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CAST's model of Universal Design on the Web

David Grogan
Michael Cooper
CAST, Inc.
39 Cross St.
Peabody, MA 01960
Email 1: dgrogan@cast.org 
Email 2: mcooper@cast.org 
Website: http://www.cast.org/

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) was founded to study and develop ways technology can be used to enable people with disabilities, especially in educational environments, to participate in the mainstream. In recent years, CAST has refined the concept of Universal Design for Learning (TM) (UDL). With respect to technology, Universal Design refers to software and hardware features that are created with a wide range of users in mind. Universal Design for Learning is a set of principles for the design of systems from which people gain information, such as educational curricula, software products, or web sites.

The new version of the CAST web site, currently under development, incorporates CAST's principles of Universal Design for Learning to a greater extent than ever before. It is our intention that the site be a model for UDL on the web. To function in that role, it is a highly designed site that contains extensive stores of information and resources about the science behind CAST's work. The site is easy to navigate and offers extensive support to a user looking for one particular piece of information. The site is compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to the Priority 2 level, so is largely accessible to persons with disabilities. Features that enhance the UDL aspects of the site, but traditionally present access barriers, downgrade gracefully and still present their functionality to persons using access aids whenever possible.

Many of the web site features that are mentioned here in support of Universal Design for Learning are also used by web developers and are considered "good design". We believe this is natural and that the principles of UDL support good web site design.

Universal Design for Learning

Based on recent understandings in neuroscience that describe three general brain systems used in learning, there are three principles for Universal Design for Learning. A universally designed learning environment should provide:

Multiple means of Representation: Universally designed materials provide alternative representations of key information. Students with different preferences and needs can either select the representational medium most suitable for them, or gather information from a variety of representational media simultaneously. Multiple Means of Expression and Control: Universally designed materials offer multiple options for expression and control. Persons with particular preferences or learning needs can find media, supports, and options that enable them to demonstrate their knowledge in the way that is most effective for them. Multiple Means of Engagement: Reaching to users' enthusiasm and interests is critically important. Media should support varied skill levels, preferences, and interests by providing flexible options. For any given user, there must be content that is interesting and provides a clear purpose. That the three principles are all presented in terms of "Multiple Means of..." is no accident. A driving understanding in UDL is that meaningful redundancy is a vital component of a learning system such as the web. Because people's ability to access information in a given medium varies widely (Gardner, 1983), it is important to provide the same information in multiple ways in order to broaden the accessibility of that information. Even when redundancy is not needed because of an access barrier, it is still beneficial to most people to have information presented to them in multiple modalities at once (Meyer & Rose, 1998; Cytowic, 1996). Redundant presentation is meaningful because it increases understanding; as opposed to information that is presented multiple times within the same medium, which does not increase understanding in the same way and so is not meaningfully redundant.

The principles of UDL are very relevant to the World Wide Web, and have a strong relationship to accessibility. The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has taken leadership in creating guidelines that page authors should use to help ensure accessibility of Web pages. In its own research and product development work, CAST has discovered the importance of these guidelines. For instance, the common need for ALT text and picture descriptions address the need to have alternative representation of images. In the case of the web, these alternative representations not only help people who prefer a short text alternative to an image, they also help people who cannot access images because of hardware constraints, and they help access aids such as screen readers to present meaningful information to a user. A very simple alternative representation principle is easily seen to have widespread application and benefit.

More information about Universal Design for Learning is available on the CAST web site at http://www.cast.org/concepts/.

Universal Design for Learning on CAST's new web site

CAST intends that its web site be a repository of information about Universal Design for Learning. In accordance with the principles of UDL, such a web site should also model Universal Design of the Web. Our site is thus highly designed and interactive, and highly accessible. The site currently under development models these principles more than ever before. Below we describe many of the features that make our web site particularly universally designed and accessible. We invite others to use the information here as a model for the development of other web sites.


Traveling Guides are an important way for the web site to provide assistance to users. Based on a museum metaphor, the Guides mimic self-paced recordings that describe the exhibits at each location. The interface to the guide looks like a small digital recording unit to reinforce the metaphor and engage familiar users. Applied to the web site, the guide can provide information about the current location and access to context-sensitive help features.

More importantly, though, the guide actually can suggest a path through the web site. This is the heart of the guides. In the same way that museum guides instruct users where to go next, the guides on the web site suggest the next page or section and provide a direct link to follow. Navigation through the guide's suggested path is extremely simple, and does not require any searching or prior knowledge of the site.

The guides are stronger than current museum guides, however, in that they can be customized for different purposes. It is possible to create new guides, or paths through the site, for personal use or to share with other people. This can be done by marking pages while browsing the site for later addition to the guide, or by a separate guide creation process. Initially, many of the guides available will have been prepared by CAST staff or by recognized experts in particular fields. As users take advantage of our site, they will create guides for specific purposes that will benefit other users.


Universally designed navigation features are very important to enable people to access the content of a web site. The site should identify the current location, and users should be able use an intuitive process of navigation. At the same time, technologies that support this must not create access barriers. The following features improve navigability of the site:

Use of color, shape, text equivalents, and sound to reinforce meaning in multiple ways. Consistent site metaphor Graceful fallbacks so the failure high-technology navigation features to operate does not interfere with the user's experience Important links always on every page Current location identifiers give users an understanding of their current location in the site High contrast colors in the design of graphical navigation features for easier visibility Content representation

Multiple CSS media types allow us to define features whose presentation varies on the basis of the way the user is using the site (e.g., on screen, in print, or with voice synthesis) Post-visit organizer so users can save information about their visit, bookmark for return, etc. Content ties to interactive elements such as forums and activities to increase engagement Content addresses multiple levels of cognitive experience so expert and novice users can access the same content Multiple languages will be made available and/or the ability to easily run pages through automated translation programs on the fly Ability to customize experience

Choice of stylesheets Pushed content at user option so new information of interest is quickly made available without the need to search Last page retrieval for repeat visitors

Multiple points of entry

The wide variety of ways users can begin accessing the information on our web site accommodates a range of interaction styles, levels of experience, and goals for a particular visit. Guides on the home page are top-level and highly specific and provide access to information about areas of particular interest. There is also a special site use guide, which introduces the new user to the site and helps users develop a personal strategy for using the site. Users can choose a free-form exploration of the major content areas, which is presented as a floorplan to continue the museum metaphor of the Guides. Users looking for very specific information can take advantage of flexible search features.

Summary of UDL Features

Below is a summary of the features of the web site that were described above. The specific principle(s) of Universal Design for Learning which apply to them are noted by "X" marks in fields in the table.

Click here to view a linearized version of the table below Table of site features by UDL Principle Multiple Means of ..... Features Representation Expression Engagement Guides X X X Use of color, shape, text equivalents and sound for navigation X X Consistent site metaphor X Graceful fallbacks X Important Links always on every page X Current Location Identifiers X High Contrast Colors X Multiple CSS media types X X Post-visit Organizer X X X Content ties to interactive elements X X X Content addresses multiple levels of cognitive experience X X Multiple languages X X Choice of stylesheets X X X Pushed Content X X Last visited page retrieval X


Cytowic, R.E. (1996). The neurological side of neuropsychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. New York: BasicBooks.

Meyer, A. & Rose, D.H. (1998). Learning to read in the computer age. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.

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