Universal Design for Learning and Liberating Structures can support equity initiatives in career education

Gena Hamilton

For many career development practitioners (CDPs), the pandemic changed how we connect with clients and deliver career education. These changes raised questions on best practices for design in career education in my role as a career education co-ordinator. How do we design lesson plans for virtual workshops that will engage and include participants with diverse backgrounds and abilities? Applying two approaches, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Liberating Structures (LS), increased the responsiveness of my career education practice to improve inclusion and engagement to support equity initiatives.

Universal Design for career education

UDL is a framework that applies cognitive neuroscience insights about how people learn to the design of learning. This framework can be applied to the design of goals, materials, methods, assessments and policies to improve inclusion and accessibility in learning contexts. The goal is to support learners to be purposeful and motivated; resourceful and knowledgeable; and strategic and goal-driven by changing the design instead of expecting participants to change.

The UDL framework proposes three principles to design meaningful learning experiences, providing multiple means for: 1.) engagement, 2.) representation and 3.) action and expression. The UDL Guidelines are a tool to apply the UDL framework to career education practice. The Guidelines can be adapted based on the learning goals, content and contexts; therefore, it is important to have a well-defined learning objective. The Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) provides more information on research and applications of UDL and its Guidelines at cast.org.

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Applying Universal Design in a career education workshop

During the past year, I designed and facilitated a one-hour virtual workshop for post-secondary students on developing an action plan. Reflection questions were integrated throughout the workshop and completed independently. In the original design, participants were given verbal and written instructions to reflect on the questions and write their goal. One systemic barrier with this activity is it requires participants to demonstrate their self-reflection only through written presentation (i.e. pencil and paper or typing). I observed that multiple means of expression could be integrated into the lesson plan to increase participant choice in how they represented their learning. In the revised design, I provided more options for participants’ response formats, such as drawing, recording audio, selecting an image or using a sentence-starter worksheet to identify their goal.

Furthermore, I employed the UDL framework regarding representation by including closed captioning that participants could turn on or off. I also sent participants workshop slides in a PDF-readable format to review before the workshop with a link to free text-to-speech software.

Liberating Structures for career education

LS are a collection of 33 tools/activities designed to improve engagement and inclusiveness in learning and work environments. Liberatingstructures.com provides more information on LS and applications.

When applying LS, it is important to be clear about your objective as every LS activity is designed for a specific purpose. For example, an LS-in-development called Mad Tea is designed to provide a deep and lively environment to enhance engagement and incite deeper insights for all participants.

Applying a Liberating Structure in a career education workshop

In the same one-hour virtual workshop, I incorporated a Mad Tea variation for virtual conferencing technology using the chat to all function. Students were instructed to reflect on questions, or invitations, provided verbally and in writing, including:

  • I registered for this workshop in hopes of …
  • A question that is emerging for me is …
  • Something I plan to do is …

Participants were instructed to finish the prompt sentence intuitively and concisely by typing their responses in the chat (to everyone) but to wait to submit their responses until the facilitator said “go.” Participants were then instructed to prepare for the ensuing prompt to repeat the process. Once all the prompts were addressed, participants read through the responses and identified keywords and patterns. The group had a larger discussion about their observations. This LS-in-development activity facilitated all participants contributing to the activity instead of participants not engaging at all, the chat being dominated by a couple of participants or participants’ responses being influenced by others’ responses. Additionally, the quick movement through the activity encourages participants to respond intuitively.


UDL and LS can transform the learning process for all participants in a variety of career education contexts and be applied in-person, or synchronously or asynchronously online. I encourage you to explore how you can apply UDL and LS to the design of your career education context to increase engagement and inclusivity for your participants. While becoming familiar with these approaches may be initially intimidating, there are supportive UDL and LS online communities. Remember that all design processes are iterative. You may be already applying some of these suggestions in your practice and now have a common language with others.

Looking for more UDL and LS resources?

The Universal Design for Learning Implementation and Research Network (UDL-IRN) offers a Networking and Learn Series Events, weekly email updates, as well as special interest group (SIG) networks in Higher Education, Implementation, Assessment and Measurement, and Anti-racism. Additionally, you can join LS #Slack group to explore using LS online and share resources. There are also regional LS User Groups, such as the Victoria/Vancouver Island and Vancouver User Groups.

Gena Hamilton is a Career Education Co-ordinator at the University of the Fraser Valley with a passion for learning design and innovation in career education.