Universal Instructional Design

In my opinion, the challenge of universal instructional design is a much broader and deeper question than one of overcoming disability. It is a question of the philosophy of education: what is the purpose of formal education? Structural design for universal access is certainly important for residential buildings, but not so much for roller coasters. The purpose of the structure determines the value of making it accessible. Is anyone going to pay for an elevator to the top of Mount Everest just so everyone can have equal access? Certainly the views are spectacular, but nearly everyone is plagued by their disability to climb such a high mountain.

Is education a matter of reaching the top of the mountain, of learning how to climb, or of choosing whether to practice climbing or to practice swimming? If education is a process of learning how to climb, it is thwarted by building an elevator to the top of the mountain so that individuals in wheelchairs can reach the top. If the point of education is reaching the top of the mountain, why would anyone bother learning to climb when the elevator works much more quickly? If education is about helping the individual recognize and develop their preference for swimming over climbing, its purpose is defeated by forcing everyone to practice mountain climbing.

The point is that every individual has a different skill set and ability that can be developed by education. Unfortunately, there is often an assumption that every student needs to climb Mount Everest. A few will succeed at this challenge, but many will not. Some are even scared of heights. Does this mean that they need additional psychological support so they can reach the same goal as everyone else? Perhaps they simply need to recognize that their natural condition makes them much better swimmers than climbers.

The suggestion that I hope to make by this example is that the future of education may not be about helping everyone reach the same summit no matter what obstacles or disabilities they may face. Rather, it shifts the challenge of teaching from one of how to make everyone a great climber to one of helping individuals decide if they want to climb at all – and if so, which mountain…and how. In fact, it even allows for individuals to recognize they are not physically built to be climbers and to take up swimming instead. After all, not all mountain climbers can also be good at swimming. This is the idea of restructuring education around the individual (Human Centered Learning). By creating an educational environment in which a multiplicity of abilities are developed and valued, universal instructional design can create a level playing field for students of varying abilities.