A step-by-step guide for making online classes accessible

Montana State University professors discuss a 10-step plan to applying Universal Design for Learning in online courses.

universal-UDL-learningAccording to professors at Montana State University, Billings, 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—but how to implement?

The implementation guidelines are part of a recent report written by Dr. Cindy Ann Dell, assistant professor, Educational Theory and Practice at MSU Billings; Thomas Dell, assistant professor, Rehabilitation and Human Services at MSU Billings; and Dr. Terry Blackwell, professor and chairperson, Rehabilitation and Human Services at MSU Billings; which aims to help other professors and curricular specialists 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 also helps 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 authors note that 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, it’s not just assistive technology needed to the make an UDL 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)