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How UDL Can Create a Highly Accessible Online Learning Environment

  • 4 Min Read

In this blog, we look at how the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework can be applied to online teaching to help students access and participate in meaningful learning opportunities.


In the past year, we have seen how online teaching presents new challenges. But we have also seen how online learning, with proper insight and planning, can provide a more accessible mode of study for students. This means working with faculty, students, technology partners, and administrators to create an environment where students can more successfully perceive and navigate course content regardless of their ability.

In this blog, we look at how the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework can be applied to online teaching to help students access and participate in meaningful learning opportunities.

What Is Universal Design for Learning?

Originally developed by researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in collaboration with Harvard University, UDL functions as a teaching and course development framework that gives all students equal opportunities to learn. A key principle of UDL is that there isn’t an “average learner,” as all learners differ in strengths, preferences, and learning needs.

This framework focuses on integrating flexible pathways to address learner variability through representation, engagement, and action and expression. Each of these principles is then broken down into three guidelines with specific course design suggestions.

How to Include UDL Practices in Your Online Classes

There isn’t a specific set of tools or technologies to follow UDL principles. Instead, UDL emphasizes a flexible approach to instruction and content presentation for students to suit their individual learning needs.

UDL Principle 1: Representation

This principle focuses on the “what” of learning. Representation is the process of collecting and presenting information to students in a way that they can understand, engage, and comprehend. This is done by:

  • Providing options for perception: Make sure that key information is equally perceptible to all learners by sharing course content through different modalities and using a learning management system (LMS) that allows for adjustability by the user.
  • Providing options for language and symbols: Provide alternative representations not only for accessibility but for clarity and comprehensibility across all learners. Harness your LMS accessibility services to check for any accessibility issues with your content, such as poor heading structure, poor contrast, missing alternative text, and more.
  • Providing options for comprehension: Teach learners how to transform information into useable knowledge by scaffolding and providing supports for memory through using checklists and visuals.

Learners perceive and comprehend information in different ways, whether that’s due to language differences or sensory and cognitive challenges. It’s important to work with students to identify the strategies that work best for them.

UDL Principle 2: Engagement

The second principle looks at the “why” of learning. It answers the question “Why should I learn this?” and aims to develop students who are purposeful and motivated to learn. This is done by:

  • Providing options for sustaining effort and persistence: Promote expectations of lessons and class standards by being clear about what you want to see students demonstrate.
  • Providing options for recruiting interest: Encourage responsible student agency where students can set goals, work toward these objectives, and reflect on their progress.
  • Providing options for self-regulation: Foster intrinsic abilities among students to regulate their own emotions and motivations in order to be more effective at coping and engaging with the environment.

There isn’t one means of engagement that works for all learners. That’s why it’s imperative you integrate a variety of teaching methods to capture your students’ attention.

UDL Principle 3: Action and Expression

This principle of UDL focuses on the “how” of learning. Each learner has different strengths and challenges when it comes to expressing what they know. For that reason, courses should have a variety of ways for students to demonstrate action and expression. The action and expression principle in UDL focuses on how students plan, organize, create, and demonstrate understanding. This is done by:

  • Providing options for physical action: Integrate different materials to vary the methods for response and navigation. Make your courses compatible with assistive technologies such as voice-activated switches or expanded keyboards.
  • Providing options for expression and communication: Incorporate forms of media for students to effectively communicate, such as discussion boards, email, and video conferencing options.
  • Providing options for executive functions: Give students autonomy to plan, set goals, and be intentional about the way they approach a task.

UDL works to make learning more accessible in any environment. Applied to online learning, this framework promotes inclusive practices that increase accessibility by removing some of the physical and cognitive barriers for students.

Watch Our On-Demand Webinar, Reimagining Accessibility Online: Designing for Equity First

Join hosts Dr. Christopher Sessums, D2L’s director of academic affairs; Dr. John Scott, Blackboard Ally product manager; Adam Spencer, AbleDocs president; and Dr. Sam Chandrashekar, D2L’s accessibility lead, as they unpack:

  • The value of universal design principles
  • How these principles apply to online learning
  • How they can support equity and accessibility for both faculty and students

Watch the webinar now

Written by:

Zeina Abouchacra
Zeina Abouchacra

Zeina Abouchacra is the EDU Content Marketing Specialist at D2L. She has worked in the higher education sector in various communications positions as well as a researcher and a teaching assistant. Specifically, teaching undergraduate-level communication university courses. Zeina is currently working towards completing her Master of Arts Communication degree at the University of Ottawa.

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Table of Contents
  1. What Is Universal Design for Learning?
  2. How to Include UDL Practices in Your Online Classes
  3. UDL Principle 1: Representation
  4. UDL Principle 2: Engagement
  5. UDL Principle 3: Action and Expression
  6. Watch Our On-Demand Webinar, Reimagining Accessibility Online: Designing for Equity First