Here’s a science fiction scenario for you:

Omar is an online instructor, reflecting on the semester as he grades the final assessments of his 200-level course. He had 23 people in his course and 10 of them did fantastic — completing all assignments with A’s or high B’s. Ten more of them did okay — they passed but have missed a few assignments or did routinely poorly on some elements of the course, even as they did well in others. Three students, unfortunately, failed the class.

Despite his best efforts to encourage open communication, Omar wonders what held back the 13 students in the class that didn’t excel. One student submitted a request for accommodations through UAF Disability Services and another reached out to let him know about a family crisis, and he worked to help both of them. But he suspects that there were other things going on that impacted his students’ success in the course.

Now, here’s the science fiction part. One morning Omar wakes up to a mysterious, otherworldly email in his inbox. Its cryptic pixels arrange to make a list of all the barriers to learning his students this semester were experiencing. (The list is anonymous because the sci-fi force respects privacy.) They include:

  • 2 students with dyslexia
  • 4 students with intermittent internet access
  • 1 student with low vision
  • 3 students from non-Western cultures, including two English language learners
  • 3 students who were still learning basic computer skills
  • 2 students with major depression and anxiety
  • 5 students were grieving a loved one or had recently ended a romantic relationship

Omar is grateful to have this information but unsure what to do with it. How can he possibly accommodate all these needs in his class, and he doesn’t know who experiences which? How can he provide more flexibility while maintaining academic rigor and fairness?

As he ponders, a new, strangely glowing email appears. It contains the following links to resources on Universal Design for Learning practices in higher ed.

CAST UDL Guidelines
University of Washington’s Center for Universal Design in Education
UDL on Campus

Omar does some research and spends the break between semesters revising his course. Here are the changes he enacts:

1. Multiple Means of Engagement

a. He revises the learning objectives for each unit to be more relevant and student-centric, and places them prominently at the beginning of each unit, along with an introduction that explains how each activity helps fulfill those objectives.

b. He changes some of his discussion questions to help students activate background knowledge and apply the course content to their lives.

2. Multiple Means of Representation

a. Omar reaches out to the media team at his university and gets all his course videos professionally captioned.

b. He uploads his lecture PowerPoints into Blackboard and adapts his existing lecture notes into a format that can be used by students for guided note-taking.

c. He also reviews all the articles used in the class to make sure they are digital OCR text instead of scanned images. If they are images, he seeks out alternatives or creates a more accessible version himself using Adobe Acrobat.

Universal Design for Learning

The term Universal Design for Learning (UDL) means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

  • provides flexibility in the ways: information is presented, students are engaged, and students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills
  • reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient

  • Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA)

3. Multiple Means of Action & Expression

a. Noticing that several students did poorly on the final research project, he splits it into several sub-assignments and provides time for feedback on each piece.

b. He checks the names and descriptions of all assignments in both the content area and the grade center, standardizing them across the course and making sure the due dates and point values are prominent and clear.

Omar’s mysterious email remains in the realm of sci-fi, unfortunately. There’s no realistic way to fully pull back the curtain and see all the factors that influence our students’ learning. A UDL approach takes that into stride by recognizing that improving clarity and providing options for interacting with course content can benefit everyone, regardless of the barriers they are facing. The examples above are one possible starting point — it is a journey that can go in any direction you choose.

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Clara Noomah

Clara Noomah, M.Ed, is an instructional designer who has worked in the world of education for almost 10 years. She is part of the eCampus accessibility task force.