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Articles from the National Center on UDL

Photo a GPS on a map

Getting from Here to There
UDL, Global Positioning Systems, and
Lessons for Improving Education 

David H. Rose, Ed. D., and Jenna W. Gravel, Ed. M.

Sadly for education, the commonly-available GPS exemplifies the principles and guidelines of Universal Design for Learning better than most educational curricula. This article draws playful and important parallels as it explores the features of the GPS through the lens of the UDL guidelines.

Published in:

Gordon, D.T., Gravel, J.W., & Schifter, L.A. (2009).
A policy reader in universal design for learning (pp.5-18)
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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An analogy for education: How the GPS Addresses UDL Principles

Below is a brief summary exploring the features of the GPS through the lens of the UDL guidelines.

Principle I. Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Guideline 1: Provide options for perception

The GPS recognizes the diversity among travelers and provides many of the perceptual options recommended in the UDL guidelines.

  • All key information is presented by both visual and auditory means.
  • Options to customize the display of information are built in: you can make the screen brighter, adjust contrast, increase or decrease the size of images, increase or decrease the volume, etc.
Guideline 2: Provide options for language and symbols

The GPS, in contrast to textbooks, provides users with several options for the languages and symbols in which information is represented.

  • For information presented in text, the GPS provides the option to hear it read it aloud automatically/li>
  • For information presented orally, the GPS provides visual options.
  • For information presented in English, the GPS allows users to select the language with which they are most comfortable.
  • The GPS even has a “beep system” that obviates the need for language at all. The various beeps associated with “turn right,” “turn left,” and “stay straight” allow travelers to reach their destination entirely on the basis of sounds.
Guideline 3: Provide options for comprehension

Typical GPS units provide multiple cognitive options to enhance comprehension, recognizing that users differ widely in their preparedness to assimilate new information into useable knowledge.

  • Many GPS units have a built-in product demonstration that highlights the important features of the device for novice users
  • Cognitive options are also built into the display of information: a “big picture” view, a “landmark” view, and a “turn-by-turn view” are all possibilities


Principle II. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Guideline 4: Provide options for physical action

The GPS has alternatives for physical actions built right into its design for users who have limited motor skills as well as for those whose hands are occupied by the steering wheel.

  • To enter your destination, you can speak the name of the destination into the device, type the name of the destination, or choose the destination from a list of selections.
  • The GPS also features embedded word prediction: you type in the first few letters of a destination, and it will predict your word. In three simple clicks, you can enter your destination.
Guideline 5: Provide options for expressive skills and fluency

The GPS is certainly not an instrument or medium for communication, but it does provide important scaffolds for the novice.

  • Most GPS units provide an option to “simulate” the trip ahead, modeling the sequence of turns and choices that the driver will ultimately follow.
  • The GPS scaffolds your route by breaking your trip into small, manageable steps instead of overwhelming you with the whole sequence at once.
  • Like a good mentor, the GPS prompts you “just in time” to make the right choices.
Guideline 6: Provide options for executive functions

The GPS provides many options for what are called the “executive functions”: setting goals, making plans and strategies, and monitoring progress.

  • At the outset of your trip, the GPS prompts you with options for setting your goal and then provides options in choosing the type of plan you would prefer for reaching that goal (e.g. shortest time, most use of freeways, least use of freeways, etc.).
  • The GPS offers immediate feedback to travelers so that they can more easily monitor their progress.
  • The GPS not only offers immediate feedback, but instructive feedback. Instead of harshly saying, “Wrong, go back!” the GPS instead simply says, “Calculating new route.”


Principle III. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement

Guideline 7: Provide options for recruiting interest

The GPS engages the driver’s interest in large part because it offers choices in almost every aspect of its design.

  • With a GPS, the choices in where to go are nearly infinite and the choices can range from specific addresses, to business locations, to public facilities, etc.
  • Users have choices in how information should be displayed, choice in the language used, choice in the way that selections are made, choice in the type of route, and so forth.
  • By embedding options, the GPS gives users a sense of control and autonomy over their driving experience.
Guideline 8: Provide options for sustaining effort and persistence

Most units provide a consistent multiple representation of the goal (often at the very top or bottom of the screen), that constantly reminds you not only where you are going but how much time and distance remain, what time you will arrive at your present pace, and so forth.

Guideline 9: Provide options for self-regulation

Developing individuals’ intrinsic abilities to regulate their own emotions and motivations is probably the least applied in the design of the GPS. Quite simply, the designers are not attempting to build independence or self-regulation—both of those goals lie well beyond the scope of getting from the airport to the convention hall.

Last Updated: 03/21/2011

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