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Part 3: Flexibility of Use, the second principle of Universal Design
by Antonia Levy & Christopher Leydon

Welcome back, dear followers, to a fresh New Year’s edition of UD Nosh! This month, we’ll be discussing the second principle of Universal Design (UD): Flexibility in Use. Generally speaking, this means that the design of any product should accommodate a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Flexible design seeks to:

  • Provide choice in methods of use
  • Accommodate right- and left-handed access and use
  • Facilitate user accuracy and precision
  • Provide adaptability of the user space.
Pruners for left and right handed use

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Practical examples for this principle include not only the familiar architectural features like  restrooms and other facilities that are physically accessible to individuals who use wheelchairs or face other mobility challenges, but also consumer items like scissors or computer mice made for both left and right handed users.

This UD principle is important because design that fails to provide flexibility in use can lead to problems that are hard to fix later on. One enormous example of this kind of failure is the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which accommodates cars, trucks, and busses. Yet when it was build fifty years ago, no provision was made for a rail link between Brooklyn and Staten Island, nor for use by pedestrians or cyclists. The latter is currently being considered though it entails an expensive retrofit.

An emphasis on flexibility when designing products or environments brings into focus the difference between accessible (or barrier free) design and universal design. While the former is legally mandated to permit access for those who may be excluded because of a disability, universal design aims at inclusiveness in a broader and more integrated sense.

“Universal design places increased emphasis on the critical goal of meeting the needs of as many users as possible. … By increasing the number of people whose needs are being addressed in a single design solution, universal design encourages an integrative approach rather than multiple separate solutions.” (The Center for Universal Design)

In a university environment, disability services offices are usually tasked with primary responsibility for providing support to students with disabilities. This approach is based on the accommodation model, in which reactive adjustments are made by request to render an educational environment accessible to an individual with a disability. (In the case of a faculty or staff member, such requests are submitted to the human resources office, which arranges for reasonable workplace accommodations.) By contrast, a proactive UDL approach promotes the expanded goal of making these environments welcoming and inclusive from the start to groups that are diverse in many dimensions, including gender, race and ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, ability, or learning style. Such consideration on the front end helps prevent the need to redesign down the road when a user arrives on campus and indicates the lack of accessibility.

Accessible classroom chairs and furniture

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More concrete examples include UDL-inspired classroom furniture such as tablet desks that can accommodate both left and right handed users or height-adjustable tables that can easily accommodate a range of user sizes and preferences. Furniture that can be readily moved allows us flexibility for different learning activities and student groupings. For staff, allowing for various delivery methods of documents to the school (by mail, fax, hand delivery, web form, or email attachment) or of paychecks to employees (by mail, direct deposit, or pickup) are consistent with the practice of flexibility in use. The School’s new website includes responsive design elements in its code (HTML5 and CSS3) that allow for automatic re-sizing to accommodate access from phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. Blackboard, our learning management system, is also available through mobile app. And even CUNYFirst has features that provide accessibility and flexibility of use.

This principle applies as much to teaching and learning—whether online or in a brick-and-mortar classroom—as it does to the physical campus. The diversity of students we encounter include a variety of learning styles and preferences: Learners might differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information, the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know, as well as in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. By utilizing varied instructional methods to include different modes of learning and different learning preferences, we not only meet the needs of students with the greatest barriers, but also improve access for a wide range of learners.

If you are curious, check out this questionnaire by VARK Learn to find out about your own learning preferences. Instructors could use the questionnaire as an icebreaker during the first week of classes to start a discussion with students about the way you teach and they learn.

This article is part of an ongoing series introducing the concept of Universal Design (UD) as it applies to the context of higher education and to our work at CUNY SPS. Each month we cover one of the seven principles of UD with practical examples for both faculty and staff, including things you might not immediately associate with accessibility—or inaccessibility. Catch you next month! Questions or feedback? Email Antonia Levy or Christopher Leydon.

Darby, Alexa (n.d.). Understanding Universal Design in the Classroom. National Education Association (NEA): (Accessed January 11, 2016).
The Center for Universal Design, NCSU (n.d.) Introduction to Universal Design. (Accessed January 11, 2016).


Part 2: Equitable Use, the first principle of Universal Design

by Antonia Levy & Christopher Leydon

Last month we defined Universal Design (UD) as a concept for including accessibility in everything we do. There are seven principles of UD, all of which seek to promote access and consideration of diversity as integral parts of what we make and do, rather than an afterthought. This month we introduce the first UD principle, equitable use.

Equitable Use seeks to make “design useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.” More concretely, this means:

  • Providing the same means of use for all users—identical whenever possible, equivalent when not;
  • Avoiding segregating or stigmatizing any users;
  • Offering provisions for privacy, security, and safety equally to all users;
  • Making the design appealing to all users.

For example, curb cuts: designed to accommodate wheelchair users, they also benefit anyone pushing a stroller or shopping cart and kids on skates or scooters. The point of UD is not just to build in access for people with disabilities, but to improve the user experience for the widest possible range of people.

Accessible Staircase Robson Square

Image Source

As discussed previously, UD has also been applied to many educational products, such as computers, websites, software, and textbooks, and to environments such as classrooms, libraries, and online education. In practice, Universal Design in Education (UDE) can benefit all students, while reducing or even eliminating the need for students with disabilities to request individual accommodations.

For instance, captioning of videos used in class provides equitable use of those instructional materials for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. But captions are also useful to English language learners (ELL), students with certain learning disabilities, and anyone who searches the time-stamped transcript of the video to review a particular topic.

Want to find accessible videos online? Here is how to using Google Search: On the page displaying your search results, select “Video,” then click on “Search Tools” and change “All videos” to “Closed Captioned.” See screenshot below.


Screenshot illustrating google search for accessible videos

How else might implementation of “equitable use” apply to our work at the University? Depending on your role as faculty or staff, this may entail:

  • Providing multiple options for completing an assignment for your course;
  • Ensuring that all school information available online is accessible to screen-reading software, including websites and the learning management system (LMS); or
  • Posting job listings in formats accessible to people with a broad range of abilities and disabilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and ages.

This article is part of an ongoing series introducing Universal Design (UD) as it applies to the context of higher education and to our work at CUNY SPS. Each month we will cover one of the seven principles of UD with practical examples for both faculty and staff, including things you might not immediately associate with accessibility—or inaccessibility. Catch you next month!

Questions or feedback? Email or

Dr. Eileene Shake is a professor in our new BA in Nursing online degree program. Dr. Shake shares her own experiences as a nurse and some advice for her current students.

Dr. Eileene Shake


1. How is your semester going so far? Any major surprises?

No major surprises. I enjoy teaching online. I was one of the early online education adopter at University of South Carolina and have been teaching online courses on the graduate and undergraduate levels for six years, so this is nothing new to me.

2. Can you identify one piece of technology (whether real or fictitious) or policy that would completely change the face of the nursing profession?

I would love to see a platform that engages and encourages more nursing research faculty and nursing PhD holders to teach online. Many nursing research faculty believe that nothing can replace the face-to-face classroom experience, so they’ll need a system that’s more user-friendly, interactive, and personable to entice them to teach online.

3. As with all nurses, I’m sure you encountered some interesting situations and people while in the field. What’s you “I cannot believe that just happened” story?

It seems like just yesterday, September 2011. I was a nurse educator at the University of South Carolina and the Director of the USC Center for Nursing Leadership. We had just submitted our application to the Campaign for Action to become the South Carolina One Voice One Plan Future of Nursing Action Coalition and were waiting to hear if we would be chosen. Representing the USC Center for Nursing Leadership, I would be one of the two Co-leaders for the Action Coalition if we were accepted.

I, like other nurse leaders, wanted to play a key role in implementing the transformative Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations so that we could improve both access to health care services and the quality of health care being delivered. Fast-forward to October 2014, and I can’t believe what has happened! Three years have passed and I have worked in four roles that focus on various Campaigns for Action initiatives to implement the recommendations to lead change and advance health. During this time, I also continued to work as a nurse educator, presented at conferences, and developed and taught various nursing leadership courses.

I can’t believe what I learned over the past three years! Nurses are the most trusted professionals according to national polls and they are well prepared to serve in leadership roles to transform health care. However, there is still work left to do as nurses have not been seen as leaders who can serve on hospital, state, and federal boards. Therefore, I will continue to work on initiatives to implement the IOM Future of Nursing recommendations, and support current and future nurse leaders who aspire to run for these leadership appointments.

4. Do you ever miss wearing scrubs?

I never wore scrubs much, but I certainly miss being on the front line and having personal experiences with patients.

5. What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to give to nursing students?

I encourage my students to recognize the importance of their ideas and the impact that they have of the future of the health care system in this country. Many of them don’t realize the role that they play within the nursing community. I love helping students grow and reinforce that the profession is much more than just memorizing content. When they graduate from their programs, I want them to feel ready and comfortable with sharing their ideas, regardless of where they go or what they do.

Dr. Shake also shares some fun facts about her life.

1. Favorite article of fall clothing: A sweater.

2. Best song or artist to listen to after a long day: Enya.

3. What you’re reading right now: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

4. Best BBQ – North or South Carolina: North Carolina.

5. Last time you laughed so hard you cried: Whenever I think about some of the things my grandchildren say. There are 7 of them, ages 5 to 20 years old.

6. First thing that comes to mind when you think of NYC: Plays. The theatre.

We look forward to learning more about the nursing profession through the wealth of experience and expertise you bring to CUNY SPS.

Davos in the Desert” by Wendy Williams was originally published on Getting Smart.

The Education Innovation Summit (#EISummit) conference this week in Arizona is a large and seamlessly orchestrated event, but one of my favorite presentations so far was not actually on the agenda.  The keynote speaker for Tuesday’s lunch was to have been Larry Summers, president emeritus of Harvard, but after the tragic bombing at Monday’s marathon he needed to stay close to home in Boston. Jim Shelton, U.S. Dept. of Education Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement, was tapped to fill in, and he was an inspiring speaker.  Although Shelton said that he worries that the EdTech sector could miss opportunities to reach its goals and transform education, he shared enough insights to make it clear that he is not really a pessimist at all, just engaged and grounded.  He also talked about his personal experience with great teachers and schools and the big difference they have made in his own life.

Shelton observed that some country is going to take the lead on education innovation and reminded us that U.S. education mavericks need to “build for the global opportunity.”   He also spoke about how online learning innovations in higher education could have a democratizing effect, creating social capital and a better college experience for all.  Colleges need to emphasize completion and acceleration, however, and the grade he would give higher education for the job it is doing at present is just a C minus.  Gaps/opportunities he suggested for entrepreneurs included early childhood resources for use by informal caregivers, and K-12 tools for summer and outside of school, whether for enrichment or remediation.

The conference has also been lucky to have computer industry pioneers like Steve Case, a founder of AOL and now Chairman and CEO of Revolution, who drew on his years of experience to offer insights on the current state of the educational technology field.  Many keynote speakers and panelists at the conference have been asked to make projections about the future, and Case emphasized that the start-up companies that are forming today need to be ready for them to take a long time to build.

Another great presenter was Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, a school that is taking the lead on education innovation and is a host of the conference.   When asked about what tack ASU takes on inter-disciplinary work in arts and sciences, Crow described how they are involving science-fiction writers like Neal Stephenson to project future states, for students to build on in visionary ways.  The Center for Science and the Imagination is where this all happens, and it looks like a really exciting collaboration. [Neal Stephenson, by the way, is the author of a sci-fi novel that could be a distance-learning manifesto: The Diamond Age.  In it, an interactive learning tool educates and empowers a neglected child, who goes on to change society with what she has learned.]   Despite Crow’s embrace of education innovation, he said he does not think of it as schools reducing the cost of a degree “by replacing faculty with robots,” but rather doing things to support instructors.

The conference has also covered an interesting range of topics in panel discussions that made me wish I could attend two sessions concurrently.  The panel on MOOCs was not always in agreement about the projected future of these massive open online courses, nor on their impact on ‘traditional’ online education, nor even on the definition/scale of what constitutes a MOOC.  Nevertheless, they did make a few observations.  Asked if MOOCs represented the beginning of a do-it-yourself degree, ASU’s Phil Regier predicted that higher ed basics like having to take courses outside one’s major would continue.  As for MOOCs’ usefulness for remedial coursework, he observed that the students who need remediation are not autodidacts.  There did seem to be some agreement that MOOCs could have a big impact on continuing education, since the competency focus would make certification irrelevant, so long as the student learned the desired subject matter, as in a photography course.

Steven Johnson was the last to speak on day one of the conference, and so some people may have missed his presentation. Johnson began by talking about the ‘liquid network,’ social spaces in which ideas bounce around and lead to innovation.  He took us from 18th century coffee houses as the space where the Enlightenment happened, to a redesigned incubator that improved infant mortality rates in Africa, to Apple’s ‘genius bars,’ modeled on the concierge service in high-end hotels (like the one where the EIS conference is held).   As he talked about the career diversity to be found in the social networks of the most innovative people, I thought about the interesting range of people at the Education Innovation Summit – Ed Tech entrepreneurs, investors, business people, writers, policy wonks, and educators — all enthusiastically talking about how to improve education in the short and long term.

Wendy Williams is a media professional, educator, and cultural anthropologist.  She is an online instructor for CUNY School of Professional Studies and lives in Brooklyn.

*Note: Although this article was published on April 17, 2013 prior to the Education Innovation Summit, the content remains relevant for the SPS community.

Preparing for the Future” by Wendy Williams was originally published on Getting Smart.

The future of education will be on display next week in Arizona, at the Education Innovation Summit.  There will be a wide range of speakers and panel discussions, which I am really looking forward to hearing.  Because the focus is on innovation, and many educational technology companies and entrepreneurs will be there, it is a chance for me as an educator to hear about what tools will be available to my university and K-12 schools in the near future.  I am especially interested to hear what new models are being proposed that can make sense of the MOOC phenomenon for me, since the online instruction that I do at the City University of New York (CUNY) takes place in small classes and does not discard the traditional framework of credit hours and degree programs within a university structure.

Thomas Friedman’s recent op-ed for the New York Times made many CUNY instructors bristle by extolling the “MOOCs revolution” as if massively open online courses alone could fix difficult issues of social inequality and access to education, in the U.S. and globally.  Friedman does note in another article, however, that so far it is mostly middle and upper class students who are able to benefit from this kind of massive online course.   There may be a multitude of autodidacts out there, ready to thrive on their own in MOOCs, but my experience has been with college students who would need some foundation laid before they could get to that point.

The communications course I teach online is soon to be renamed Digital Literacy and offered to a wider group of CUNY students than the Online B.A. students who have been taking it. I feel lucky to be teaching the course, because I see the impact on my students as extending beyond the end of one semester. While the returning adults enrolled in the program are highly ‘wired’ in some ways (especially social networking with friends and family), they still find the course useful, to understand the theory and practice of finding and using digital information.  There is a whole range of behavior they need modeled for them, from online research skills, to evaluating the credibility of resources, to knowing what to foreground in a short essay and how to avoid plagiarism while writing it.  My students are smart and motivated, so even if some of them were under-served by the New York City public education system and are catching up, I am not convinced that these fundamental digital literacy skills are something that other young people ‘just know.’

My students are also learning how to be producers of knowledge and to be part of an academic community. They create blogs during the course, learn to edit a wiki, and experience a high level of interaction with classmates in discussing the readings and ideas of the course.  When I ask them to use Twitter for a group assignment, many students have no previous experience with it, or have only used it to sign up for discounts and coupons from retailers.   It is rewarding to see them coming away with a new understanding of how professionals use social networking tools to share news and ideas — to see them begin to follow some thought leaders and become part of a wider conversation on their own.

While I have been teaching online for almost six years now, I feel as though I need to pay attention to a lot more than what is already happening, only at my university. Along with presentations by many innovative companies at next week’s summit, the conference also brings together a wide range of leaders, from those with backgrounds in politics and education, like Senators George Mitchell and Bob Kerrey, to computer industry pioneers, to technology writers like Steven Johnson.  I just assigned a chapter he wrote on the benefits of gaming to my communications students, many of them young parents, to get them to think about how technology is revolutionizing what constitutes a learning opportunity for young people.  There is also a panel that I am interested to hear on how massively multi-player online games (MMOG) might improve learning outcomes. Middlebury College, where I studied Chinese ten years ago to prepare for my anthropological fieldwork, will be there with the interactive version of the intensive language program that they have since developed.

Things are evolving very quickly, and I want to stay in the vanguard.  Lest we forget why words like ‘revolution’ are being used to talk about online learning innovations, one of the summit panels is called “The Nuclear Option: Should We Just Blow Up the Current System & Start from Scratch?”  I am pretty sure the answer to that is not going to be ‘yes,’ but I am looking forward to coming away with fresh ideas about what the future might hold.

Wendy Williams is a media professional, educator, and cultural anthropologist.  She is an online instructor for CUNY School of Professional Studies and lives in Brooklyn.

*Note: Although this article was published on April 12, 2013 prior to the Education Innovation Summit, the content remains relevant for the SPS community.

This article by Wendy Williams originally appeared on the blog Getting Smart on February 21, 2013. 

I never get to meet most of my students in person, because I teach asynchronous online courses via Blackboard, for the City University of New York (CUNY). I was part of a cohort of Ph.D. students who began teaching after fully online programs were available. The online venue allowed us to keep researching and writing our dissertations, teaching asynchronously as time permitted. While teaching, I was working on my anthropological research, on Chinese Americans and their digital communication strategies in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. The focus of my research was the online relationships this group builds and maintains online, using everything from Skype to the Chinese social networking service QQ.  My favorite part of doing my anthropological fieldwork was developing new relationships, especially with one particular family. I treasure the details my students give me about themselves, too, as a way to get to know them, albeit virtually.Distance Leaning and Online Relationships, The CUNY School of Professional Studies

The CUNY online program, part of the School of Professional Studies (SPS), is for degree completers.  Students must transfer in with at least 24 credits, so they are all adults, with complicated lives and many responsibilities.  The program began in 2006, offering an online major in Communication and Culture, and went on to offer degree programs in Psychology, Sociology, and Business; there are eight in all today, six bachelor’s and two master’s.  Because my students are working adults and often parents, I think many are not focused on the social experience of college; they just want to learn and get their degrees. The big advantage of distance learning for them is that they do not need to travel to a classroom, and there are other perks.

Because class size is capped at 25, SPS classes are more like small seminars than MOOCs, and students thrive on the personal attention and feedback, from me and from each other.  Most of their work is written, so students get a lot of much-needed practice in writing.  Some are not native English speakers and get to sharpen their language skills as well.  The self-pacing means they can tailor the time they spend on each assignment. With their remarkable diversity, typical of CUNY students, they bring a range of perspectives that enhances every class discussion.  My colleagues and I spend lots of time thinking about ways to enrich the student’s online learning experience using open source tools — with Jing videos, a blog in WordPress, class discussions on Twitter, and other enhancements.

SPS has an extensive list of instructional design options to include in each course, and having at least some group work is one of those recommendations.  Some of my students are resistant to group projects but later report that they found it quite beneficial, for the fresh viewpoints that different minds and learning styles brought to the project.  They also get to interact with the rest of the school, and beyond, by producing ePortfolios.  One former student, who was considering a new career, took my assignment to produce an academic ePortfolio and ran with it, producing a rich display of her schoolwork that was personal, polished, and creative – just the sort of thing to show to a potential employer or graduate school.   It also allowed me to relate to her in a new way, after seeing that we liked the same kind of music.

My students may be more comfortable with the limitations our online program places on relationship building than I am.  I share some of Sherry Turkle’s concern from Alone Together (and see her New York Times opinion piece) that people are so focused on text-based communication today that face to face communication can get devalued, along with the relationships it enables.  I crave more chances to see light bulbs go off for students, with my own eyes, although I do get to witness it in other ways.  I once suggested in an informal discussion forum that my students might be interested in a free lecture at the New York Public Library. I met one student after he graduated who told me that he did attend that lecture, and that it started him on a life-changing journey of discovery of the intellectual life of New York City.

CUNY’s online students benefit from these casual conversations, and so do I.  There is room for growth in finding more ways to nurture their social interaction and competency in oral communication, even in a fully asynchronous online course.  I use Blackboard Collaborate, Skype, or Google Hangouts for my office hours and to get small groups of students together, to facilitate their relationships with me and with each other.   The informal learning that can happen in the social spaces within and outside of the course is an important goal.  When students then graduate and move on, some to graduate school, they are taking with them this experience with how a student-centered, collaborative learning environment works online.

Wendy Williams is a media professional, educator, and cultural anthropologist.  She is an online instructor for CUNY School of Professional Studies and lives in Brooklyn.

To the students, faculty, and staff of the SPS community:

Much of this week we have been reaching out and hearing back. The stories of lives disrupted make it impossible to deny the enormous impact of the storm, even as it feels impossible to reckon fully with that impact. But we have also been reminded of how we are bound together as a community of mutual support, how feelings of isolation or disconnection are temporary as we pull back together and return to our shared work and purpose.

We acknowledge that some of you have suffered grievous losses, and we are deeply sorry. If there is anything we can do to help, please let us know. Please feel free to email me directly at with your concerns, suggestions or needs. We have been making (and will continue to make) adjustments that should make it easier for us all to get through what remains of this semester. And we are confident that, however bad things may seem now, we will get through this. Already, the impressive resilience of the SPS community justifies that confidence.

John Mogulescu
Dean, School of Professional Studies

John Mogulescu is the Senior University Dean for Academic Affairs and the Dean of the CUNY School of Professional Studies, and his responsibilities involve him in many different aspects of the University’s academic life. In addition to SPS, Dean Mogulescu has overseen collaborative programs between CUNY and the NYC Public Schools, CUNY Prep Transitional High School, the CUNY Language Immersion Program, CUNY Start, and the Adult Literacy and GED Preparation Programs. Dean Mogulescu also supervises the University’s Workforce Development Initiative, special training initiatives for City and State workers, and programs for welfare recipients, in addition to Adult and Continuing Education at CUNY and its non-credit programs, which serve over 250,000 students per year.

Lisa Poelle, faculty member for the Child Development Associate (CDA) program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, is author of the soon to be released book, The Biting Solution: The Expert’s No-Biting Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Early Childhood Educators.

Lisa’s twenty-five years of experience in the field of early childhood education include counseling families, pioneering a mentoring program for teachers, applying her expertise to the architectural design of child care centers, as well as serving as a consultant for corporations and government organizations. She has also provided consultation to childcare centers and programs through the Children’s Health Council. Her experience with this multidisciplinary agency inspired her to write the book. “That’s when I started getting so many requests to help with biting, and it is how I had a chance to practice and perfect my method,” Lisa says. “My case studies in the book came from this period. This was quite a unique opportunity.”

Here at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, Lisa shares her knowledge and experience with students in the Child Development Associate (CDA) program. The CDA program, offered in partnership with the NYC Early Childhood Professional Development Institute, offers students an opportunity as early childhood professionals to master the knowledge base, application of theory to practice, and qualifications to create effective learning environments for children. Lisa teaches Child Development: Birth to Five and Observing and Recording Development of the Young Child.

In her book, Lisa provides realistic advice to help caregivers devise effective plans to solve children’s biting behaviors. She provides seven questions for caregivers to consider before establishing a plan to describe the problems and design the solutions to curb children’s biting behaviors. Using her method, “Stop the Fighting and Biting,” Lisa emphasizes the importance of parental involvement in developing positive and effective solutions for aggressive behavior problems.

The Biting Solution: The Expert’s No-Biting Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Early Childhood Educators will be published in the fall of 2012.

Lisa Poelle is also co-author of the book, Growing Teachers and several parenting articles. Lisa’s website can be found at:

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