Perspectives X: Using UDL to Overcome Personal Bias in Curriculum Design

By Emma Courtney, Instructional Assistant, Recreation Studies

Image by picjumbo_com at Pixabay

Early in 2020, students all over the world experienced a sudden, dramatic, and unprecedented shift in their academic world. Now, one year later, we continue to teach and learn in the virtual environment, and now contemplating a return to in-person instruction for the fall semester. Over this past year, some Langara instructors have shared their perspectives on the impact of moving to online teaching and learning.

Our tenth contribution comes from Emma Courtney. Emma has been a part of the Recreation Studies team as an Instructional Assistant for the past two and a half years, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Royal Roads University. These two experiences—working in higher education and a student navigating the online landscape of learning—provide her with rich educational opportunities.

We look forward to bringing you more perspectives. If you would like to contribute, please contact Jessica Kalra at

Using UDL to Overcome Personal Bias in Curriculum Design

“To be human is to be biased” (Kraus & Malcolm, 2021).

Recently, I was required to write a paper exploring my biases, and I took the opportunity to use this paper to examine the biases I carry with me in my work, supporting faculty in curriculum design. I have been curious about TCDC’s work around Universal Design Learning (UDL), and was eager to delve into my own personal hesitations around the implementation of UDL, and what tools I could use to remedy those hesitations.  This writing assignment came at a perfect time for me because the pandemic-induced shift to online education has provided educators all over the world the opportunity to explore cultural bias within higher education in new ways, and to adapt, adjust and re-create curriculum, through the implementation of UDL in our courses.

The re-creation of curriculum from face-to-face to virtual to mixed mode, to whatever it is that the fall semester may hold, may feel like a continual, arduous and difficult task for many as we react to the ever-changing news of the pandemic and how this influences our teaching and learning spaces. In this blog, I will explore my biases within my role in Higher Education, specifically around curriculum design. I hope that by sharing my story, that I may inspire others to implement a UDL approach to curriculum and energize those adjusting their courses in anticipation for returning on campus learning. I have realized that my biases in curriculum design could prevent students from accessing their full potential and the depths of learning available to them within a given course or program, therefore it is my personal imperative to address them. It has become apparent to me how this bias can lead to a lack of diversity both within academics and in the workforce, and how this bias reduces the much-needed diverse human capital in our global economy (Ward, 2021).

Definition of Bias & Resulting Essential Issues

Unconscious bias can be thought of as the way in which our mind forms habits to avoid being overrun by the constant influx of information that we are exposed to each day (Krause & Malcolm, 2021). Bias is necessary for us to remain operational and not become overwhelmed as we navigate each day. It can become a problem, however, when these mental shortcuts impede our ability to think critically or inhibit our ability to create distinctions between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’ (Pressner, 2016). This can happen through confirmation bias (when we align with and seek out information that supports our ways of thinking) or similarity bias (when we are drawn to others or systems that hold similar ways in which we think) (Kraus & Malcolm, 2021). As I have moved through the courses in my Masters and become more familiar with how I am influenced by my biases, I have started to identify where I use both conformation and similarity bias to maintain the status quo in supporting my department’s curriculum design approaches.

Bias in Higher Education

I was fortunate enough to attend a few TCDC book clubs in pre-pandemic times, one that discussed how to generate and support self-regulated learners (Nilson, 2013), and one that explored the directions in which higher education could move in order to stay relevant and necessary in society (Davidson, 2017). Both of these texts discussed the mounting evidence that providing choice to students in how they acquire new information and how they demonstrate their learning increases retention of information, innovation, and creativity (Nilson, 2013 & Davidson, 2017). However, I am slowly recognizing the ways in which my bias in curriculum design often limits the ways in which students can interact with course content. Incorporating the principles of UDL enables instructors to provide students with multiple means of representation and expression which can help to engage learners.  (Fritzgerald, 2020). Whenever I choose to maintain the cultural norms of higher education (for example, assigning academic readings and requiring academic papers to grade), I am expressing similarity bias towards those who succeed in this narrow system of western education and neglecting students that hold different worldviews or approaches to learning. This eliminates the much-needed diversity of thinking (Atleo, 2011) in the classroom and subsequent job fields that students enter into after graduating. Additionally, this increases existing cultural biases including racism, sexism, ableism, ageism and more, simply by not fostering inclusive learning environments through curriculum design (Fritzgerald, 2020).

Despite the fact that many educational institutes now teach the importance of intercultural approaches and provide students with the valuable skill of shifting from an ethnocentric to an ethnorelative mental mode (Bennett, 2004), the institutes themselves often teach from an ethnocentric perspective and only allow tried and tested options for students to interact with their learning environments. I recognize that I have embodied this approach, as designing and curating courses is a large enough task without the added work of exploring new or different ways of thinking or approaching learning. However, I am coming to see that UDL (and the wonderful folks at TCDC who support us in implementing a UDL approach) creates space for embodied pedagogies and removes the cultural bias that holds that education and knowledge exist only within the mental modes and are separate from the physical and spiritual modes (Culhane & Turner, 2021).  By shifting content from a mental mode and exploring learning in physical and spiritual modes, this organically requires students to adopt systems thinking approaches in both the consumption of information and the ways in which they choose to demonstrate mastery. Ideally, students can have the freedom to apply their knowledge in open and accessible ways like, for example, the Dance your Ph.D. Contest (Bohannon, 2011), which was developed by scientists partnering with dancers to translate and make accessible their complex research that would otherwise be inaccessible to those outside of the academic world. I am so fortunate to work in a department where learning through embodied pedagogies is already normalized – what better way to learn about leadership in recreation than by actually immersing the students in recreational experiences? However, it makes me wonder where and how else I personally can move away from traditional academic approaches, and support others in doing the same.

For example, what could this blog look like, if it wasn’t in written format? Let’s normalize, both in our classrooms and in our professional development and administrative spaces, knowledge in the form of videos, podcasts, TikToks, Wikipedia Articles, songs, pieces of art, poetry or written stories – the opportunities are seemingly endless in an era of online education. With appropriate parameters, in our courses students can showcase their takeaways and provide the instructor with an evaluable deliverable, while also amplifying the wisdom gained in the classroom by exploring the different ways in which knowledge can be socially accepted and shared, outside of a paper that few beyond the realm of academia will ever read. Additionally, in an era where the ‘share’ button is accessible on virtually every social platform, we can support our students by ensuring opportunities for their proud accomplishments and assignments to be easily shared. Who knows, maybe the learning from your course could go viral!

Personal Application & Approach to Bias

So how do I go about supporting a departmental, and ultimately institutional shift to a UDL approach? Well, as explained by Scharman (2018) in Theory U, in order for change to occur, one must first change them self. To do this, I must continuously learn about my biases and how to detach from desired outcomes that stem from those biases. For example, similarity bias holds me to the belief that students in my department must excel at academic writing in order to prove their level of mastery. However, when I take time to examine the industry for which we are preparing our students, the only reason they would need academic writing skills is if they continue to pursue further academic endeavours, but not necessarily the industry itself. It is my unconscious bias that prevents me from thinking creatively and determining industry-relevant ways in which our students can express their gained knowledge.

I am fortunate to work alongside a team of creative faculty and curriculum designers at TCDC, who are constantly teaching me ways to challenge outdated academic traditions. It is through learning from and being open to one another’s ideas that we can dismantle the biases that no longer serve us. The pandemic induced shift to online (and now back to on-campus) education has provided me the time and space to examine and address my biases and I see them arise.

UDL, But without the Added Workload

I think a fear I initially held around UDL was the increased workload in redesigning courses with a greater and more diverse selection of content – and don’t even get me started on how to evaluate different options for how students can showcase their level of mastery! Not only did I feel fearful of the added workload, but I also felt severely limited in my own creativity for coming up with different ways in which students could interact with assignments and course content. Mostly though, as an Instructional Assistant, I feared approaching faculty with the suggestion to redesign their courses with a UDL frame of mind, as I knew they had poured years of work into the creation of their courses.

However, that’s when I realized – we are always redesigning and reworking our courses. Who isn’t making slight edits and changes after a semester is complete to reform their courses with the new things they learned? Additionally, many of us have been required to redesign our course content due to the transition online with COVID. Now, as we once more embark on redesigning our courses for the return to campus in the fall, why not take this opportunity to don the UDL lens and see what can be done? Here is a model I suggest using as an approach to working on your course moving forward:

The Panarchy Approach in Higher Education

In higher education, faculty and staff are often biased in favour of projects that they have a personal stake in (for example, course curriculum that one has spent many hours developing). This bias is known as the IKEA effect (Buller, 2014) and can result in resistance to change within the course, program, department, or institute. While the IKEA effect is challenging to overcome, the Panarchy Model (Naleems & Nasmyth, 2021) offers a framework that can help instructors and staff embrace the change that is required for ongoing curriculum development. This model supports the identification of emergent ideas that need to be nurtured and cared for, allows for the maturation of these ideas as they come to fruition after seasons of cultivation and refinement, and recognizes the need for composting older ideas that no longer have application but can feed and inspire the new ideas as they emerge. Using this model to understand and practice ongoing curriculum development can support faculty in letting go of the biases that they may hold towards their carefully cultivated curriculum.

Figure One: The Panarchy

Image retrieved from Naleems, R. & Nasmyth, G. (2021) Self in Systems Plenary, as prepared for GLBD505 Residency. Royal Roads University, Victoria BC

Implement this model in your courses by analyzing: what ideas were born from the need to transition to online learning? What do I want to pull forward into the future semesters and allow a bit more time for the growth and maturity of those ideas? For example the beautifully curated Brightspace shell you put together for your online course – you don’t want to completely disregard that and go back to it simply being a space to house required readings and for students to hand in assignments, as it was when your class was fully face to face! Also, ask yourself, what parts of my course am I ready to compost and turn into different or new approaches – perhaps reviewing the required readings and seeing where there is room to exchange academic text with podcasts, TED Talks, audio books or otherwise. Instead of doing the heavy lifting yourself, why not turn that into an assignment next semester? Each student needs to find one resource online that is related to that week’s topic. Encourage the students to not just search the web for articles. Bonus points for resources found that are through a different form of content delivery (video, podcast, whatever else is applicable in your field) and even more bonus points if it is a credible source that you can put in your course moving forward.

We are now in a time where Higher Education as a structure (and therefore, those who make up these institutes) must embrace change in order to survive. The old model of Higher Education is literally built on both the conscious and unconscious biases of our ancestors (Lorde, 2012), and if these biases are not addressed and acknowledged then the emerging alternative educational models will be the preferred (and affordable) choice for acquiring knowledge and credentials (Davidson, 2017).

The Bigger Picture

The biases of the individuals that make up Higher Education must be addressed in the context of the cultural biases that are so deeply ingrained within our culture and society. This includes the slow and tedious process of dismantling the bias towards traditional credentials (Doctorates, Masters, Degrees and Diplomas) and embracing lived experiences and other means of displaying mastery and wisdom. As these biases are challenged, we must also address the ways in which curriculum design is restricted through accreditation, transfer agreements, quality assurance and required traditional methods of evaluations, such as exams and grades. Exploring new ways of curriculum design can be the entry point to greater systemic change in higher education.


We are at a time globally where our collective crises demand all of humanity to step into our full potential, take action to determine a brighter future, and live as a conscious ancestor. Higher Education (and all education) can help to dismantle the ingrained biases that ensure the success and retention of few, and disregard the innate wisdom, creativity and unique worldviews of others. As with any change, navigating the transition may feel foreign and uncomfortable (Bridges, 2009), but I encourage all those employed in Higher Education to join me in fostering the bravery required to confront the biases that no longer serve us. We have developed laudable skillsets in enduring continual change throughout the pandemic – let us move beyond simply enduring change to embracing and leading it in our curriculum design.

Atleo, R., Umeek. (2011). Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous approach to global crisis. UBC Press.
Bennett, M. J. (2004).  Becoming interculturally competent. In J.S. Wurzel (Ed.), Toward multiculturalism: A reader in multicultural education (2nd ed., pp.62-77). Intercultural Resource Corporation.
Bohannon, J. (2011) Dance vs. PowerPoint, a Modest Proposal [Video]. TED Conferences
Bridges, W. (2009). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Da Capo Press.
Buller, J. L. (2015). Change leadership in higher education: A practical guide to academic transformation (First, Ser. The jossey-bass higher and adult education series). Jossey-Bass.
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Naleems, R. & Nasmyth, G. (2021). Self in Systems Plenary, as prepared for GLBD505 Residency. Royal Roads University, Victoria, B.C.
Fritzgerald, A. (2020). Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning: Building expressways to success. CAST Professional Publishing.
Krause, W. & Malcolm, G. (2021) Unconscious Bias, as prepared for GLBD505 Residency. Royal Roads University, Victoria, B.C.
Krause, W. (2021) Resilience, Refusal and Adaptability, as prepared for GLBD505 Residency. Royal Roads University, Victoria, B.C.
Krause, W. (2020) Why Does Wellbeing Matter for Leading in Our Times Ahead? Scholl of Leadership Studies Blog
Lorde, A. (2012). Imperialism, history, writing, and theory. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples, 57-91.
Nilson, L. (2013) Creating Self-Regulated Learners. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Pressner, Kirsten (2016) Ted Talk: “Are you biased?” [8:48]
Scharmer, O. (2018). The essentials of Theory U: Core principles and applications. Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Ward, A. (2021) Economic Sociology. Ologies Podcast. Retrieved from
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