Improve Online Course with Universal Design

Improve Online Course with Universal Design

Most people think of Universal Design as an approach to designing accessible buildings and meeting the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, this philosophy can also be applied to classroom instruction. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that fosters inclusive learning and teaching environments by strategically giving students options in the way they navigate content, show what they know, and are motivated to persist in their learning (“The Three Principles of UDL,” 2014). It benefits all learners, not only those with disabilities. Made up of three guiding principles, UDL has provided a lens through which to view the teaching and learning options available to students in my online courses and resulted in manageable tweaks that have made a big impact on student satisfaction. The three guiding principles of UDL are representation, action and expression, and engagement.

Representation: Provide several ways for learners to navigate the content.

The UDL design principle of representation urges instructors to provide students with multiple experiences to navigate the content. When I first began as an online instructor, text-heavy resources like book chapters and websites were the only options available to my students. Some learners excelled but many struggled. All students voiced their general discontent with the amount of reading. Thus, I began experimenting with different methods that prompted students to explore the content beyond a text resource. Since making these modifications, students regularly comment on the variety of methods used and how the different methods help them understand the material. This shift in student perception has occurred in spite of the fact that the amount of required reading has not changed. This has led me to conclude that providing students with multiple ways to navigate the content empowers students and gives the instructor credibility.

One technology tool that can be utilized to provide students with another method to navigate the content is EdPuzzle ( EdPuzzle is a free website whose tagline is “make any video a lesson.” Instructors select a video published on YouTube or Vimeo, customize it by inserting their voice or adding questions, and then share it with their students using a class code. The magic of EdPuzzle is that it allows instructors to watch a video asynchronously with online students in a similar way that they watch a video with face-to-face students. The web-based app allows instructors to force a pause in the video, insert their voice to ask a question or draw attention to a particular aspect of the video, and give students an opportunity to share their thoughts.

This is how it works. As a student watches an EdPuzzle video, the video will automatically stop at time points where the instructor has strategically inserted an open-ended prompt, multiple-choice question, or audio comment. Most learners need to actively interact with content multiple times in order for it to “stick”. In this regard, EdPuzzle is great because it allows learners to watch segments of a video multiple times before responding to a question or prompt. Instructors can track student answers to questions, and view how many times a student watched a particular segment of the video. EdPuzzle also gives instructors the power to delete unnecessary parts of the video at the beginning or the end, and to prevent students from skipping forward in the video. Videos can be customized in EdPuzzle without great effort and provide another way for students to meaningfully navigate the content.

Action and expression: Give learners options to show what they know.

The second UDL design principle is action and expression, providing learners with options to express what they know. Letting students decide how they will show you what they know makes the activity meaningful to them. I have noted that these activities tend to build student confidence in the course. Since learners show me how they are making sense of the content, I can provide personalized feedback, opening the door to additional dialogue between myself and the students.

This philosophy has led to the development of show me assignments. When carefully designed, these activities prompt students to synthesize ideas in their own words rather than repeat ideas from a resource. In a show me assignment, students are provided with a list of key concepts, asked to pick one concept, and then create a product that visually showcases their understanding of the concept. They choose the concept and the product. An example of a show me assignment can be viewed at: Some of the most often-used products students employ to create show me assignments include Adobe Spark videos (, a video of them acting out a concept, hand-drawn illustrations, and Pixton cartoons ( Some of the products are tech-savvy, some are not. All products provide a snapshot of how a learner is processing a concept.

Engagement: Keep learners motivated by building community.

The third UDL design principle is engagement, in which the instructor works to maintain student interest and effort. Although learners vary widely in what motivates them to persist, an important factor that contributes to their motivation and success in any course is a sense of community.

Google+ Community is Google’s version of a group or forum that instructors can use to boost the sense of community in their courses. The Google+ Community interface is remarkably simple, but has some advantages over the discussion forum of a traditional learning management system (LMS). Being a Google product, it has the fresh look and feel of the social media applications that my students use and have come to expect. In comparison, the graphical interface of the LMS discussion board supported by my university seems archaic and unwieldly. My favorite outcome of using Google+ Communities over the LMS discussion board is how the students have embraced it, being more authentic in the way they respond to prompts and to one another. For example, students are more likely to add a photo or display a website to support their thoughts. They are also more likely to spontaneously start threads or reach out to the class to pose a question—activities that rarely happened when I used the LMS discussion forum supported by my university. For all these reasons, Google+ Community has connected the students in my online courses and contributed to student persistence. Want to check out a Google+ Community? I created one for online instructors at:

To make a Google+ Community for your class, create an account at Then log in to your Google+ account at, and create a new Community for your course. Google+ Communities have some basic customization features including name, privacy, and post review settings. I recommend adjusting privacy settings so that only members can see Community content and the Community is not visible on a search. Similar to other forum applications, instructors create topics that group student responses.

Instructors may add individual students to the Community using their Google credentials. Alternatively, after creating the course, an instructor may direct students to a unique Community link where students will be prompted to ask permission to join. During the first week of my courses, students complete a short Google form that collects their Google account information, so I can add them to the Community.

View your course through the lens of the UDL framework.

Start small. Select one way you could incorporate the UDL framework into a course. I have found that these small tweaks have created a more customized teaching and learning online experience for students and have also helped me to connect with students in a more meaningful way.


The Three Principles of UDL. (2014, September 18). Retrieved from

Jennifer Nash is an associate professor of education at Dakota State University.

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