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Accommodating All Learners and Creating Accessible Online Classrooms

As many institutions continue to transition from in-person to online learning environments, it is important that college faculty consider the needs of all types of learners—including students with visible and invisible disabilities, first-time online learners, and students taking classes while juggling multiple responsibilities at home.

Many students with disabilities face challenges in this transition, as they are removed from the structure of the physical classroom and must now rely solely on technology for their coursework. This means not only having to navigate a possibly unfamiliar learning management system with assistive technology, but also relying on the applications and tools within these systems to communicate with the instructor and other students, submit assignments, and actively participate in group projects or peer discussions. They may also be presented with inaccessible course materials, such as videos without captioning, or course readings that may not have been set up to work well with screen readers (such as PDF documents that are not structured correctly). These challenges, as well as students not knowing how or where to ask for help in this new online environment, can create many barriers to students’ success. 

Solutions to some of these challenges can be found through universal design for learning (UDL) guidelines, which offer an immediate and accessible way to enhance students’ educational experience by emphasizing change in the learning environment rather than requiring change from the learner.

By creating supportive experiences that help all students in a manner best suited to their unique circumstances, UDL guidelines can bolster student motivation, change how they receive and perceive information, and improve their capacity to navigate, organize, and approach a learning task. Below, we share examples of how higher education instructors might adopt UDL guidelines in online or hybrid formats.

Increasing Engagement

The UDL principle of “engagement” emphasizes offering crucial and timely support to help students with disabilities be involved in their own learning. How do we maintain students’ attention when they are suddenly immersed in, and perhaps overwhelmed by, online learning? Sometimes, simple steps can make great gains in motivating students.

  • Provide choices. Present students with choices about their course readings for the week, assignment options, and other learning experiences. The autonomy accomplished with this minor shift can have a major impact on student motivation and willingness to engage remotely.
  • Make sure that students’ time is spent on relevant, valuable, and authentic tasks. As students face new, extraordinary barriers to their learning, it is even more critical that educators provide a strong rationale for assignments and a clear picture of why a course’s content and assignments are meaningful or connected to students’ goals and future careers. Balancing the cognitive and emotional load of day-to-day pandemic living and learning requires instructors to pay specific attention to each new course objective.
  • Establish and sustain collaboration and community in the classroom. This can be accomplished through synchronous sessions, collaborative projects, and other pedagogies and assignments. It can also be achieved through a consistent level of instructor presence in the online space. Simple, brief check-ins through announcements, emails, or video posts remind learners that faculty are there to facilitate, guide, and support learning from afar. Providing students with “space” to connect outside the remote classroom—through virtual brunches, coffee breaks, or lunch chats—also establishes a sense of community beyond your usual emails and discussion board exchanges.

Providing Various Ways to Acquire Knowledge

UDL guidelines demonstrate that students learn and comprehend information differently from one another, emphasizing the importance of providing them with various ways of acquiring knowledge.

  • Frontload or pre-teach new concepts or terms. This might take shape as an interactive glossary with an accessible font that is linked to approachable definitions of terms, visual resources, and everyday examples. This strategy supports students and simultaneously draws further attention to the terms or concepts that are critical to the acquisition of the new content knowledge.
  • Use visual cues with descriptions. Visual content such as images, graphics, or tables can be tailored to enhance connections or patterns between different content, more clearly identify the most valuable information, and show how content is connected to previous and future knowledge. To ensure that all students can access and use visual course content, it is important to provide a text description of each visual.
  • Consider varying types of learning materials. Rather than relying on standard textbook or PDF course readings, instructors can try adding supplemental materials in different multimedia formats such as podcasts, accurately closed-captioned videos, infographics, or outlines.

Using Multiple Means of Action and Expression

UDL emphasizes the importance of providing a diverse array of support for students’ executive function skills. 

  • Give students specific details about what is working for their learning, what is not working, and why. Students often struggle to identify and fix errors or problems, and they rely on immediate and explicit feedback on their work. Progress does not occur without it.
  • Help students set priorities. Especially during hectic times, students benefit from knowing where and when to prioritize time and effort. Directing students to these priorities in a straightforward manner each week assists learners in appropriate goal setting, especially when time is limited due to personal or professional circumstances or when students need accommodation for their different approaches to learning.
  • Provide scaffolded levels of support for acquiring content knowledge or skills. Presenting content so that it moves from least complex to most complex makes it readily digestible and allows faculty to use assessment data to provide specific feedback that leads to more progression and gradually more complicated tasks.

As colleges and universities continue to respond to the pandemic, the new academic year is bringing more unforeseen challenges to students studying in online learning environments. By providing learning support using the UDL principles of engagement, representation, and action/expression, instructors can meet the needs of all students—including students with disabilities—and address the detectable and less detectable learning challenges many learners face in the online classroom.

Melissa A. Parenti is an assistant teaching professor in the Graduate School of Education, and Jennifer Pope Frawley is a program accessibility and QA specialist in digital learning in the Office of the Chancellor—both at Northeastern University.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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