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?

Gamification: Not Just For After-School

If you have kids, chances are you’ve seen them glued to a TV playing video games at some point in their lives.  Gaming has shifted quite a bit from the days of my youth, from a niche market populated by “geeks” and “nerds,” to a multi-billion dollar industry that has become just as mainstream as pro-sports. It’s gotten so popular that “gamification,” or the incorporation of game-based elements, is now a huge buzzword in the elearning industry.  That said, like all buzzwords, there’s a difference between saying it and executing on it.  The reality is that it’s not that hard to implement well and I wanted to share a few articles with you today on how to incorporate gaming elements using minimal effort.

Be forewarned, you’ll need a subscription to www.learningsolutionsmag.com to access a lot of what I’m sharing but that subscription is free and I’ve found the resource to be extremely helpful for my work so, if you don’t have one yet, I’d highly recommend it.

This week, let’s start with an overview of gamification elements; although it’s somewhat a plug for a product (but these days what isn’t?), what’s important is that it’s a good listing of standard gamification elements which I’ll summarize here:

  1. Multi-Level Action: “Learners must be able to progress through levels of difficulty, which gives them a continuing sense of achievement.”
  2. Competitions: Students need to feel as though they are competing (hence game), which can be done either against each other, the professor or some automated device. Competition drives engagement, which makes the brain decide something’s worth learning.
  3. Rewards: These can be intangible (plot progression, badges, new levels or recognition) or tangible (grades, homework passes, actual money, etc.) but students need to feel as though their work is rewarding them in some way.
  4. Incorporation of a narrative: A lot of the video games your kids own have a story that progresses as they play. Even as grownups, we like to pretend.  Role-playing’s been a game element in face to face for decades; it’s used by the army to teach counter-insurgency, doctors to train their bedside manner, teachers to learn classroom management, and all sorts of other professions.
  5. Social Connectivity: I don’t, but some gamers like to gloat. In all honesty, providing an opportunity for gamers to connect and share their experience within it often leads to further growth in the subject we’re trying to teach.

Gamification’s a cool concept and very powerful if done well, but it’s not always a good idea to go full throttle into a new trend.  Certain traditional elements of instruction (tests, papers, etc) are important in any course as well and, like all things, we should focus on incorporating game elements in targeted ways as part of a larger purpose.  Some of the below strategies are extremely simple and might be helpful to run by your faculty if you’re interested in including gaming elements:

  1. Role playing is a great tool. Moodle lessons (a Moodle activity type) can be set up to act like a “choose-your-own-adventure” book from the 80s (yeah, I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid).  Multiple endings can be included with different feedback based off the students behavior and the students can then discuss their outcomes in a forum as a deliverable.
  2. Ratchet up the difficulty as students get through the course. Ideally setting the modules up to build on each other will do this already, but consider incorporating elements of previous learning as students advance through different courses as well (this is especially effective in linear programs).
  3. Establish a social network beyond the course. Social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn allow for closed groups (thanks, FERPA) and give students an opportunity to share what they’re doing, ask questions, and establish connections outside of class.
  4. By simply adding a few game elements, you can breathe new life into an old activity. Set up a prize for students to achieve and a competition for them to get there.  This can work in a presentation assignment where students can vote on the best presenter (anonymously, of course).  Or consider a research assignment where the student who shares the highest number of relevant resources in a week is granted extra credit (a leaderboard could be kept updated in a discussion forum), an added badge, or an alternative assignment option the other students don’t have.
  5. Finally, there’s no shortage of educational resources out there that are games themselves. I’ve seen many marketing courses make use of Marketplace Live.  Political Science or Ethics courses can make use of NationStates and there’s a host of government media out there for educational use like this one about the Federal Reserve.  Build in a way for students to share their experience in the game with each other and derive a meaning associated with a learning objective, and you’re set.  Gameification is a Google search away.

This is a very basic view of Gamification and the majority of instructional designers who use it are in the corporate sector, not higher ed.  With that in mind, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on how it could be implemented for students.  What are your concerns/questions, and what do you think would need to occur for game-based learning to take on a larger role at your institution?

One Man’s Dream – Higher Ed’s Mission

I think this week we can take a step out of the dry article shares and talk about a very personal story.  It’s not mine; it’s one my director shared with me.  Meet Ankit Khandelwal, a former chemical engineer from Northern India who, with the help of online education, hopes to become a “Global Manager” within the next 15 years.  Dreams are all well and good—if my former students all achieved what they dreamed of, we would have a ton of basketball players and rock stars—but I’m sharing this with you today because of how he plans to go about this.  Having run out funding to continue his education in Denmark, Ankit has decided to go “open source”, identifying the skills needed to excel in his chosen field and utilizing MOOCs and other open educational resources to achieve this goal.  He’s not going to pay a dime and, if he pulls it off, he’ll have the same qualifications as any MBA in this world.

Online education is, in many ways, a very American phenomenon.  Europeans are, give or take, 10 years behind the US in terms of their implementation of online education so a lot of what he’s talking about is the same buzz we felt with the advent of EdX and Udacity.  While I wish Mr. Khandelwal all the best, I’d like to take a look at the advances in education that are allowing him to move forward and consider how we can incorporate that into our programs.  What he’s doing is something I’ve harped on before: Competency Based Education (CBE).

In a lot of ways CBE is a throwback to the classical method of education (before Carnegie Mellon and the Credit Hour System) akin to the original way Oxford was set up, how Aristotle and Socrates taught, or the University of Sankore.  Instead of planned out degrees, there were experts who you (as the student) hired to teach you specific skills.  You left with an endorsement for your ability to do certain things.  We had to get away from this in the early 1900s because, as the number of students increased, we needed a way to keep track of them all and, limited by a proto-industrial era level of technology, creating these categories of A, B, C, D and F was the way to do it.  I’m not knocking the system; I’m merely suggesting that technology has finally caught up with demand to the extent that we no longer have to mass-produce our students with cut-and-dried degrees.

Instead of diluting education, online technology has democratized it in the most dramatic way since the GI Bill scholarship program.  Finally, thanks to innovations like badging and CBE, we are closer than ever to offering the customized education that used to be considered normal.  We shouldn’t be afraid of these innovations because, at their core, they are a return to what education was supposed to be in the first place, an open forum that gives people like Mr. Khandelwal the opportunity to plan his own education and grow his own skills in a way that best aligns with who he wants to be.

My dream for education is an institution where the main question we ask isn’t “what’s your major?” it’s “what do you want to do with your life?”

What you think of his plan?  Will it work?  What do you like/disagree with?  Do you think there are elements we could incorporate in our programs and, if so, how would we go about doing it?

Engaging Students – Interaction is key.

I got an email from a professor this week which really stuck with me.  Essentially he was concerned about the fact that students can take a rigorous course, but if they don’t feel engaged by it, they aren’t going to learn anything.  To quote him “we are our emotions, it’s what drives us, creates change and stimulates learning.”  He couldn’t be more right and in the age of scientific education (that we take a clinical approach to how we foster student success) I find it hard to disagree with him that we are straying away from one of the key factors in what makes students take our courses.

So the question I sought to answer this week is how do we create engagement in online courses?  There are a hundred different approaches to this questions and frankly I won’t be able to answer it in any definitive way.  There are entire sub-fields of education research that focus on it so, instead of making a long discussion today, I figured I’d share two articles (one scholarly and one for scholars) about what drives engagement in online education.

The first, and less scholarly, is this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It’s pretty boiled down already, but it reminds us that student engagement is always a two way street.  In face to face courses, we get engaged because the professor is fired up and passionate about what they’re teaching (or, the inverse, we check out when we get the talking head on the podium).  The same responsibility exists in online.  Students won’t engage in a course if the faculty aren’t there either and instructor presence is a key factor in whether or not students care.

From a design perspective though, I thought would be interesting to share this article.  We often talk about differentiation of instruction for K12, the idea that there should be multiple methods of assessment and multiple ways to learn for students.  It’s not a concept I see practiced consistently in higher ed, either in face to face or online.  The article actually comes to the conclusion that there aren’t activities that foster engagement more than others (reading from a textbook isn’t inherently better than a discussion forum) but it’s more about the way students interact with the content that fosters engagement.  Engagement in online starts with providing students with a multitude of opportunities to interact with your faculty and each other as well as the content. 

Of course this is just a small sliver of the pie and I’m wondering what you think the key elements of engagement in online are.  What has worked for you in the past?  How do you focus on student engagement in the programs you manage?  What do you think still needs to be answered about this topic?  I seem to find that no matter what I do, each attempt I make to answer questions only leaves more questions to answer.  Sisyphus would approve.

Student Retention and Course Design – Part II

For the second part of my segment on student retention and course design I checked in with Ken Farrell, a friend of mine in TLH’s Student Success team.  Basically the guy spends all day helping students complete their online degrees and I figured it would be interesting to see how what we do translates into a student perspective.  So check out these resources, courtesy of Ken, we have a whole section of retention and buy-in oriented data on the TLH site free for perusing.  A lot are only indirectly related to retention, but it’s a start.



Ken also pointed out this piece in particular which I think is a bit dated but definitely points out the importance of good course design in keeping students enrolled.  However, I’d like to quote his final words to you:

“My purely unscientific anecdotal working hypothesis is:  students are more likely to persist to graduation when they can see clear connections between their classes and their work.  I have no data to back that up, but my impression is that programs which demonstrate their relevance in day-to-day class activities help students stay focused on school. “

A lot of what we do in developing courses is finding ways to work in the “real world.”  Be it through an experiential learning piece, case studies, or what I call “authentic assessments” where students are executing what they have learned in a real way (lesson plans, nursing professional developments, business plans etc) finding ways to learn “beyond the text” is going to be key to keeping any student involved and engaged.  

Essentially, the more unique and relevant an institution’s curriculum is, the more likely it is to have high levels of degree completion.  This is especially true in online, where so much of the usual support matrices (writing centers, academic advisers, friend groups) are harder to integrate into the student experience.  By Ken’s logic, instead of covering the standards, we should be finding ways to address them in ways that students can connect to their present and future lives.  Would you agree with that thought?  Or do you think there’s better ways to keep students moving forward?

I know a lot of this was preachy, but I hope it serves to generate ideas or thoughts to share with your faculty as they develop courses because it definitely informs how I approach them when I’m helping them plan out their visions.  I think that’s everything for this week.  Let me know if you have any questions or concerns!

Best Practices in Auto-Scoring Assessments

My weekly share this week is a little more on the simple side and away from the strategic level, but equally important.  I see a lot of tests go through my servers (thousands and FSS sees more!) so I’ve always been worried about how they’re used.  Everybody’s always worried about fraud, but I’m more worried about application.  It’s a commonly held tenet in K-12 that extensive standardized testing is counterproductive to the mission of education.  I’m inclined to agree as well when I look at online higher ed.  There’s just no guarantee your student doesn’t have the book out or doesn’t have their friend taking it and frankly you can get the same assessment data with more authentic projects and activities.  As an professor that deals with instructional technology, I’m sure you have similar experience.


Where auto-scoring assessments truly shine, and I mean shine, is self-check activities.  You set up the expectation that students take the quiz prior to getting started on their other assessments (it’s as simple as making the visibility of all other assignments for a week contingent upon completion of the exam) and then they get feedback on where they stand in regards to that week’s learning objectives before they even have to do something graded.  That gives them the opportunity to go back to their learning resources and review.


“All well and good,” I often hear faculty say, “but what about rigorous questions?”  Well, the resource I want to share is an answer to that question.  This piece was shared with me by a colleague and it’s a good item to disseminate to your faculty (or review for yourself) if you’re interested in higher order thinking questions for quizzes at your institution.  Rigor, after all, is not how hard we’re making students work, but how hard we’re making them think.

Competency Based Education

As for my weekly share, I was on the phone with somebody yesterday and we got down to discussing what shape primarily technical courses should take.  One of the ideas I brought up was Competency Based Education (CBE), which is basically dividing a degree up into self-paced modules that students can pursue 100% asynchronously.  It steps away from the facilitation model in certain respects because it’s self-paced, so I wouldn’t advise it for more liberal arts oriented or discussion oriented courses, but at the same time it could be possible if done correctly.   Here are some cool articles I found on the subject you might enjoy looking over:


ELI: 7 Things You Should Know About Competency-Based Education

Meeting Students Where They Are: Profiles of Students in Competency-Based Degree Programs

All Hands On Deck: Ten Lessons From Early Adopters of Competency-Based Education


How would you consider this instructional method’s integration with your programs?  Do you feel like it has a place at all?  I see it really holding its own in technical and “one-right-answer” style programs such as accounting or learning how to operate computer programs.  You could charge a set rate, make the majority of the assignments automatically scoring, and take the burden off your faculty beyond looking at the necessary artifacts that prove proficiency and living in a more general discussion forum to facilitate conversations.


At the same time, this model flies in the face of what I spoke about last week.  Liberal Arts is the grounding of my education, but it won’t be for everybody.  For those who are seeking endorsements and certificates, CBE may be a model worth toying with.

Social Media Integration – Networking

As for my weekly resource share: One of my higher ups just shared an interesting article regarding the future demand of online education.  I think the most interesting part is the indicator regarding the use of social media in a course.  I also recently read an article about a library science program in California that used that used social media to re-open opportunities for networking with faculty and each other that online students usually lose.  One way or another, social media’s going to be integrated into online programs in the future.  How do you see it fitting in at your institution?