With the rapid growth of distance learning technologies over the past decade, education has become available to more students than ever. More than 6.3 million American students took at least one online course in fall 2016, a number that continues to increase annually.

Virtual classrooms offer the flexibility to complete assignments around diverse schedules, allowing non-traditional students and working professionals to obtain degrees. However, digital learning environments offer so much more than convenience for learners; they eliminate physical barriers for impaired students who may have difficulty attending class in person.

For example, deaf students may require an interpreter to translate content into American Sign Language for in-person classes. This may lead them to miss interactions or questions from peers while watching the interpreter. However, if videos in online courses include captions or transcripts, they allow hearing-impaired students to receive the same content without needing an accommodation. There are also various tools and technologies available to assist students who may have visual, physical, or cognitive impairments in online courses.

Captions and assistive technologies are just a few of the many ways to ensure that course content is accessible to all users. Accessibility means that a person with a disability is “afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability.”

How to ensure a course is accessible

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a leading vehicle for incorporating accessibility into course content. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, the UDL framework provides a “blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution.”

The core principles of UDL include providing multiple means of representation, multiple means of action or expression, and multiple means of engagement for course activities or assignments. UDL works to make all content available and engaging for not only those with disabilities, but also those with differing learning styles or preferences. These styles may include visual learners, auditory learners, or kinesthetic learners.

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.

About the Author:

Susan Riello is an instructional designer and adjunct faculty member at a private, coeducational higher education institution in the New England area. She is a certified Quality Matters Peer Reviewer and focuses on creating engaging, accessible learning environments for diverse audiences.


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