The Challenges and Opportunities of Universal Instructional Design on iPads.

Universal Instructional Design aims to make education accessible to all learners regardless of ability, location, or social status by planning and implementing learning in a user friendly, flexible way that reduces barriers to education and self-development.  In this blog entry, we consider the ways in which the iPad reduces obstacles to learning, and acknowledge the areas of difficult that still exist. 

The Opportunities

Device Variability.

As an institution we provide iPads and so in principle have uniformity of devices. However, in order to be truly paperless and interactive, we often find that each learner needs more than one device. It is therefore advantageous to have apps and Web 2.0 tools that can be pushed to a variety of mobile devices. Students can be working on a document on their iPad, using their smart phone as a QR code readers or as a dictionary, or to photograph a text they have written on the iPad, but wish to refer to when carrying out a multimedia project in real time communication. Having the same apps across a variety of devices in a BYOD situation, also means that students have a backup if their iPad needs to be given to IT due to a problem, or if there are updating an app or uploading a video to YouTube and unable to use their iPad at that moment.


Variety of apps. So many apps carry out similar functions that if a student does not like one app, or tires of it, then they can use another one. Some students like using Adobe Reader, others prefer Neu Annotate; others want to write in Pages, whilst others prefer Note. It is great to offer flexible routes to end goals. Different vocabulary websites and apps offer different games to practice the target words and so generating exercises for a specific lexical list on two sites allows students to choose the layout and exercise type that best suits their learning styles. We mainly use Quizlet and Spelling City.

Flexibility in ways through material.

Students do not have to work on the same tasks at the same time, because once tasks are shared through a learning management system, they can engage in whichever task they feel tempted to do at a particular time. Some students like to start with vocabulary work, then look at grammar and build up the big picture incrementally, whilst others like to see the end destination first, and work backwards trying out communicative activities in a test, teach, test situation. They try out the task, identify their needs and then do the activities focusing particularly on the linguistic items that will serve their needs. Access to the material in their own time, enables each student to take their own desired, tailor made route through the learning experience.

The flexibility to work inside or outside the class in multiple locations on a task. Especially, if inputs and productive tasks are created in short learning nuggets that can be completed within a 10 -20 minute framework, students can take advantage of windows of time and learn on the go, when it suits them. The same learning goals need to be presented in different formats, so that students can truly match the device and app to their situation e.g. a podcast can cover the same content as a reading passage: one can be listening to in the car, the other read whilst waiting in a queue. The text to voice function can help convert a text to a listening exercise, or a classroom activity can be to read and record the written text for future revision in listening format, whilst on the go.

A well of multimedia resources to meet all types of multiple intelligences and different learner needs.

Some students prefer to convey their message by video, some though their own photos, some via sketches they have drawn, others with Google images they have uploaded onto an app such as Talking Pictures. Students choose what they feel comfortable with at a variety of levels and the freedom to follow their preferences is a key opportunity of mobile devices. Holistic learners take notes on mind maps and graphic organizers, spatial mathematical learners in charts and tables. All look equally well polished and all can embed a high level of different media.

Mobile devices are intuitive and user friendly in that they tolerate errors.

M-learners have acquired a new form of semiotics including arrows coming out of boxes to indicate what an app connects with, a plus sign to open up a new version of something and a capital T to add typeface. These instruction codes usually transfer across apps and can empower users to operate apps for the first time with relative efficiency. Furthermore, functions can often easily be reversed or ‘undone’ and push pop ups warn the user if there is danger if deleting work.

Challenges with iPads.


Technology is developing quickly, but is not glitch free. Things work one minute, but not the next. Some apps work for one device, but not the other. This is especially true of lite versions. For example, a student who has been using Socrative Student for 10 weeks without glitches, suddenly found the program constantly reverting to question 1. The only thing we could do was to delete the app and download it from App Store again, resulting in a loss of time for both the student and teacher.

Accessing the Internet

Internet access speed is very important as ‘open up time’ can cause classroom management issues and short, non-iPad related tasks need to be at hand to maintain student focus. With several networks in the college, iPads often pick up the nearest one such as Apple Tv, which may not be the most effective for them and so students need to be constantly warned to check the wireless network they are connected to and alter it if necessary. Furthermore, some websites do not work well on Safari, but that is the only choice available on an iPad unless you use Rover or Puffin Browser and these can also really slow down processing time or in the case of the lite versions, stop working.

Screen Size and Typing Speed

Screens are relatively small. Especially on iPads, touch screen boxes can be very small for ‘fat fingers’ and the dropdown boxes have too many commands close together, meaning that people inadvertently open up the wrong feature. For example, the words on iFiles drop down menus are so tightly packed that iBooks are often downloaded in PDF format rather than opened in iBooks. Many men use styluses to increase their tapping accuracy.  Typing with the aid of a stylus reduces the scribe to one fingered typing, vastly slowing down the input process. It is not possible to view multiple windows at once, unless an app such as Side by Side is used. However, this greatly reduces the size of text in each open pane.

Sharing Resources

It is not easy to share rich, interactive multimedia content to any learning management system and hope to open it up in any app. There are a number of options that work, but no universal method that can be applied universally. For example, texts created on Pages or PDFs can be uploaded to Edmodo, but cannot be ‘opened in’ another app enabling interactive with the texts. Material can be stored in Google Drive and uploaded to Edmodo, but students need to sign in to their own Google Drives and download it that way, which can be a lengthy process with students needing to remember passwords, sign in, move between several platforms etc. Students can produce lengthy, rich multimedia products and then be unable to share them directly without creating a url. Learning how to perform each step can take serious amounts of time away from the subject focus of the lesson.  Too many complicated sharing steps flaunt the key principle of universal instructional design of keeping steps small, simple and manageable.


Despite the technical glitches and issues of pushing content across devices and learning management systems, we feel that the iPad coupled with m-learning pedagogy is leveraging both teaching and learning. Our main perception is that constant access to materials and to a learning community for support, is enabling students to learn as much as they want to. No student is being kept behind due to lack of opportunities. Furthermore, control over these resources means that students can interact with the materials on 1:1 terms hypothesis testing, getting immediate feedback, encountering the target learning objectives in multiple contexts etc.  The portable nature  of iPads  and their street credibility means that they can be employed by students and teachers alike to capture appropriate learning materials and learn by doing. We would hate to revert to teaching without a mobile device and IT support network.


Tanya Elias, 2011, Universal Instructional Design Principles for Mobile Learning.

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