Implications of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for the Design of Online Courses

With the question of curriculum that suits all learners, instructors recognize the problem of student variation in the classroom. There are students who are unable to connect with the day’s lessons, particularly when a hearing or sight difficulty is the cause. Whether the limitation is caused by physical, neurological or cultural differences, teachers accommodate their learners by altering how they present information, structure assignments and test for comprehension.

A unique situation emerges when the learning environment is online. Through computer technology, lessons are available to a widely diverse group of students. While removing barriers for the disabled is a primary catalyst for altering online learning material, the maximization of all online student potential can be realized by following the guidelines set forth in the Universal Design for Learning principles.

Key Concepts
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework, based on research in the progressive learning sciences which guides the development of flexible, educational environments that will accommodate individual learning differences.

The UDL framework was first defined by David H. Rose, Ed. D., of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and personnel from the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), in the 1990s. This consortium of educators understood that the way individuals learn can be unique, and set out to create a curriculum that provides:

  • Multiple Means of Representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge. Examples may include online organization and design, such as creating a class web page, blog or wiki to store information throughout the class year.
  • Multiple Means of Expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know. Alternative modalities of expression can include multimedia presentations, audio clips and video presentations.
  • Multiple Means of Engagement, to tap into learner’s interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn. Online courses can utilize collaborative tools such as VoiceThread and Padlet, as well as synchronous and asynchronous discussions, to encourage student participation and interaction in an online environment.

With the use of these three guiding principles as a blueprint, the resulting curriculum provides built-in flexibility for the learner. The curriculum adapts to the student, not the other way around. UDL design for online learners can include any of the following:

  • Facilitated and self-paced online courses
  • Use of digital and online resources such as multimedia, close-captioning video, audio files, and interactive material, instead of focusing on one textbook
  • Use of flexible grouping, peer support, and the practice of collaborative teaching
  • Instructional technology that can be read by mobile devices and screen readers

Literature Review
Associate Professor Ye He, an instructor in the Department of Teacher Education and Higher Education, UNC Greensboro, has written a very comprehensive paper entitled, Universal Design for Learning in an Online Teacher Education Course: Enhancing Learners’ Confidence to Teach Online.

He discovered that his own students, who were teacher candidates, did not necessarily have the teaching skills required to address a student population who expected to be educated online. As quoted from his paper:
It is projected that by 2020, 50% of high school classes will be offered online (Christensen, Horn, & Johnson, 2011). As Hathaway and Norton (2012) pointed out, “The issue is no longer whether or not online learning is or should occur, but rather how it is implemented” (p. 146).

With this sobering news, the Professor set out to measure his student’s experiences when learning through an online course. He created quality online material using UDL principles, then gathered data from each student when they took the course. Their direct contact with the challenges and benefits of online learning gave them a greater understanding of the process, and their perception of the need and desire for online education was heightened, too. From his paper:
Benefits of learning online. The majority of the participants in this study (20 out of 24, or 83%) referred to pacing and flexibility as the key benefit of learning online. Specifically, at the beginning of the semester, participants commented that online learning offers a more “flexible schedule,” easy access, and reduced time and cost for travel than was typically required for F2F classes. (Ye He, 2014).

Another paper that offers a thorough examination of UDL as a method for online instruction is authored by Cindy Ann Dell, Thomas F. Dell and Terry L. Blackwell and is entitled, “Applying Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses: Pedagogical and Practical Considerations.”
This paper is very comprehensive and has the added benefit of the inclusion of practical steps to implement UDL into courseware successfully. Quoted from their paper:
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock (n.d.) provides a comprehensive guide to implementing UDL in online classes. Their Ten Simple Steps toward Universal Design of Online Classes include a guide for the creation and design of an online class using UDL. These include:
1) Create content first-then design
2) Provide simple and consistent navigation
3) Include an accommodation statement
4) Choose content management system (CMS) tools carefully
5) Model and teach good discussion board etiquette
6) Use color with care
7) Provide accessible document formats
8) Choose fonts carefully
9) Convert PowerPoint to HTML
10) If the content is auditory make it visual, if it is visual make it auditory

These 10 steps are consistent with the three basic principles of UDL presentation, which include providing the students with multiple opportunities to learn with various ways for them to acquire knowledge (presentation), demonstrating what they know (action and expression) and encouraging students’ interest while challenging them (engagement and interaction), as well as increasing motivation and self-regulation (ACCESS Project, 2010; CAST, 2008; Rose & Mayer, 2008).

Further explanation of the Ten Simple Steps is included in the paper, with illustrations added to highlight the correct and incorrect handling of design issues such as font selection and the use of color in graphic elements. A flexible, responsive curriculum is the ultimate goal and the authors emphasize this by consistently offering detailed explanations of key implementation issues in the UDL process.

The implications of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for the Design of Online Courses should be seen as a welcome development in the use of technology to reach a vast and diverse group of students. As Professor He noted, by 2020 half of all high school classes will be offered online. These young students will be introduced to the rudimentary skills of online collaboration and learning by the growth of online education. For some, there will be challenges that might become barriers to their education, but the use of UDL principles offers an innovative, inclusive alternative that reaches across borders and physical limitations. Universal Design for Learning is intended to “increase access to learning by reducing physical, cognitive, intellectual, and organizational barriers to a comprehensive learning experience.” (Karger, J. 2005) This is a promising, motivational change in the area of instructional design and is one to be celebrated.

Ye He, (2014). Universal Design for Learning in an Online Teacher Education Course: Enhancing Learners’ Confidence to Teach Online, MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 10, No. 2.
Hathaway, D., & Norton, P. (2012). An exploratory study comparing two modes of preparation for online teaching. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 28(4), 146-152.
Dell, Cindy Ann, Dell, Thomas F., & Blackwell, Terry L. (2015). Applying Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses: Pedagogical and Practical Considerations. The Journal of Educators Online-JEO, Vol. 13, No. 2.
From “Ten Simple Steps toward Universal Design of Online Classes” (n.d.). Retrieved from University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Karger, J. (2005). What IDEA and NCLB suggest about curriculum access for students with disabilities. The Universally Designed Classroom: Accessible Curriculum and Digital Technologies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.