Education Evolving:

The Universal Design for Learning and Blended Learning Interconnection

The classic imagery of students sitting silently in tidy rows and intently listening to the adult preaching at the front of the classroom is a memory. Enter the modern classroom: The teacher’s chalk has been replaced with a stylus, the black board is a 60-inch internet-enabled interactive touchscreen, the students’ paper and pencils ousted by Google Chromebooks. Silently in the background, the digital cloud is chugging along, helping educators to capture and parse more data points than were ever gathered by ballpoint pens in spiral-bound gradebooks.

It is the new norm to observe students frequently working in small, independent groups, travelling around the room, and interacting with their peers. In this sort of “controlled chaos,” the teacher’s role may transform to that of a guide, mentor, facilitator, and coach.

Meaningful and efficient technology integration into the classroom will keep moving forward, opening up new opportunities for our learners and for us to make decisions as educators. How do we take the best advantage of the digital tools at our disposal? By using two important frameworks: the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Blended Learning (BL). Let’s take a tour of both of these concepts below...

Universal Design for Learning

Most educators today are charged with teaching classes comprised of a wide range of student abilities. This often means a typical lesson is designed toward the “average” student skill level. Differentiations might then be adopted for those that fall outside of that norm, whether they are remedial, gifted, have 504 plans or IEPs, or receive one-on-one instruction and the like.

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) philosophy looks at this from a different vantage point. Special modifications to lessons should not be made for just a few students. Instead, educators should design learning experiences that recognize that the scope of human ability lies across a wide spectrum. Give options to ALL student participants in how they receive and respond to their learning. By creating a wide berth for students to explore and interact with a topic, not only are a teachers’ special education or 504 students covered, but the lesson is abundantly accessible and more engaging to EVERYONE in that classroom.

UDL charges educators to craft their learning experiences from three points of view: engagement, representation, and expression.


The why of learning. Increase relevance, motivate, and stimulate learners’ interests by providing purpose and meaning to instruction. Allow students as much autonomy as possible and be authentic in lesson designs. For example, an introductory architectural class might engage students by allowing them to create structures using Minecraft maps, 3D CAD software, physical Legos, or the trusty standby of paper, pencil, and a ruler. It might even be appropriate to allow learners to craft the format of the lesson along with the teacher. Students should also be taught how to self-motivate and push through setbacks. Collaboration and community are important here. This aspect of UDL is all about capturing and keeping the students' interests.


The what of learning. This aspect concentrates on varying how the lesson material is actually presented to the audience. This could include supplying the information in printed text, video, and audio. Make sure that students can adjust things like font size and volume on a digital display. Modalities of delivery should be varied, i.e. use text-to-speech technology, audio recordings, podcasts, websites, music, tactile materials, printed materials, streaming digital media, etc. Options must be given for comprehension of material. Merely perceiving the information passively is not enough - students must actively participate in their construction of the knowledge to allow learning to organically occur. Activate prior knowledge in order to help students make sense of new material.

Action and Expression

The how of learning. Differentiate the ways in which learners can express themselves and respond to their learning. Educators need to get creative because students naturally want to be creative as well! Students may be allowed to record an historical reenactment on a tablet, score a song to promote a mathematical theorem, or design a digital storybook and post it to a Google Classroom page. Life skills are also involved here. We must also teach students about managing both their time and resources and making sure that they have their eye on progressing toward their respective goals.

A Framework for Personalization

UDL is an actionable framework that aligns closely with the movement towards the personalization of education. Most importantly, the concepts within it are continuously being refined by decades of learning science research. UDL can be implemented in all types of learning environments, from K-12 classrooms, to college-level courses, to corporate boardrooms. it is applicable to all students no matter the age or learning environment.

As technology is continually infused into the equation, school environments are also being transformed by the concept of blended learning, which opens up even more opportunity for personalization.

  • Affective networks - the why of learning
  • Recognition networks - the what of learning
  • Strategic networks - the how of learning
"Brain images" reprinted from "The UDL Guidelines". Copyright 2020 by CAST, Inc.

Blended Learning

The use of digital tools and the Internet in all levels of education has become ubiquitous. The advantage of technology is that it’s tentacles can reach far and wide. The fusing of traditional educational practices with the technological world has had one of the most profound effects on how humans learn. This merging of established, traditional teaching methods with new educational technology has come to generally be known as blended learning (BL).

Since the term was coined a couple decades ago, if one looked at five different sources for a solid, practical definition of BL, he would find five differing opinions. Luckily, a recent, seminal work was written that can serve as a guidepost on the topic: Blended: Using disruptive innovation to improve schools. The authors, Michael Horn and Heather Staker define blended learning as a formal education program in which:

  • Students learn at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace.
  • Students spend time in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home.
  • The modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience. (2014, pp. 33-35)

Personalization via Technology

Handing 25 laptops out to students for them to use in class does not automatically produce blended learning. Could we say this situation is technology-rich? Perhaps. But just having digital tools at hand does not make the use of the technology meaningful. BL answers the question: In what ways can we utilize technology to augment our traditional teaching methods to make for better learning? BL does this by integrating personalization into the mix.

For example, the students may be allowed to bring their laptops home to work on their own time in a flipped classroom. The instructor might give the students more autonomous control over what online resources they utilize to produce a project instead of limiting them to one piece of software. Students may even be allowed to pace out what subject matter they work on and control when they want to do it during the school day. The teacher works as a facilitator here – giving learners the one-on-one help that they may need and ensuring that the school's automated software is properly addressing the fact that Student A needs more linear equation practice while student B can move on to quadratic equations. The gears of the classroom are all turning, but they will be moving at different speeds. This is the spirit of personalization in BL.

Defining Classroom Environments

In terms of what blended environments actually look in action, Horn and Staker define four broad models: rotation, flex, a la carte, and enriched virtual classrooms. With the rotation model, students move between different stations in the class based on the teacher’s directions. Rotations have existed for years and are popular in education, but the new ingredient - the one that makes them blended - is that at least one of these stations will be online-based. There are four different flavors of rotations: station, lab and individual rotations, and the increasingly popular flipped classroom. Flipped classrooms are unique in that the “station” being rotated to is outside of the classroom – students do their online portion at home or elsewhere in preparation for the next day of lessons.

The flex model is where online learning is the primary modality for the student, and they are directed to do offline activities. This method is highly individualized to the learner. The a la carte model, which is common in secondary grades, is an online course or component that a student takes that is entirely online, while still attended a brick and mortar school for their other subjects. Enriched virtual classrooms require face-to-face sessions but allow students to do a large part of their coursework online from wherever and whenever they choose.

In-class instruction and e-learning combine for blended learning

UDL and BL Timeline

The team at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) started work on the theories of UDL back in the mid-1980s. Their original focus was on creating better educational experiences for students with disabilities. UDL is actually based on a similarly-named architectural movement called Universal Design (UD). The goal of UD is to create physical environments that are purposefully designed to be usable by the widest range of people, without the need for specialized exceptions. The very same concept drives UDL – fix the curriculum, don’t try to “fix” the student. UDL has especially grown in reach over the past decade and has been codified in a number of federal government public policy documents.

Up until the mid-2010s, a solid, consistent definition for BL was out of reach. Having a mixture of different technological modalities in learning is nothing new. However understanding what makes that mixture actually effective or not in the realm of education is a current pressing concern. The rise of the Internet and the ability for instant communication across any physical distance makes this an especially important topic for education. Horn and Staker’s contribution in 2014 finally hammers out specifics for BL and can serve as a guidepost going forward.

1. Separate beginnings for UDL and BL
2. BL and UDL overlap in personalization
3. UDL is enhanced by BL's technological strategies
4. BL continues to become a bigger factor in UDL

UDL/BL past to the future

When looking at the timeline for UDL and BL, we can see that they start off as entirely separated entities (figure 1). BL was a fledgling topic. Research was being done by various parties, but putting what we now know as BL into actual practice was, at best, confusing. UDL is a more established, organized, and well-defined entity. As time moves on, the growing body of learning science that backs the theories of UDL grows. The CAST organization continually tests and modifies their recommendations. Popularity of the term “UDL” grows. BL popularity similarly grows and the research and specificity of the term itself takes a more exacting form (figure 2).

The real magic as we start to look in the present and toward the future (figures 2 and 3) is that the concepts of UDL and BL start to interconnect. Both of these topics are firmly planted around the personalization of education. Instead of the instructor “filling the empty vase of the students mind with information,” the student is the constructor of her own knowledge.

UDL is a more firmly established framework, while BL is rapidly finding its footing. UDL helps thoroughly define what a personalized education might look like. It aids educational professionals in crafting curricula and lessons that fully exploit what we now know about learning science. BL can guide educators as a specific model in which to run a UDL environment.

As we can see in figure 4, the BL sphere is "swallowed" within the UDL sphere. The BL sphere continually grows and encompasses more and more of the UDL space. The world relies more and more on the Internet and digital technology. It goes without saying that the educational landscape will also follow suit. Since BL is centered around technology and the Internet, it only makes sense to utilize its concepts to serve as the foundation for a UDL-inspired educational system.

Where UDL and BL Overlap

Let’s take a look at the different ways that UDL and BL could overlap and improve each other. As has been shown in the previous sections, there is opportunity for a great symbiosis between the two. All of the topics addressed below apply to both UDL and BL. However, the size of the spheres represent how much each concept currently stands to contribute to each point.

Personalization at the forefront

Both UDL and BL concepts are firmly rooted in the spirit of personalization in education. The UDL framework takes inspiration from student-centered theories like constructivism. BL encourages personalization through meaningful and purposeful technology usage.

Empowering students

Students are empowered by having choice in both concepts. UDL specifically lays out how learners can be more invested in education - to be purposeful, resourceful, and strategically involved. BL concentrates on empowering students through the advantages intrinsic to technology. Technology innately enables the possibility of student control over time, place, pace, and path.

Highly supported by a growing community

Online search figures show UDL with two to three times as many resources (as of April, 2020): UDL vs. BL: 363 million to 124 million Google search resources, 3.3 million to 928,000 Google Scholar results, 380,000 vs 103,000 Academia.org results. Interestingly, the term BL has 19,000 followers vs. 3,700 followers for UDL on academia.org. Both are growing in popularity, but UDL is more established at this time.

Evolving the role of the instructor

The teacher is not just an orator or presenter in UDL and BL. The instructor may see their role as more of a facilitator, coach, mentor, or guide. Instructors need to help students navigate the complexities of their learning. Seismic changes to the role of a teacher are apparent in certain BL setups such as flex and enriched virtual classrooms.

Redefining educational environments

UDL tenets encourage resource-rich and flexible student-centered environments that reduce barriers to learning. BL can provide those with specificity. BL is defined by four types of engaging environments: rotation, flex, a la carte, and enriched virtual classrooms. Rotation environments have further categories including the increasingly popular station rotations and flipped classrooms. BL heavily emphasizes learning outside of physical school walls.

Facilitating competency-based education

Both concepts are designed with this in mind. Instead of measuring students’ progress by their hours of instruction, a personalized education supports them better by identifying what content was mastered – and what needs improvement. Specialized software can be extremely helpful and save time in tracking the unique pace at which each student will progress. BL can offer practical solutions in this regard.

Enabling project-based learning (PBL)

Although not necessarily a part of UDL or BL, both environments are excellent incubators for a PBL learning experiences. The technology utilization found in a BL setup is especially suited for both group and project learning. Many freeware and commercial software products can help support group PBL experiences.

Supported by learning science research

Learning science and continual research pervade the UDL philosophy. Since BL is younger in age, and perhaps less centralized in terms of control, more research is needed to prop up its effectiveness. Early study results show that properly scoped BL setups lead to more engaged students with higher rates of content retention.

Purposeful, pervasive use of technology

In it’s infancy, the UDL team (CAST) realized that technology can play an important role in personalizing education. However, the Internet and digital technology are not necessary for a UDL experience. BL is obviously heavily reliant on the digital world. As time moves on, technology will continue to pervade all aspects of education, so BL can best help to address that eventuality under the umbrella of a UDL mindset.

Minimizing time and resource investment

UDL can be implemented in simple or more involved ways. A teacher can spend a little time reconfiguring a lesson with UDL in mind, or an entire school district can revamp curricula to bake-in UDL concepts. UDL can be a state of mind or a mandated school policy. School or district-wide BL requires extensive investment and configuration of hardware and software solutions. However, individual teachers can adapt lessons for BL in practical ways as new software becomes available to enable this.

Applicable to all ages and types of learners

Both UDL and BL are engineered to be applicable to learners not only of all abilities, but of all ages too. More recently, these concepts have spread outside of K-12 into colleges and adult learning scenarios. People continue learning at all ages and situations in life.

Well-defined, encompassing philosophy

UDL especially shines in its philosophy because it attempts to approach the problem of education from all angles: engagement, representation, and expression. Defined within each of these categories is further actionable guidance for educators. BL is still in the earlier stages of fine-tuning things and establishing footing.

UDL and BL combining for the future

Standing on their own merits, UDL and BL are robust, forward-thinking ideas in the landscape of education. But when their strengths are combined together, they can form a real powerhouse. The strengths of UDL lie in its scientifically-based research, its actionable suggestions, and its completeness as a framework. The strengths of BL are in its purposeful and practicable use of technology, its parallel with UDL on the emphasis of personalization, and in the definable ways that it evolves the role of the teacher.

To summarize: UDL best serves as the overall guiding philosophical framework of personalization, while BL can fill an expanding role within UDL to address the use of technology in an increasingly digital education system.

Universal design for learning and blended learning takeaways

Universal design for learning sphere
Blended learning sphere