This post is the second in a three-part series adapted from a workshop given by ODL course developer Clarissa Anderson at the 2022 OU Online conference. In this first part, we explored the disability and the need for accessibility. In part 2, we look at Universal Design for Learning, and part 3 will cover how to design accessible content in Canvas specifically.

Universal Design

Before there was Universal Design for Learning there was, unsurprisingly, Universal Design. The Center for Universal Design uses Ron Mace’s definition: “Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

A great example of Universal Design is the cutting of a curb next to a street. This cut allows the sidewalk to slope smoothly toward the street instead of the usual step down. The curb cut obviously benefits people using wheelchairs, but it is also really helpful to folks using strollers or suitcases, pushing shopping carts, using a walker or crutches, or walking a bike. Curb cuts benefit everyone, regardless of ability or situation.

A sidewalk sloping down toward a city street with the curb cut out to connect the two
knelson20 /

As the National Disability Authority in Ireland says: “By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services, and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.”

Universal Design for Learning

So how is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) distinct? Both are focused on proactive design, but Universal Design traditionally focuses on removing barriers in the physical environment, whereas UDL is about removing barriers in the learning environment. 

At the core of UDL is the reality of learner variability. Going beyond specific learning, mental, emotional, or physical disabilities, every learner is unique in many ways. Learners all have different preferences and interests, backgrounds and experiences, support needs, and abilities and strengths. 

Paralleling the curb cut example above, captions are an example of an accessibility feature that can benefit everyone. Captions are essential for people with a hearing impairment, but they are also very helpful for anyone in a very loud or very quiet environment, English language learners, and folks with attention disorders. Elisa Lewis with 3PlayMedia notes that “All students can greatly benefit from captions. Captions have been proven to increase engagement and focus.”

The benefits of UDL for students are numerous, and the Sonoma State University Faculty Development Guide lists some of the most significant ones:

  • Instructors report it improves the quality of their teaching.
  • It helps reach diverse learners without constant modification of the course.
  • It increases student knowledge and capacity to participate.
  • It increases student engagement, motivation, and satisfaction.
  • It increases autonomy and streamlines course planning.

UDL is a research-backed framework that aims to give all students equal opportunities to succeed, no matter how they learn. It is not about removing the need for accommodations, nor is it a solution for all issues. It’s also important to note that UDL does not reduce expectations of students or result in less rigorous courses. Neither is it based on specific learning styles. Rather it is meant to fundamentally design a course in a way that works for everyone.

CAST has a list of UDL guidelines to help instructors consider all the different ways they can universally design courses to help everyone learn better. The three main category are:

  1. “Provide multiple means of engagement.”
  2. “Provide multiple means of representation.”
  3. “Provide multiple means of action and expression.”

Under each of these are a variety of tips and suggestions to help students access, build upon, and internalize what they’re learning. And as CAST notes, the goal of UDL is to create “Expert learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-directed.”

Implementing UDL in Online Courses

Implementing UDL in online courses really isn’t as difficult as it might seem. In fact, a lot of the strategies are fairly intuitive. In an article in the Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Tobin Thomas outlines five strategies for faculty to apply UDL:

  1. Text foundation: Record videos using a script and/or outline.
  2. Alternatives: Use multiple formats (e.g. video + text).
  3. Expression: Design assessments so students can express knowledge in their own way.
  4. Chunking: Scaffold content into portions (in lectures, videos, course modules, webpages).
  5. Accessible tools: Integrate user-friendly and free tools.

As a result, instructional designers and instructors can develop a syllabi action plan that utilizes UDL principles. Sonoma State University’s Faculty Guide and the UDL Syllabus from Cast are helpful resources here, which include suggestions such as:

  • Highlight course goals and why the course material selected is relevant to students.
  • Utilize a variety of course materials.
  • Discuss typical weekly routine and course components.
  • Address specific expectations of students and their responsibilities.
  • Include personal accessibility and inclusion syllabus statements.
  • List a variety of methods to contact the instructor.

A great way to think of UDL and accessibility is with Plus One Thinking. Instead of getting overwhelmed with all of the possible changes you could make, ask yourself two questions: 

  1. “What in the learning environment is getting in the way of students learning?” 
  2. “What’s one more thing I can do to get rid of those barriers?”
Plus One Thinking: What barriers are students facing in the learning environment? What’s “one more thing” that I can do to eliminate those barriers?

Integrating accessibility and UDL can be both iterative and incremental. In other words, you shouldn’t feel like you have to fix everything or get it all perfect right now. You just need to try to make it better, a little bit at a time. 

In the next post, we’ll talk more specifically about how to create accessible content on Canvas.

References and Additional Resources

UDL Principles

Cumming, T.M.; Rose, M.C. (2021). Exploring universal design for learning as an accessibility tool in higher education: A review of the current literature. Australian Education Researcher.

Lewis, E. (2020). Video Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning. 3Play Media.

Nelson, L.L. (2021). Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning. Brookes Publishing, 1st Edition.

Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. (2018). CAST.

Universal Design. (2022). Washington University Do-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology).

Universal Design in Education: Principles and Applications. (2021). Washington University Do-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology).

UDL Syllabus. (n.d.). UDL on Campus.

UDL-University: A Comprehensive Faculty Development Guide: Two-hour UDL Workshop. (2020). Sonoma State University.

What Is Universal Design. (n.d.). National Disability Authority (Ireland).

UDL Perspectives

Black, R.D.; Weinberg, L.A.; & Brodwin, M.G. (2015). Universal Design for Learning and Instruction: Perspectives of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education. Exceptionality Education International, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 1-26.

Kennette, L.N. and Wilson, N.A. (2019). Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Student and Faculty Perceptions. Journal of Effective Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 2, No. 1: Spring issue.

Tobin, T. (2014). Increase Online Student Retention with Universal Design for Learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(3), 13.

Westine, C.; Oyarzun, B; Ahlgrim-Delzell, L.; Casto, A.; Okraski, C.; Park, G.; Person, J; & Steele, L. (2019). Familiarity, Current Use, and Interest in Universal Design for Learning Among Online University Instructors. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 20(5), 20-41.

UDL & Online Courses

Burgstahler, S. (2017). Equal access: Universal design of distance learning programs. Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology Center (DO-IT).

Nave, Lillian. (2021). “Universal design for learning UDL in online environments: The HOW of learning.” Journal of Developmental Education, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 34-35.

Nave, Lillian. (2021). “Universal design for learning UDL in online environments: The WHAT of learning.” Journal of Developmental Education, vol. 44, no. 2, pp. 30-31.

Nave, Lillian. (2021). “Universal design for learning UDL in online environments: The WHY of learning.” Journal of Developmental Education, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 30-31.