School Libraries and UDL in the Time of Learning from Home

computer books at desk

Universal Design for Learning

I’ll be honest. I think a lot about Universal Design. I’ve been teaching an online class on the subject for the better part of 10 years and have served on our district Universal Design for Learning committee on and off for about just as long. Especially now, while our students and teachers are adjusting to a “new normal,” receiving their course delivery online, we need to be thoughtful of ways in which we can incorporate UDL into our library instruction. We can also assist teachers in designing their activities to help meet the needs of all their students, whether that means ensuring the closed captioning works on all the videos posted in the online classroom, or using a folder and naming sequence to help students tackle their school work in manageable chunks. 

Universal Design

Universal Design for Learning stems from the idea of Universal Design. In case you are not familiar with Universal Design, it’s the idea that we should design for everyone, not just the few. Some easy examples of Universal Design include curb cutouts (great for wheelchairs, people with strollers, and bikes) and automatic doors. How many times have you stumbled into work with an arm full of books and bags?

The principles surrounding Universal Design for Learning (UDL) have been around for quite some time. CAST, the central organization involved with UDL has been working with schools and districts to ensure that students have experiences that benefit them and that the needs of every learner is met in our school buildings. 

Universal Design for Learning uses that same principle. Rather than design for a few, lessons and curriculum should be designed to meet the needs of all students by employing technology such as closed captioning and strategies such as small groups.  Technology can be high tech or low tech. Everyone is scrambling to learn new technologies and create online learning experiences that are meaningful for all in this COVID-19 pandemic–and we need to be always mindful of the needs of all of our students when designing instruction.

Our school libraries should not be forgotten when it comes to UDL. School libraries serve every student in the school community. School librarians interact with students over multiple grades and multiple years and are in the amazing position to see students grow and learn over the course of several years in a building. And now, as we teach and learn from home, we are assisting teachers on a daily basis on creating learning activities and working with students virtually. UDL becomes even more important.

Principles of Universal Design for Learning

 Universal Design for Learning is comprised of 3 main principles in order to provide:  

  • Multiple means of engagement
  • Multiple means of representation
  • Multiple means of action and expression

Breaking the principles down is a perfect way to look at why school libraries are the ultimate classroom in which Universal Design for Learning can be employed successfully. 

Principle 1: Multiple Means of Engagement

Multiple means of engagement refers to what correlates to the affective networks of our brain. This is really where educators want to engage students by providing options for recruiting their interest. It’s where choice is given. Within this principle, educators are working to provide autonomy and optimize relevance and authenticity. In addition, within this principle, we are looking for students to sustain their efforts, to persist and to self regulate. UDL promotes self-reflection.  

Let’s think about school libraries. We’re all about providing choice. School libraries are about exploring the world through literature, technology, discussion, and collaboration. Think about our collections. We promote a wide range of reading, literacy and literature appreciation. School librarians cheerlead for our students to self-select books for academic purposes and for reading pleasure. We build our lessons to be relevant to what the students need now, including information literacy, media literacy, and research skills. School libraries offer a welcoming environment where students can exercise their choice and autonomy.  

This principle of UDL connects brilliantly to our own AASL Standards.  

In the Shared Foundation Explore, learners are discovering and innovating in a growth mindset, they are reading widely and deeply in multiple formats and engaging in an inquiry-based process for personal growth. These actions allow students options for how they learn and provide them with choice in order to persist and self-regulate.    

How does this look with our virtual learning? We provide feedback, videos, reading options. We provide multiple databases and pathfinders for student use and engage students with meaningful choices.

Principle 2: Multiple Means of Representation

Multiple means of representation aligns with the recognition networks of the brain. That is to say the “what” of learning. Universal Design for Learning and providing multiple means of representation means offering ways to customize how information is displayed and offering alternatives to print or auditory information. In addition, UDL looks at providing information in multiple types of media, across languages, and looks at ways to supply and support background knowledge. Multiple means of representation also means assisting students in looking for patterns, finding the big idea, seeing relationships in their learning, and visualizing and processing information.

What does this mean in the world of school libraries? First, there are multiple types of media. School libraries provide visual media in the form of books, periodicals, articles on databases, etc. We provide auditory information in the form of audio books or databases where the text is read to the student. What a great support! School libraries support wide background knowledge with our never-ending ability to search and assist a student to find the information she or he needs. We provide books across multiple languages and databases that translate. We teach teachers how to utilize closed captioning in their videos and how to choose media that is accessible. We assist students in finding and understanding the big ideas of learning, picking out relevant information, and then sharing it with a wider audience.

In terms of our AASL Standards this means in part thinking about the Shared Foundation of Curate. Learners are asked to act on an information need and to identify sources of information. Our student learners gather and exchange information and organize their information.  As the school librarian, we are curating the resources students need to activate the “what” of their learning. 

Principle 3: Multiple Means of Action and Expression

The strategic network, or the “how,” of learning is activated when it comes to multiple means of action and expression. UDL encourages educators to provide a variety of methods for responding and navigating information. In this principle, educators are also encouraged to use multiple medias for communication and multiple tools for construction so students can show what they know. Educators guide students to appropriate goal setting, support their endeavors, and assist students in learning how to monitor their own progress as learners. 

In the school library, we collaborate with teachers on planning research projects in which students have choice in how they present their findings. We provide multiple databases, texts, and ways to research. School librarians have the knowledge and the know-how to leverage technology in order for students to create video, audio, podcasts, presentations, and more. We utilize green screen technologies so that students doing a report on Italy can present their telecast from Rome. We teach the use of tools such as Audacity and Garageband in order for students to find their voice. Truly, school librarians are the champions of multiple means of action and expression. We support students in finding their passion projects and in learning as much about the world as they possibly can.  

Multiple means of action and expression relate to the AASL Standards in the Shared Foundation of Engage. This foundation is all about creating and sharing ethically and responsibly. As we create and share in this virtual world, encourage students and teachers to use copyright friendly images, to utilize copyright friendly videos, etc.  

Creating Expert Learners

Finally, the Universal Design for Learning guidelines are designed with this goal in mind: 

Expert learners who are:

  • Purposeful and Motivated
  • Resourceful and Knowledgeable
  • Strategic and Goal-Directed

As school librarians we want all of these things and more for our students. We derive pleasure from watching motivated students utilize library resources in a manner that is purposeful, strategic, and directed toward the end goal.  

Personally, I feel like there are connections in many more places in the standards but in the interest of space and your time in reading this post, I am sticking to just a couple per UDL principle.

What do you do in your library to ensure access to the curriculum for all? I’d love to know. Please share in the comments. 

To learn more about Universal Design for Learning please visit these websites.


Reading Rockets

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines




Author: Jennifer Sturge

Jennifer Sturge is a Specialist for School Libraries and Digital Learning for Calvert County Public Schools. She has been an educator and librarian for 28 years and is always looking forward. She is a member of ALA and AASL,was the 2020-2021 President of the Maryland Association of School Librarians for 2020-2021, a 2017-2018 Lilead Fellow, and Chair of the AASL Supervisor’s Section of AASL..

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Intellectual Freedom, Professional Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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