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Accessibility for All: The Benefits of Universal Design Learning

One of the most significant movements in education today is increasing accessibility for students with disabilities. Online education seems to offer an opportunity, with the technology making it easier than ever to accommodate students with special needs. But for many teachers, the thought of overhauling their teaching methods to comply with Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards seems daunting. Universal Design Learning (UDL) principles can help. In fact, following a few of the theory’s basic principles can help you to design a course in which all students, regardless of ability or learning style, have the resources to succeed.

The following UDL principles come courtesy of the Center for Applied Special Technology (2011), and provide guidelines that can be used to build a truly accessible course:

Provide multiple means of representation

Many courses include content in various formats, whether it’s text, audio or images. However, to make a course accessible, you need to provide students with equal alternatives across different modalities (visual, auditory, and haptic), allowing for user adjustability, and for clarity and comprehension.

If, for example, you create a PowerPoint showing students how to navigate a website, UDL suggests you should not only include screen shots of the website, but also ensure that your narration script conveys instructions that allow for students to follow the website tour with or without the use of screen shots.

Note the words “script” and “narration.” Including equal alternatives across modalities means consistently providing a written script to accompany your narration. The easiest thing to do? First write your script, then record your narrations to ensure everything lines up.

Provide multiple means of action and expression

Not only does the material need to be presented in a variety of ways, but students need to have various ways to interact with the course environment and to express their learning. This not only applies to how students interact with the learning environment itself (e.g., can students navigate using both their keyboard and their mouse?), but also to how students demonstrate their mastery of the outcomes.

If you’d like your students to do a final project, give them the proper scaffolding throughout the course and alternatives for how to ultimately showcase their learning.

For example, in a drama class, students were taught different elements of drama in each unit; this scaffolded their learning throughout the course. For the final project, students chose between several assignments designed to exhibit their understanding of the course material. They could write a short play, perform a short play from a given list, or attend a play and write an analysis. Each assignment called upon different modes of communication, but ultimately conveyed the students’ learning.

Provide multiple means of engagement

This standard deals specifically with engaging multiple strategies to promote interest, motivation, and self-regulation among the students. Ensuring learners’ autonomy, using current and relevant course materials, and giving students feedback to show them where they excel and where they can improve are all keys to challenging and motivating students.

In a speech course, for example, students were required to present a speech based on a given scenario. Students first shared their speeches with the class, reviewing and discussing each other’s work. The following week, the instructor created an “on the fly” screen-captured lecture to showcase what some students did well and give feedback to the class as a whole. This strategy engaged students in multiple ways:

  • Students were engaged with the content, demonstrating speech skills and reviewing highlights of exceptional skills demonstrated through the instructor’s presentation;
  • Students engaged with peers through review and discussion of each other’s speeches; and
  • Students received constructive feedback on their performance through peer review and instructor commentary.

These are just a few examples of how UDL principles can be incorporated into online course design and delivery. What do you think? Have you used UDL principles in your classes and if so, how did they influence the learning environment and impact the student experience?


Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: CAST. Retrieved from www.udlcenter.org/sites/udlcenter.org/files/updateguidelines2_0.pdf.

Join the author at 1 p.m. EST on Dec. 3 for a free, live webinar: UNIVERSAL DESIGN: 3 PRINCIPLES FOR BUILDING AN ONLINE COURSE

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