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Is UDL a Practical Tool for Improving Undergraduate Online Courses?

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper
Roundtable presentation

Thursday, December 3, 12:30–1:15 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)
Presentation 3 of 3
Other presentations:
Technology Integration in Science Content and Pedagogy Courses With Preservice Teachers
Inside the Black Box: Understanding Communicative Exchanges in Online Learning Environments

Lydia Ugwu  
This original research paper highlights the challenges of teaching an online undergraduate course based on interviews with online instructors at a university. The challenges are matched with solutions using UDL as a framework. The paper also points out the practical challenges of implementing UDL in an online course.

Audience: Teachers, Teacher education/higher ed faculty, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: Windows, Android, iOS
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Topic: Universal Design for Learning/differentiated learning
Grade level: Community college/university
Subject area: Higher education, Preservice teacher education
ISTE Standards: For Education Leaders:
Empowering Leader
  • Support educators in using technology to advance learning that meets the diverse learning, cultural, and social-emotional needs of individual students.
Visionary Planner
  • Share lessons learned, best practices, challenges and the impact of learning with technology with other education leaders who want to learn from this work.
Equity and Citizenship Advocate
  • Ensure all students have skilled teachers who actively use technology to meet student learning needs.
Additional detail: Session recorded for video-on-demand, Graduate student

Proposal summary


The universal design for learning (UDL) is an inclusive teaching framework that aims to remove learning barriers for all students by incorporating flexibility into the curriculum and addressing student variability from the outset (Rao & Torres, 2016). The framework was initially developed by CAST, Center for Applied Special Technology, as a framework for disability. Inspired by the civil rights movement and its campaign for equal access to education for all individuals with disabilities, CAST saw the emerging technologies of the 1980s as a tool to infuse greater flexibility into the way instructional content is displayed, and in turn give students with disabilities a head start. Drawing on the potential afforded by new technologies, the CAST team aimed to deliver technologies that would assist students with disabilities overcome learning barriers in their environments, particularly at school. However, with time they came to realize that learning barriers existed in schools, not in students. The one-size-fits all approach to curriculum design tailored for an illusory average learner favored students who were at ease with such an approach but created barriers for students on the sidelines. Furthermore, the rigid educational system was alienating students from the educational system by undermining students’ quest for creativity and their desire to assume ownership of their learning. Hence, in the 1990s, the team shifted their focus to the disabilities of schools instead of students. Their efforts included the construction of three core principles for supporting learner variability (Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014)
There are three principles or guidelines for supporting learner variability.
1. Provide multiple means of engagement. Providing multiple means for learners to engage with the content stimulates an interest in the lesson and a motivation to learn. Instructors need to ask key questions like does the lesson provide options that all learners will find interesting and engaging? Does the lesson provide opportunities for learners to remain motivated and consistent in their effort? Are learners given opportunities to manage their own learning? This principle is connected to the affective network.
In practical terms, educators ought to provide instructional material and learning experiences that reflect the diversity in the classroom and will prove engaging for every learning. (UDL project, n.d.). It could also mean leveraging technology tools to provide students with a range of material - digital text, a wide choice of projects to choose from, audio alternatives; allowing students to customize the display of information; opportunities for self-assessment, interactive learning sites, online educational games and so on.
2. Provide multiple means of Representation: Delivering content in multiple and flexible formats allows learners to become resourceful and knowledgeable. Are multiple options provided to help students understand the learning objective, decipher symbols and expressions, and grow in knowledge and understanding? This principle is linked to the recognition network. To implement this principle, educators would offer instructional material in a variety of formats such as print, graphics, audio, visual representations, text-to-speech options, closed captioning and video description,
3. Provide multiple means for action and expression. This entails providing learners with multiple and flexible ways to express their knowledge. The educator should ask: Do learning tasks provide multiple options for students to express their knowledge and act strategically?
To implement this principle, educators should allow students to express their knowledge using multiple formats: using audio visuals, digital tools such as Voice threads Powerpoints, Google tools (slides, docs, sheets), print etc.


Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with the two course instructors. Questions will include: Do you feel adequately prepared to teach an online course? What knowledge and skills do you think are required to teach an online course? What aspects of online teaching do you struggle with? What would you like to do differently? What challenges would you have implementing UDL principles in your online course? What aspects of UDL are easier/harder to implement?
Course materials from both instructors will also be analyzed to see if they are web accessible and/or incorporate aspects of UDL.


At the end of the study, it is expected that the interviews will provide an insight into common challenges faced by online instructors. The interviews should generate common themes that describe the challenges of online instructors. The document analysis should also identify what aspects of online teaching material need to be improved. Finally, the study should yield insights into UDL’s practicality as a tool for improving online instruction: what aspects of the framework are easier/harder to implement, and what are some practical ways online instructors can use UDL to improve their practice?


One of the major problems of online courses is the one-size-fits-all approach does not differentiate instructional methods and content to match learner abilities, preferences and differences. This may explain learner disinterest, dissatisfaction and dropout from such courses (Schelly, Craig & Spooner, 2013).
The successful implementation of Universal Design for Learning, with its emphasis on addressing learner variability (UDL project, n.d.).can provide a framework that may potentially improve learners’ perceptions of online education and consequently improve their readiness to complete online courses. Although UDL cannot address all the challenges of online learning, by offering learners multiple means of representation, expression and engagement, it can improve their learning experience and help them achieve their learning goals. However, in order to provide better learning opportunities for students with and without disabilities, there is a need for further research to align online courses in accordance with UDL principles.


Crawford-Ferre & Wiest (2012). Effective online instruction in higher education. Quarterly Review of Distance Education. Vol. 13, Iss.1, 11-14.
Retrieved from

Gabriel, M. A., & Kaufield, K. J. (2008). Reciprocal mentorship: An effective support for onlineinstructors. Mentoring and Tutoring:Partner-ship in Learning, 16(3), 311-327
Retrieved from

Lederman (2018, Nov.7). Online Education Ascends. Inside Higher ED.
Retrieved from

Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordan, D. .(2014) Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. Retrieved from

Rao, K. & Torres, C. (2016) Supporting Academic and Affective Learning Processes for English Language Learners with Universal Design for Learning. TESOL Quarterly, vol.51, 460-472. doi: 10.1002/tesq.342
Retrieved from

Schelly, Craig & Spooner (2013). Measuring the Effectiveness of Universal Design for Learning Intervention in Postsecondary Education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, v26 n3 p195-220.
Retrieved from

UDL Tools for all Grades and Subject Areas. The UDL Project. Retrieved from:

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Lydia Ugwu, University of Houston
Graduate student

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