Universal Design for Learning (UDL), developed by CAST, is an international framework for educators to design content for all learners. The UDL framework guides the design of instructional goals, assessment, methods, and materials that can be customized and adjusted to meet individual needs.
UDL is typically thought of only in terms of satisfying ADA requirements by making content accessible to students with disabilities. But in reality, it is much more than that. Studies show that integrating multiple senses when encountering new information improves understanding and retention, and thus UDL can improve learning for all students. It is based on three principles that can be applied to online learning environments.
Principle 1: Provide multiple means of engagement
It is critical to devote a considerable amount of effort to attract learners’ attention not only on the first day of classes but throughout the semester. According to CAST (2018), information that learners do not attend to, that does not engage learners’ cognition, is inaccessible. Research shows that students are engaged when they actively participate in their learning and can meaningfully contribute to class activities. It is also important to create a safe and positive class climate to allow sharing of diverse perspectives.
A good means of establishing an inclusive learning environment is through an introductory forum at the beginning of the semester. A Padlet wall can be a place for students to post one image they like with a brief explanation of why they like it. This is a good way to get to know all course participants, add bit of fun, and improve students’ (and teachers’) digital literacy skills.
It is always good to add some human touch to online courses. Humor and art-inspired elements, such as songs, cartoons, and photographs, support mental health and positive course climate. Spreading them throughout the course may be a good idea. Visuals of various kinds allow teachers to incorporate multiple perspectives on the topic and model various ways to express ideas.
I teach STEM subjects. I like to incorporate educational songs into the curriculum to help build relationships with students, support teacher presence, and reduce anxiety and enhance student learning. For example, for statistics and mathematics courses with selected statistics topics, the award-winning SMILES (Student-Made Interactive Learning with Educational Songs) project for introductory statistics offers interactive statistics songs. This resource is free for noncommercial educational use. Interactive songs challenge students to make conceptual connections and construct examples or context, thereby fostering statistical literacy and reasoning skills in a novel way. For science courses, this collection of STEM songs on anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, microbiology, and many more STEM-related topics is a great source of inspiration and multiple means of engagement. If there is no preexisting song bank for your discipline, then it may be fun to try and write songs about a course topic with your students. I am sure one or two students have a background in music and could help other students with musical writing prompts. Why not? Research tells us that music can improve one’s abilities in learning and may even improve test scores.
Principle 2: Provide multiple means of representation
It is important to think about different means of representation of course content. Learners differ in how they perceive and comprehend the information presented to them. Some students may grasp information more quickly or efficiently through imagery or sound rather than printed text. Learners also differ in what motivates them to learn. Some are highly engaged by novelty, while others prefer strict routines. According to CAST, there is no one means of representation that is optimal for all learners. Providing options—video, text, and images—will benefit all learners.
To meet the diverse needs of our online learners, we need to make sure that the course design and course instructions are as clear as possible. Online learners require guidance. I like to give assignment instructions, presenting learning objectives and main ideas in several ways. First, I provide students with accessible MS Word or PDF documents. Tutorials from Microsoft on making Word documents accessible and on creating accessible PowerPoint presentations provide valuable tips and tricks. Also, Adobe Acrobat tools make it easy to create accessible PDFs and check the accessibility of existing PDFs. Second, images are a great way to engage learners and add valuable sources of information. I make sure that each image is supported with alternative text to address accessibility requirements. Providing students with accessible documents allows them to use assistive learning technologies and literacy software if necessary.
For example, Kurzweil 3000 is a platform that teachers can integrate with Google Classroom or Microsoft OneDrive. Kurzweil Education products offer learners new multisensory approaches to read, comprehend, synthesize, apply, and demonstrate their knowledge. Third, an addition of an MP3 audio file with a brief explanation of main ideas for a topic may help address the needs of busy learners and help them quickly assess the resources they need to do the task or learn the material.
I like to create short videos (five to seven minutes long to address modern learners’ short attention spans) about assessments too. These video explanations walk learners through the assignment description and rubric, comment on main points, and provide some tips. Simple video recording tools, such as Screencast-O-Matic and Powtoon, are free with basic subscriptions. These tools, in addition to Windows Video Editor, are very handy in quick video production of teaching and learning materials. You can then publish these videos on your YouTube channel and post them on the learning management system or provide the links to students. Importantly, YouTube will create automatic subtitles or captions—a great tool for creating accessible videos easily. Bear in mind that automatic captions should be used as a starting point only. Speech recognition technology may provide automatic caption text that is wrong (or is embarrassing) and does not match the spoken audio, depending on the speaker’s dialect. You will need to proofread and edit automatic captions to be 99 percent accurate to meet accessibility requirements before distributing to students.
Providing multiple means of representation of materials is a good way to develop faculty media and digital literacy and model these skills and attitudes for our learners to develop their 21st-century skills.
Principle 3: Provide multiple means of action and expression
When we approach teaching and learning with UDL in mind, we design assessment opportunities differently. To address our students’ diverse needs and provide them with equal opportunities to demonstrate what they know, UDL guidelines suggest designing more than one way for learners to interact with the material. For example, providing a choice to work with peers or work alone may help students manage their time better and reduce stress related to doing an assessment. Choice also helps develop self-motivated and self-regulated learners who take responsibility for their own learning.
What do we want our students to do when we give them options for how to present their knowledge and skills? I have been trying to encourage students to submit anything but MS Word documents or PowerPoint slides for a project for a long time. I learned that just telling students they have options does not change their behavior. Recently, I started using Adobe Spark to develop instructional materials, hoping that this would not only provide multiple means of access to information but also model and scaffold multiple ways for my students to demonstrate what they know. Adobe Spark is an integrated suite of media creation applications for mobile and the web. And it is free! Adobe Spark can be used to create an image, a video, or a webpage.
I like to use Adobe Spark Page as one way for presenting assessment instructions. Creating a webpage has no learning curve at all. And I mean it: no learning curve at all! Also, I use Spark Page for designing case studies because it allows me to easily create attractive social graphics and introduce real-life issues in an engaging way. Sometimes I include my own images or videos.
I use Adobe Spark Post (images) for creating my own pictures to engages students with science. These images can be used as icebreakers for online live meetings or for online discussions. It is also good if you can make your image appealing and still related to the subject matter. For example, I created a post for this question: What is the best way to cool coffee? Pour milk and wait five minutes or wait five minutes and pour milk? I used a nice image of coffee cup and preset design in Spark. It took me a few minutes. This is one possible way to start talking about heat, temperature, and states of matter.
I love science and try to make it exciting for my students too. The UDL guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions that teachers can apply to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners are able to access and participate in meaningful and challenging learning opportunities. These guidelines also provide opportunities for teachers to be creative and let their personalities shine in online learning environments.
CAST. (2018). Universal Design for Learning guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Elena Chudaeva, PhD, is a professor of general education at George Brown College.