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From Theory to Practice: Incorporating UDL into USAID Education Activities

Written by: EnCompass Staff, ,

Authors: Sean Kelly and Miranda Cairns

Universal design for learning (UDL) is a research-based framework that captures how people learn and enables the design of more inclusive, accessible, and higher-quality educational environments. By proactively and intentionally removing barriers to learning, it creates learning environments in which all learners can thrive. Learner variability is critical to understanding and applying UDL. It is the recognition that each learner’s strengths, abilities, learning needs, interests, preferences, identity, and background are unique. Instead of designing instruction to meet the needs of an illusory “average” learner, UDL celebrates diversity by offering multiple ways to learn, engage, practice skills, and demonstrate learning. The UDL framework presented in the CAST UDL Guidelines—organized around the three UDL principles of engagement, representation, and action and expression—offers a starting point for applying UDL to learning environments and instruction. 

In 2022, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) committed to incorporating the principles of UDL for all learners in all if its new education programs by 2026. The commitment was informed by the USAID Education Policy and the U.S. Government Strategy on International Basic Education, which emphasize equity for and inclusion of the most marginalized learners in accessing education and achieving improved learning outcomes. Incorporating UDL principles has the potential to create more inclusive learning environments and instruction in all USAID education activities, from basic education to higher education, non-formal education, and youth workforce development.  

In support of this commitment, EnCompass collaborated with the Agency to produce a Guidance Note on integrating UDL principles into USAID education activities through the Data and Evidence for Education Programs (DEEP) project (2018–2024). The Guidance Note was based on desk research, interviews with technical specialists at USAID Missions and implementing partners (IPs), input from UDL expert Loui Lord Nelson, and feedback gathered through workshops with USAID staff at the Center for Education, regional Bureaus, and Missions.  

Our goal was to help Missions and IPs understand what UDL is and how they can use it, share real-world examples of what UDL can look like in action, and provide resources to help them integrate UDL into their education activities. The Agency wanted to build on CAST’s UDL Guidelines and resources by identifying supports for USAID Missions and IPs to integrate UDL and understand what UDL might look like in their activities. The DEEP team strove to present the content of this USAID-focused Guidance Note in a way that would be familiar to the users—what we called the entry points—and offered information in video, audio, visual, and written formats to be consistent with the UDL principle of representation. Concrete examples of previous USAID education activities that incorporated UDL in their design and implementation informed the entry points. These entry points are the heart of the Guidance Note. 

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Image: Samantha Herrick, EnCompass LLC


In an effort to make the Guidance Note practical and actionable, Guiding Questions for each entry point are available in a stand-alone PDF that users can print or fill out electronically. a section on monitoring, evaluation, and learning that lists learner and teacher level outcomes aligned to UDL that activities can measure, as well as a table of illustrative indicators applicable to UDL—both custom indicators and those aligned to USAID’s standard performance indicators for education. Finally, an annex provides additional resources, including research on UDL’s use in low- and middle-income countries as well as publications from CAST, Loui Lord Nelson, USAID, and the World Bank.

The Guidance Note is available on EduLinks.

EnCompass looks forward to continuing its work with USAID’s Center for Education through the Data Ecosystems for Development in Education (DECODE) project, helping to identify the Center’s objectives and needs related to UDL and crafting products and resources that further support Missions and IPs to integrate UDL into education activities.

EnCompass Staff

EnCompass offers innovative solutions for organizational excellence.  We seek to enhance the impact and capacity of government and multilateral agencies, corporations, and nonprofits around the world through customized services in organizational and leadership development, training, technical assistance, and evaluation.

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