10 steps for making your online courses accessible for all students

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

The 10-Step Guide

According to the report, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock provides “Ten Simple Steps toward Universal Design of Online Classes”, which the authors state that, along with the three principles described by Rose and Mayer, should be considered when developing a class and formulating a syllabus for the course.

The report structures these 10 steps under the three main principles:


  • Create content first, then design: Begin with the end in mind and think first about the objectives for the class. “Whatever that structure, an outline can be created to guide the course construction and design,” says the report. “When a class is planned ahead in such a way, an instructor can incorporate UDL principles and anticipate student needs, not just react to them.”
  • Provide simple and consistent navigation: The instructor should consider how a screen reader for the visually impaired can provide content to the learner. Also, student should be able to navigate the screen and move from page-to-page without the requirement of a mouse. Pages should be clean and well-organized.
  • Include an accommodation statement: Federal law requires that accommodations for people with disabilities be provided to make sure there are no barriers to learning. These include “providing reasonable means to accomplish the learning goals,” as well as an accommodation statements that “reflect an openness to make appropriate accommodations related to a student’s needs, where to go for accommodation services and to encourage the student to speak to the instructors about any accommodations they may need,” emphasizes the report.
  • Use color with care: Consider a person who can’t distinguish color. Including many colors and fonts for headings or key points on the page would not be noticeable to those students, write the authors, and may also be confusing for anyone else reading the text online.
  • Choose fonts carefully: This is similar to color choices, as fonts should be easily read and can be resized without trouble.

Action and Expression:

  • Model and teach good discussion board etiquette: Screen readers, Braille display keyboards, speech-to-text software, text-to-audio software, and video relay systems may need to be used by students, so keep this in mind. Also, organizing discussion topics in advance to keep students on track, as well as providing a guideline on good discussion board etiquette to students is important.

Engagement and Interaction:

  • Choose content management system (CMS) tools carefully: When choosing a LMS, looks for accessibility statements from the company, and check for ease-of-use in several areas (personalization, navigation, help with the system, tutorials for students, discussion tools, email tools, chat functions, assignment functions, testing features, etc.).
  • Provide accessible document formats: It’s important for instructors to be consistent with the design throughout the course, notes the report. Also, position headings properly, use fewer frames, use accessible and applicable graphics, and provide text equivalents for non-text elements.
  • Convert PowerPoint to HTML
  • If the content is auditory, make it visual; If the content is visual, make it auditory.

For much more in-depth instructional guidelines about each of the 10 steps, read the full report: “Applying Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses: Pedagogical and Practical Considerations.”

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