How to create engaging online assignments with universal design in mind

Some insight into the core principles of UDL

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.

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