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.