How to create engaging online assignments with universal design in mind

Some insight into the core principles of UDL

The key phrase in each principle, “multiple means,” refers to allowing students to access content and express themselves in their preferred method. Taking this approach allows each student to reach the same overarching learning objective, but encourages them to choose an interaction that best suits their needs or learning style. UDL has been used in traditional classrooms for over three decades, but can translate just as easily into online learning environments.

For example, imagine that you’re teaching an online American history course. In a module on the 1960s, you’ve included the objective: “Describe the media’s influence on public sentiment during the JFK assassination.”

To support this objective, you may decide to include a video lecture with a corresponding transcript, an article about media coverage about JFK’s assassination and an infographic detailing the timeline of news outlets delivering the news to the public. This would support the first core principle of UDL by providing multiple means of representation of the content. Accessibility can be addressed here as well by ensuring that captions, transcripts, or alternative tags are available for media.

The second principle involves providing multiple means of expression for students to reach your objective. Assignment options may include writing an essay incorporating first-hand perspectives, creating a podcast from a broadcaster’s perspective, or filming a video of individuals’ memories of hearing the news. Offering these options will not only allow students to work through a concept creatively, but also allow them to choose a method that best suits their style, maximizing their potential for success. You can ensure that students are doing an equivalent amount of work by outlining word counts, video lengths, and other specifics in a rubric.

The final principle, multiple means of engagement, allows you to create assignments that students are personally invested in. For example, perhaps the assignment prompt can encourage students to draw connections to a recent high-profile event or a moment in their personal lives. This allows them to reflect upon the topic’s connections to their life. Students can also review peers’ projects and contribute their feedback, allowing them to consider the topic from a different perspective.

Assignments created with all three principles in mind align with the goals of accessibility and universal design. This doesn’t mean that every single assignment needs to have multiple submission options, but it allows the opportunity to cater assignments to the diverse needs of your students. This framework introduces an engaging approach that encourages both instructors and students to think “outside the box,” therefore creating an open and accessible learning experience for all.

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