A majority of the research on learning in a multimedia digital environment lacks a focus on the inclusion of students with special needs – either through their participation in research or through accessible designs. These studies do, however, reveal how this environment can benefit students with diverse learning needs. We argue that Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can provide a helpful framework for summarizing this research and demonstrating how a digital multimedia environment can increase the accessibility of materials, scaffold students’ exploration of content, and facilitate their engagement. This Research in Brief article provides an overview of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and highlights research on instructional strategies in a digital multimedia environment that exemplifies the three principles of UDL.

Overview of Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning is an educational framework that optimizes opportunities for all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning (Meyer & Rose, 2002; Rose & Meyer, 2006; Rose, Meyer, & Hitchcock, 2005). The “universal” in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) does not imply one optimal solution for everyone, but instead underscores the need for inherently flexible, customizable content, assignments and activities, and assessments characterized by:

  • Multiple representations of information—as there is no single method for the presentation of information that will provide equal access for all learners (Recognition Principle);
  • Multiple methods of action and expression—as there is no single method of expression that will provide equal opportunity for all students (Strategic Principle); and
  • Multiple means of engagement—as there is no single way to ensure that all children are engaged in a learning environment (Affective Principle).

The term “universal design” is borrowed from the architectural concept of the same name, which called for curb cuts, automatic doors and other architectural features to be built into the design to avoid costly after-the-fact adaptations for individuals with disabilities. But, in reality, these features benefit many other people, including cyclists and parents with strollers. Universal Design for Learning applies the same concept to learning—creating a curriculum with numerous built-in features to meet the learning needs of a wide range of students, including those with disabilities and special talents.

Students differ from one another in many ways and present unique learning needs in the classroom setting, yet high standards are important for all students. By incorporating supports for particular students, it is possible to improve learning experiences for everyone, without the need for specialized adaptations down the line. For example, captioned video is of great help to Deaf students—but captions are also helpful to students who are learning English, students who are struggling readers, students with attention deficits, and even students working in a noisy classroom. Fortunately, these supports are becoming increasingly available in digital multimedia learning environments.

Research on the Application of Universal Design to Multimedia Materials

Learning strategies that exemplify the three principles of UDL can be found in several of the Multimedia Research in Brief articles. For one, study results show that providing students with multiple options to view content increases learning. This is an example of the Recognition Principle. Second, research in this area also illustrates how students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills is effectively scaffolded in a digital environment, an example of the Strategic Principle. Finally, researchers continue to conclude that learning in a multimedia environment prompts and sustains student engagement, an example of the Affective Principle. What follows are specific examples from the Multimedia Research in Brief articles that further illustrate these three principles of UDL.

Recognition Principle

To support learning, a multimedia learning environment needs to provide multiple, flexible methods of presentation (Meyer & Rose, 2002). Ways of addressing this principle include presenting material in a variety of formats and highlighting the critical information. There are several examples from the Research in Brief articles that demonstrate this type of flexibility when linguistic, cognitive, and visual options are provided. Base 10 Blocks, a mathematics virtual manipulatives program, is an effective way to increase elementary students’ understanding of abstract concepts (e.g., Moyer et al., 2005; Reimer & Moyer, 2005). This virtual manipulative also supports recognition learning because it provides a choice of English or Spanish.

The Science Research in Brief lists studies that demonstrate how a multimedia digital environment helps students visualize phenomena that otherwise they could not see (e.g., how the Earth’s tilt directly affects surface temperatures; Barnett, Yamagata-Lynch, Keating, Barab, & Hay, 2005; Kozma & Russell, 2005). Kozma and Russell’s (2005) study of the computer program, ChemSense, demonstrates how this virtual laboratory increased students’ learning of complex concepts because it allowed them to “jointly conduct wet lab experiments and use multiple representations to analyze, discuss and understand their goals, results and conclusions” (p. 413).

Finally, computer programs that highlight critical features also attend to students’ recognition learning. The Games and Simulations Research in Brief article points out several examples where highlighting critical features in the form of hints or suggestions helps students notice important information (c.f., deJong & van Joolingen, 1998). This feature also makes the concepts students are learning explicit—a feature that is essential in a game environment (Rieber, 2005). As these examples reveal, digital features that support recognition learning increase the accessibility of the instructional materials teachers use.

Strategic Principle

A digital environment supports student learning when it provides multiple, flexible methods for student action, expression, and apprenticeship (Meyer & Rose, 2002). Supports such as modeling and questioning strategies scaffold the knowledge and skills students need to accomplish tasks that require lower- and higher-order thinking. Britt and Aglinskas’ (2002) study provides an example of how the questioning strategies embedded in the computer program, Sourcer’s Apprentice, increased students’ abilities to analyze multiple primary sources and construct a historical argument (refer to the History Research in Brief article for more information on similar computer programs).

The studies highlighted in the Agents Research in Brief provide another example of how supporting strategic thinking can help struggling students. McNamara and Shapiro (2005) found that digital agents that appear in multimedia programs as e-mentors or guides to the content proved more beneficial to students who had pre-tested with low knowledge in the content area than to their peers using the program who pre-tested with more content knowledge. Based on their work, McNamara and Shapiro (2005) suggest that digital agents can serve effectively as mentors to provide strategic think-alouds to help students make connections from previously introduced material to new content. When embedded in a multimedia learning environment, these strategic supports increase the learning opportunities students with special needs require, especially when engaged in higher-order thinking.

Affective Principle

Learning should be supported through multiple, flexible means for engagement. This principle can be addressed in many ways, including personalized learning environments, student choice, and flexible levels of challenge. The Agents Research in Brief article points out studies that emphasize the importance of digital agents using a personal tone (i.e., using words such as “we” or “you”). This research has found that digital agents that use this tone of dialogue are more engaging for students (Moreno, 2005).

Choice also increases student engagement. The Yeh and Lehman (2001) study described in the History Research in Brief article illustrates how students’ control over the navigation of a computer program (e.g., selecting hyperlinks to additional background information and/or a multimedia glossary) had a positive effect on their learning, especially when compared to their peers who did not have these navigation options.

Finally, the Games and Simulations Research in Brief article shows how a gaming environment allows students to learn content at different levels of challenge (Habgood, Ainsworth, and Benford, 2005). Providing multiple entry points is important because students are more engaged when the level of challenge appropriately meets their skill level. It is important to keep in mind, however, that a flexible learning environment also means that the level of challenge increases as the student’s skill level also increases. Such support options have a positive impact on student learning because they prompt and sustain student engagement.

Selecting a Multimedia Program

Bringing Universal Design for Learning into classrooms and educational practice may sound like a difficult task. In a classroom supplied only with conventional materials—such as textbooks— it can be. But today’s teachers have access to a variety of materials, methods, and tools such as digitized text, multimedia software, video recorders, tape recorders, and the World Wide Web. When selecting multimedia programs, make sure that they provide multiple and flexible methods for presenting content, scaffolding learning, and engaging students. Multimedia learning environments that incorporate these three UDL principles optimize opportunities for all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning.


Barnett M., Yamagata-Lynch L., Keating T., Barab S., & Hay, K. (2005). Using virtual reality computer models to support student understanding of astronomical concepts. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(4), 333-56.

Britt, M., & Aglinskas, C. (2002). Improving students’ ability to identify and use source information. Cognition and Instruction, 20(4), 485-522.

de Jong, T., & van Joolingen, W. R. (1998). Scientific discovery learning with computer simulations of conceptual domains. Review of Educational Research, 68(2), 179-201.

Habgood, M. P. J., Ainsworth, S. E., & Benford, S. (2005). Endogenous fantasy and learning in digital games. Simulation & Gaming, 36(4), 483-498.

Kozma R, Russell J. (2005). Multimedia learning of chemistry. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McNamara, D. S., & Shapiro, A. M. (2005). Multimedia and hypermedia solutions for promoting metacognitive engagement, coherence, and learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 33(1): 1-29.

Moyer, P. S., Niezgoda, D., & Stanley, J. (2005). Young children's use of virtual maniuplatives and other forms of mathematical representations. In W. J. Masalaski & P. C. Elliott (Eds.), Technology-Supported Mathematics Learning Environments (pp. 17-34). Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

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Rieber, L. (2005). Multimedia learning in games, simulations, and microworlds. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (pp. 549-567). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Reimer, K., & Moyer, P. S. (2005). Third-graders learn about fractions using virtual manipulatives: A classroom study. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(1), 5-25.

Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2006). A practical reader in Universal Design for Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Rose, D. H., Meyer, A., & Hitchcock, C. (2005). The universally designed classroom: Accessible curriculum and digital technologies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Rose, D. H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal Design for Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Yeh, S., & Lehman, J. (2001). Effects of learner control and learning strategies on English as a foreign language (EFL) learning from interactive hypermedia lessons. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 10(2), 33.

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