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10 steps for making your online courses accessible for all students

By Meris Stansbury, Managing Editor, @eSN_Meris
December 17th, 2015

New report highlights 10-step plan to applying Universal Design for Learning online

universal-UDL-learningAccording to a new report, incorporating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in online courses not only benefits students with disabilities, but can have significant benefits for all students, ultimately increasing retention and improving learning outcomes. UDL is tough enough in a face-to-face environment, but the real challenge might be how to implement the principles in an online world where students’ abilities and learning styles differ drastically.

The recent report, written by three professors at Montana State University, aims to help educators involved in online learning implement UDL for teaching both general and diverse populations, including students with disabilities.

The authors note that while, ideally, UDL allows students with disabilities to access courses without adaptation, it can also help to improve learning—and, therefore, retention—among all students.

“The concept of universal design is as longstanding as cuts in sidewalks, which were originally mandated to allow access for wheelchairs, but which ultimately ended up with the unintended consequence of benefiting babies in strollers, people on bicycles, and children on skates,” the authors write. “The philosophy and principles of a UDL framework are similar to UD and are meant to provide pedagogical strategies for instructors to maximize learning opportunities for diverse groups of students including those with physical and/or learning disabilities.”

Knowing Where to Start

The theoretical framework for the report includes the work of Rose and Mayer and their three overarching principles of effective UDL course design: Presentation, action and expression, and engagement and interaction.

In presentation, the course provides learners with various way of acquiring information and knowledge. In action and expression, students are provided with various routes for demonstrating what they know. And in engagement and interaction, an instructor is enabled to tap into students’ interests, challenge and motivate them to learn.

In other words, educators need more than just assistive technology to create a UDL-friendly online course.

“Currently, many students with disabilities utilize technology such as screen readers, close-captioned videos, seating arrangements and a test environment that minimizes distractions that contribute to their success in higher education,” note the authors. “However, Coombs notes that for online courses there should also be an accessibility to the learning infrastructure, and accessibility to the actual course content and the student needs to be well-versed in the assistive technology that is provided by the institution.”

The authors also highlight that courses using UDL should ensure that the learning goals of the course “provide an appropriate academic challenges for the college student and that the assessment is flexible enough to provide accurate, continuous information that helps instructors revise instruction to maximize learning for diverse learners.”

Next page: The 10-Step Guide