions.
  • It minimizes sustained physical effort.

Active learning commentary

Active learning requires the learner to take a measured approach. While they are motivated, the learner should use and reflect on the strategies they use for undertaking activities effectively, being aware that their energy levels and the need to manage concurrent responsibilities.

Principle 7: Size and space for approach and use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

  • It provides a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
  • It makes reaching to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
  • It accommodates variations in hand and grip size.
  • It provides adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

Active learning commentary

Active learning can be exhausting. Immersive learning environments can be mentally and physically demanding. Time and space for reflection and rest is needed to ensure learning happens and its implications for future application are considered.


The principles for universal design help the academic to design the effective active learning environment. The principles are useful for guiding any learner to engage effectively and realistically.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Active Learning, Co-operative pedagogy, Digital Placemaking, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place, PhD, Studio and Studio-based Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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