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Education with empathy: Universal Design for Learning opens doors for students of all needs

Jan 10, 2022
4 minutes
Ela Robles

Nearly two years since classrooms moved online, students and teachers alike are still struggling. The same problems the education sector has faced before are now aggravated with the new setting.

Ang daming old practices in ‘normal’ times that the pandemic has shed light on [and] the fact na hindi sila appropriate for learning, and students aren't actually learning,” says Habi Education Lab executive director, Gerson Abesamis on the
“A Better Normal” podcast. In the episode powered by PLDT Home, he discusses using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to create learning experiences for all learners and their spectrum of needs.

UDL challenges the “one size fits all” model we’ve grown so used to in school by creating curricula to overcome barriers like disability, socio-economic status, and other factors that may hold students back. “[We should] redefine what ‘one size fits all’ means into something that enables the tool or the technology to accommodate as many as we can,” says Abesamis, saying that when we design for extreme cases, you catch everyone in between as well. He gives three examples of how to do this:

Design multiple means of engagement.

He makes an example of trying to compare the day’s lesson with K-Pop, but reminds teachers that there could be a handful of students who don’t know anything about it. “That's immediately not serving them and their motivation. They will immediately disengage.”

“Think about how to motivate different types of learners to engage with the content,” says Abesamis. It starts with taking the time to know what interests them, and not just what is popular. Your goal as an educator, and now designer, is to create experiences that will inspire students to want to keep learning.

Design multiple means of representation

Information could come in the form of an online article that can be zoomed in, rearranged to a friendlier layout, or even read aloud by a screen reader for those who are auditory learners. Distributing information through video is also now more convenient online, because it can be consumed in several ways. “You can read the subtitles and don't listen to the audio. You can listen to the audio only, [or just] read the transcript of the video after. You can slow down the video, you can pause it,” lists Abesamis.

Presenting learners with study materials available in a multitude of formats addresses not just their internal needs, but their environmental limitations too. Students with weak internet connection, or even study in a room with distractions now have the ability to consume information in a way that is most efficient to them.

Design multiple means of action and expression.

When the world brought classrooms online, the topic of online test-taking came up. Could teachers trust students to answer their exams honestly if they could easily look up the answers on the same device they were taking the test on?

Some students show mastery through words, others through visuals. Some students can explain themselves during recitation, but might not do well during pen and paper exams. UDL tells us that standardized assessments shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all of measuring what students have learned.  “Provide different ways for learners to show you that they've learned,” says Abesamis. 

“A Better Normal” podcast host Tricia Aquino says, “Learners have diverse needs, and they deserve the space to show that they’re smart too, just in other ways that may not be catered for by the learning experiences that they currently go through.”

Ang pananaw ko ngayon, as a teacher, is to instill confidence in the student so they can continue learning. Ganun siya ka-simple para sa akin,” Abesamis says. But instilling this confidence isn’t just the teacher’s responsibility,  it involves administrators, parents, and even the students themselves. 


“A Better Normal” is a PumaPodcast series that speaks with experts and thought leaders on their bold vision for the future after COVID-19. Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

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