11/07/2013 02:43 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Real World

You have likely heard people make a distinction between college and "the real world" as if campuses existed in some artificial, bubble dimension that insulates students and faculty from worldly concerns. To borrow a phrase from the vernacular: "Get real!" In fact, efforts such as Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) show how educational institutions are at the vanguard of understanding the true human landscape, i.e. our world as it really is, not just the handed-down experience of a particular subset of the population.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University characterizes Universal Design (UD) as "the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." Universal Design already shapes our daily lives in an inclusive way, from sidewalk curb cuts to closed captioning capability built into modern TV screens. As noted by the UConn Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, "One of the important aspects of UD is that its inclusive elements benefit all users, not just those with disabilities." Another important tenet of UD is that these informed design choices are proactive, not retrofitted.

Getting real in classrooms and beyond

Student bodies have become more reflective of the larger population, with greater variation in terms of gender, age, ability/disability, etc. Rather than simply meeting the needs of an "average" student and retrofitting accommodations for all others, applying UD principles in the classroom requires more upfront thought on crafting lessons that have identified, planned for, and embraced the diversity of human experience and ability. Given that even this "average" student has changed considerably over the past several decades, the UDI approach is more important now than ever.

UConn's Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, explains "Universal Design for Instruction integrates the 'usability' features of Universal Design with research on effective instructional practices. An important feature of Universal Design for Instruction is that its inclusive instructional design elements benefit a broad range of learners."

Increasingly, professors understand that the pathways our students take to learn will vary by their needs. This requires a classroom culture responsive to all abilities. Professors meet a variety of learning styles and learning differences by using digital tools such as videos, portfolios, adaptive learning software, and online resources as well as pedagogical tools such as mastery learning, project-based learning, dual-format assignments, flipped classroom format, learning-disability-sensitive techniques, contracts, team-centric learning, peer models, and honors-enriched curricula.

Decades of media coverage on the growth in understanding and diagnosis of learning differences have raised awareness that educational institutions must meet an array of different needs. What's often lost in the conversation is that these challenges are not isolated to the classroom. Students will encounter this same diverse population in the workforce. Having collaborated in class with a variety of individuals equips students for engagement with the larger, diverse world around them. Similarly, students with learning differences will enter this workforce better aware of the particular tools and techniques that support their success.

Not an ivory tower, but a lookout post

Among the most significant aspects of the UD approach is its emphasis on respecting the diversity of human experiences and refusal to marginalize minority needs and concerns. It casts a clear eye to see the "Real World" as lived in not only by the majority, but also by people from every walk of life. Far from being a bubble insulating students from reality, it is more helpful, and accurate, to understand college as platform that gives a broader perspective on the world around us.