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.


Teaching to the Textbook

One thing I notice as a course designer amongst a large group of faculty is a heavy reliance on textbooks as the sole learning resource for their online classrooms. While there is certainly educational value in requiring readings from a textbook, textbooks are more often than not the center of the course. In many cases, the only learning resources instructors use are assigned readings from the required course text, though sometimes they’ll take a baby step further and include the textbook’s accompanying PowerPoints as an extra learning aid. 

Do you see anything wrong with this?

I do – it’s lack of authenticity in the course. By structuring a course solely around a textbook and using only publisher-supplied content for student resources and assessments, instructors are neglecting their audience, the students. Schools have a brand that’s used to attract a certain kind of student, but what happens when a school’s brand and what makes an institution unique doesn’t extend to the products (courses) being delivered to the consumer (the students)?  Students may begin to wonder why they are paying for the course, when they could by the textbook and access to resources from the publisher and complete their learning on their own; or worse yet, fail to see how a school’s mission extends into its curriculum.

Now, to clarify one thing, I’m not out to dismiss textbooks as a learning resource for students. In fact, when used appropriately, textbooks can definitely aid instructors in teaching content; some benefits include:

  • Textbooks can foster student interaction with content
  • Textbooks can provide a background of knowledge to help students progress towards meeting the outcomes for a given lesson
  • Textbooks give students the chance to engage with the material in a longer format and encounter multiple viewpoints.
  • The supplemental content from textbooks when used as a starting point can provide opportunities to create learning experiences

In short, they’re great for teaching facts and concepts but, on their own, aren’t so great at facilitating opportunities for real learning (which is why many major publishers are building course packages with supplemental book resources and activities). What can faculty do to make sure their programs are giving students the information they need in a way that’s meaningful and relevant? What can faculty do to customize their courses for their institution and their students?


Here are a few suggest I’ve found to get started:

  • Encourage faculty to develop their own set of unique learning resources. Even by selecting current research articles or educational videos to go along with the textbook readings they can easily create a more customized set of learning resources for students. Instructors might even explore MOOCs as a good alternative to a traditional textbook or a complementary teaching resource.
  • Encourage faculty to develop the assessments. Spotlight faculty who create authentic or practical assessments for students instead of relying on publisher test banks and textbook questions.
  • Encourage faculty to design learning environments that foster independent student exploration and research. Give students the tools they need to be successful, and let them take an active role in their learning. You might consider a scaffolding approach across courses as a way to build students’ skills in self-directed learning.


What’s your thoughts on the subject: How do you think your institution’s courses stand out? What are some ways your faculty are creating custom courses designed with your school’s students in mind?