UDL and 21st Century Learning

Students and teacher use digital display and technology to guide instruction

Put simply, “people learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone” (Mayer, 2005). Multimedia theory posits the idea that people’s brains more effectively integrate new information when they can receive that information in multiple ways.  As we move towards a model of Universally Designed Learning (UDL), we’re inviting students to acquire and share information in novel ways, and assisting them in linking their learning directly to their experiences, past, and future.

Our students are digital natives, necessitating an approach to teaching that effectively integrates the digital world they inhabit and prepares them to communicate effectively in the digital context. UDL and multimedia theory combine to form a potent solution. By using this framework in the post-secondary classroom, educators can simultaneously address a range of learning needs, foster a culture of learning that values multiple perspectives, work styles, and contributions, while also teaching the skills students need to become effective consumers and communicators of media. This readies students for a professional world that relies increasingly on digital media and communication to fuel values-driven innovation, collaboration, and productivity.

Here’s how the principles of UDL can be integrated with multimedia theory in practice.

1. Multiple means of representation: give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge. 

Here is a great resource, a UDL checklist, available to those interested in adopting the UDL framework. Looking at this checklist with multimedia theory as a lens can be of great help in planning the work your students will do to build knowledge and skills in your discipline. Also, don’t forget, your students are digital natives and may be able to point you in the direction of resources related to your discipline that are worth considering.

There are benefits to all students when we integrate multimedia and UDL in our instruction. For example, Professor John Holland teaches a course called “Foundations of Teacher Leadership” in Mount Holyoke College’s Masters of Arts in Teacher Leadership program. He crafts assignments and resources that present information in a multitude of ways and for every reading, there are multiple videos from which students can choose to gain similar and related information. It is important to keep multimedia theory in mind as you plan resources. As digital consumers, college students are used to taking in information from multimedia sources. Due to the engaging nature of multimedia storytelling, presenting information through multiple forms of media, we see that all students, not just those “targeted” by interventions, benefit when information is shared from multiple perspectives and in various forms—this creates more opportunity for understanding in different ways. As instructors, we are responsible for determining which resources are reputable and reliable and teaching our students to do the same. This enables them to develop learning strategies that serve them into the future, because they become “informed” consumers and innovative producers of that information. When we explicitly engage UDL and multimedia frameworks, we teach students the value of multimedia as a communication tool and we prioritize accessibility to information.

2. Multiple means of expression: provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know. 

Our students are consumers of multimedia digital communication. If we are to effectively prepare our students for the 21st century workforce, it is essential that we also incorporate multimedia in the type of work we ask them to produce. 

For example, Professor Holland gives students a menu of possible assignments worth varying points, including, but not limited to essays, blog posts, infographic posters, videos, podcasts, and Twitter chats. They are all designed for students to use personally relevant communication skills to show understanding of course content. In modeling the principles of UDL, Holland shows his students that these different types of activities are all valued, and they are not seen as “alternatives” for people who can’t do the “actual” assignment. On the contrary, the assignments actually push students to participate in the larger conversation on a given topic.

As digital natives, our students can relatively quickly figure out how to create digital content that speaks to their communication styles and strengths. However, it is important to either teach students the skills to create alternative types of work, or give them the space to teach themselves. It is critical that we are holding students to high expectations of quality output. This requires us to be explicit in our teaching of the skills and critical of the resources we share with students. One great way to provide students with vetted resources is through a platform like Lynda, which many institutions have access to. Thinking about the skills and content you want students to master, you can then encourage students to use media creatively as a tool for demonstrating knowledge of your course material and engaging others.

Here are some additional resources and examples: 

  • Ask students to create a lesson plan with supporting documents that would teach others about the course material they are displaying knowledge of—this requires mastery of the content, but also deep thinking about how to translate that knowledge to others
  • Have students create a mini-documentary that applies multimedia learning theory to convey their understanding
  • Have students produce a podcast

If you are interested, check out a short narrative about Michael’s use of this principle in his middle school English Language Arts class.

3. Multiple means of engagement: tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation (“Three Principles of UDL,” 2019).

This is where the other two principles unite to form one of UDL’s central powers, that of engaging students. In thinking about working with and supporting an increasingly diverse set of learners, the idea of engagement is exceptionally important. By providing multiple means of engagement, for input and output, we increase the likelihood that students with different experiences, needs, interests, and passions will all find something to connect to. In doing so, we also engage our students more effectively, which has been shown to correspond to improved student outcomes (McClenney, Marti, & Adkins, 2012). There are multiple equally valuable ways of representing ideas—these cannot be seen as hierarchical. To adequately prepare students for the dynamic workplace challenges they will face, it is imperative to approach our classroom goals from a framework of UDL and multimedia consumption and creation to teach content and simultaneously equip students with 21st century skills.

One of the most valuable skills we can foster in our students, for their lifelong personal and professional well-being, is effective communication. Multimedia communication is accessible, relatable, and compelling given our society’s current emphasis on digital culture. The use of multimedia and UDL are tools for helping students understand that learning is personal, that they should be discerning about where/how they consume information, that they should seek multiple sources/perspectives, and that there is value in representing your knowledge in ways that “speak” to you and to others. It is also especially important for adult learners who need educators to emphasize how class learning translates to practical skills—and this type of work prepares our students to be successful communicators in the workforce.

Gwen Bass, MEd, MA, PhD, currently serves as the director of the Teacher Leadership division of Professional and Graduate Education at Mount Holyoke and frequently presents on inclusive classroom practices, behavior management, child development, child welfare systems, parent education, measurement and evaluation of social emotional skills in schools, and trauma-sensitive teaching.

Michael Lawrence-Riddell has been an educator in one way, shape, or form for the better part of the last three decades. He has taught high school in Brooklyn, elementary school in Boston, and middle school in Amherst. While at Wesleyan University, Michael majored in African American Studies and was actively involved in anti-racist activism on campus. It is when Michael is able to marry his passions for learning, history, social justice, and a better future that he is his most fulfilled. Michael brings these passions to his current work creating a multimedia, digital curriculum that looks at the histories and legacies of institutional racism.


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Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. John Wiley & Sons. 

Hofer, M. (2015). UDL: A systematic approach to supporting diverse learners. Faculty Focus.

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Lowery, C. (2019) Multimedia learning for a new generation of educators. Multimedia Learning Theory: Preparing for the New Generation of Students, edited by Peter Jenlink, Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 69-84.

McClenney, K., Marti, C. N., & Adkins, C. (2012). Student engagement and student outcomes: Key findings from. Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

Mayer, R., & Mayer, R. E. (Eds.). (2005). The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning. Cambridge university press. 

Rao, K. (2015). Universal design for learning and multimedia technology: Supporting culturally and linguistically diverse students. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 24(2), 121-137.