UDL: Making online learning accessible for everyone

One key focus in higher education online is accessibility for students with disabilities. At the thought of revising our teaching methods and courses to comply seems so daunting that you might ask, “Why should I (or my class) comply?” There are a couple of ways to answer this question:

  • Because it’s the law, and the Department of Justice is conducting random audits of course, with failure to comply resulting in lawsuits and other consequences.
  • Because it’s the right thing to do. The ability for online classes to be flexible and provide options for all learners is one of online education’s greatest strengths; there are so many possibilities for meeting students’ needs (disabled or not) that there’s no reason (read: no excuse) for making courses inaccessible.

If you’re new to online teaching and ADA compliance remains a mystery, this article titled “College Students and Disability Law” provides an overview of the history of these laws, how one qualifies as disabled, related legal cases, and concludes with some guidelines for higher education practitioners.

One way I often help instructors reach this is through assistance in formatting documents. Word documents and PowerPoints, two very common resources I see quite often in online courses, often contain numerous accessibility issues. (As an example, I recently spent several hours editing a PowerPoint and the accompanying script for the narration to correct these issues.) While I’ll admit that there is a lot of work to be done to bring an entire course up to compliance, by starting your design at the basic level and building your courses with a few universal standards in mind, you can help ensure that all students, regardless of ability, have a better experience in your online courses.

Rather than going into specifics on formatting for ADA compliance (which frankly you can find plenty of guidelines for online), work on designing learning environments to meet Universal Design (UDL) standards. Universal Design for Learning is based on neuroscience research, and following a few basics can help all learners succeed:

  • Provide multiple means of representation: Many courses provide content in various formats, and both audio and images are quite common. However, to be accessible, we need to make sure we’re providing equal alternatives for the information we displayed. This standard is all about options, be it different modalities (visual vs auditory vs haptic), allowing for user adjustability and manipulation, and for clarity and comprehension.
    • For example, if you created a PowerPoint showing students how to navigate a website, this could mean capturing clear screen shots writing the script for the narration to provide detailed instructions that anyone could follow either with or without the visual.
    • More concretely, in your learning materials and instructions, rather than using vague directions such as “For help, refer to the link over there”, you might say, “Click on the link for ‘Help’ located under ‘School Resources’ to chat with a Moodle technician for support”.
    • You’ll also noticed that I mentioned the words “script” and “narration”; including equal alternatives for videos, audio, and presentations means providing these materials in alternative formats. The easiest thing to do? Start with your script, then record your narrations to ensure everything lines up!
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression: Give students various ways to interact with the course environment and to express their learning and skills. Not only does this apply to how students interact with the learning environment itself (such as designing tools that allow keyboard and mouse navigation), but it also applies to how students are actually demonstrating mastery of the outcomes.
    • If students need to do a final project, giving them the proper scaffolding throughout the course and then several options for how to showcase their learning would be ideal.
    • If you had an English class, for example, students might be asked to write a short play or may be asked to perform a short play from a given list or to visit a play and write an analysis of it following the show – but all could be ways to showcase what they know about drama as an art form, from the written to the performance aspects.
    • We’ve also seen business courses use a marketing interactive, completed over time (to provide options for feedback) and then a final reflection written.
    • Nursing courses often include multicultural activities, I’ve seen an instructor provide students with a choice of reviewing a cultural competency article, creating a PD on multicultural practice, or attending a cultural event from an immigrant population and writing a reflection all be an option for an assignment.
  • Provide Multiple Means of engagement: This standard deals specifically with motivation and engagement among students, and providing learners options for different motivations, ways of generating interest, and ways for students to self-regulate.
    • This might mean keeping your course up-to-date with current information and examples. During facilitation, an instructor might provide encouragement to students to encourage them, or perhaps provide new resources, tips, or tricks to help them out.
    • For example, in one course an instructor asked students to present a speech based on a scenario. Students first shared their speeches with the class, but following the week of the initial class review and discussions, he planned to create a screen captured lecture “on the fly” to showcase various things from the speeches that some students did really well and to give feedback to the class as a whole.
    • Here, it comes back to learners’ autonomy and making sure course materials are current and relevant, and giving them appropriate feedback to show them where they excel and where they can improve – keeping them challenged.

What do you think? Have you used UDL principles in your classes and if so, how did they influence the learning environment and impact students’ experiences? What are some other examples you can think of?


CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.

Student Evaluations and Quality Instruction – How Do You Create an Effective Online Teacher?

Measuring quality instruction is extremely difficult in any field, be it K12, higher ed or professional development.  We talk about learning as a science, but if it is, it has some of the most unpredictable variables I’ve ever seen.  With that in mind, I figured I’d pose a question to you this week.  What are the elements of a good online instructor, or just a good teacher in general?

Student feedback is one of the key measurements we use in evaluating college faculty.  I can’t tell you how many evaluations I’ve filled out in my six years of Higher Ed education.  That said, I’m not sure how much I, as an 18 year old kid, or as a 23 year old overworked teacher, could tell how good the professor was.  I could tell you who I hated and who I loved but how did that measure into their effectiveness as an instructor?

I say that because I’d like to share an NPR article with you this week about the use of student feedback in professor evaluations.  As always, I’d like you to read the article yourself, but here are some of the key take-aways.

  1. There’s a sampling bias at play in student surveys. We cannot guarantee the objectivity of the evaluator as they are part of the instructional process.
  2. They’re rarely based on hard evidence. A student doesn’t have to provide examples in his or her evaluation in order to fill it out, they just have to fill in the bubbles.
  3. There’s an issue with compiling the data, if somebody is consistently getting adequate reviews while his colleague is running the gamut between exemplary and abysmal, who is the better teacher on paper?
  4. Most telling, most important, is that the study outlined in this article established a correlation between low student evaluations and high achievement. That means the less a student liked the professor, the higher their performance on objective assessments.

Item four on that list is the most concerning to me.  Students like all other consumers vote with their feet and we now have (not conclusive, but worth considering) evidence that they are voting for the easy A.  If this were a consumer driven industry, I’d be happy to oblige them but the truth of the matter is there’s a reason students from schools like Harvard and Stanford have an edge in the job market – there’s an assumption (never mind how true) that they were pushed harder and forced to grow more, making them better assets to their employers.

We have an incentive to listen to our clients (the students), and we shouldn’t ignore that, but we also have an ethical obligation to give them the skills they need to make use of their degrees, and holding professors accountable to  a system that undermines that obligation sounds like a disservice to everybody involved to me.

I’m not suggesting students shouldn’t have a say in faculty evaluation, and the surveys definitely have their place.  I’m merely concerned that they are factoring too much into who’s being brought back.  K12 institutions (wisely deciding not to hold teachers accountable to the opinions of a 7 year old) have implemented several initiatives that could be adapted to create a more holistic evaluation of online faculty:

  1. There are established best practices backed by research regarding course facilitation and development. Holding faculty accountable to those might be more helpful.  Consider developing a facilitation rubric for your faculty that factors into their evaluation.
  2. Walkthroughs of courses in progress. In online this is as simple as a program director logging into a course and looking at the ways the professor is facilitating discussions, grading activities and providing feedback to students.
  3. We already measure the quality of a course’s design in our Quality Reviews. Communicating those with faculty and helping them move towards building the best course possible is a great step forward.  It’s objective and measurable and becomes the basis for identifying growth.
  4. If we really wanted to crunch some numbers, establishing pre and post assessments for each course would be a great way to measure student growth. I’m not advocating for high-stakes testing, but having an objective feedback mechanism may be helpful.

I realize I’m over generalizing the evaluation process of a school, but the question is worth posing.  What do you believe makes for a good online instructor and how do you go about creating those?