My journey in advocating for accessible education started many years ago and in a different country. Colombia is my country of origin, and over there, the main barrier to accessing education is poverty. Therefore, my efforts were focused on helping students in vulnerable situations, and their teachers create meaningful and affordable learning experiences. This was done for both online and in-person learning environments.
Fast forward a few years, and my life path took me to Québec, Canada, where my Master’s Degree in Educational Technology allowed me to discover new facets of providing quality learning experiences and increased my focus on expanding the reach of education to audiences sometimes overlooked.
Even before the Covid pandemic, teachers and professors worldwide were faced with multiple challenges that required them to teach larger classes with groups of increasingly diverse students. These students require more inclusive and accessible online learning environments. Considering that one in five (22%) of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over – or about 6.2 million individuals – have one or more disabilities, the need for accessible and inclusive education is even more evident.
This requires faculty members to be equipped with pedagogical and technical skills that will allow them to better respond to their students’ needs. For this to be possible, faculty members need the support of technical experts and accessibility specialists.
Benefits for all
It is essential to emphasize that accessible education is not a matter that concerns only a small population, as some people might have been led to believe. Instead, accessible instruction could benefit all students with and without disabilities. For instance, closed-captioned videos can benefit people who:
- have a hearing impairment,
- are in a noisy environment,
- are not native speakers of the language in which the video was narrated or recorded.
Additionally, as stated by Wideman and Odrowski (2012), accessible instruction, or Universal Design for Learning (UDL), can help educators reduce learning barriers, augment student engagement, increase student self-efficacy, empower students to be independent learners and share their knowledge with their peers.
To equip faculty members with knowledge and strategies to effectively teach in a digital age, it is of the utmost importance that educators become familiar with UDL best practices to ensure their courses are accessible to all students.
UD, UDI and UDL
Universal Design (UD): The Center for Universal Design (CUD) at North Carolina State University defines UD as “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”.
Universal Design of Instruction (UDI) is the application of UD principles, which originated in the field of architecture, to teaching and learning practices.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL), is a more specific application of UD and UDI as it outlines specific guidelines for curriculum design.
The Center for Applied Special Technology (2018) defines UDL as “an approach to teaching aimed at meeting the needs of every student in a classroom.” They also argue that UDL “is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.”
As stated by the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Georgian College UDL’s core principles are:
- Multiple means of engagement: Creating an environment where students are adequately challenged and motivated to learn.
- Multiple means of representation: Presenting materials to students in diverse formats. The Council of Ontario Universities (2018) recommends faculty members “cover core material through various mediums — for instance, lectures, textbooks and/or visual presentations.”
- Multiple means of action and expression: Allowing students to express their understanding of the content differently. The Council of Ontario Universities (2018) asks their professoriate to “consider having multiple student evaluation methods, such as exams, presentations and papers. There may be more than one appropriate way to meet and measure learning objectives.”
These UDL principles are also supported by researchers like Dell, Dell and Blackwell (2015) and Al-Azawei, Serenelli and Lundqvist (2016). They claim that said principles should be used in the design of online curricula for higher education. The authors also argue that these principles should be applied as guidelines for teaching general and diverse populations of students- including students with disabilities.
Below you will find a summary of the UD and UDI principles and guidelines. You will note how they intersect and you will find some practical examples on how to apply them in instructional settings. These principles and guidelines were identified and adapted by Sheryl Burgstahler, author and accessibility advocate.
Tables 1 and 2. Universal Design Principles and Applications in Higher Education. The content of these tables was taken and adapted from: Universal Design of Instruction (UDI): Definition, Principles, Guidelines, and Examples
||Application in Instruction
||The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Example: A professor’s website is designed to be accessible to everyone, including students who are blind and using text-to-speech software.
|Flexibility in use
||The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Example: A museum, visited as a field trip for a course, allows each student to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents of display cases.
|Simple and intuitive use
||The use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Example: Control buttons on science equipment are labelled with text and symbols that are simple and intuitive to understand.
||The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. Example: A video presentation projected in a course includes captions.
|Tolerance for error
||The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Example: Educational software provides guidance and background information when the student makes an inappropriate response.
|Low physical effort
||The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue. Example: Doors to a lecture hall open automatically for people with a wide variety of physical characteristics.
|Size and space for approach and use
||Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. Example: A flexible science lab work area has an adequate workspace for left- or right-handed students and those who need to work from a standing or seated position.
||Adopt practices that reflect high values concerning both diversity and inclusiveness.
||Put a statement on your syllabus inviting students to meet with you to discuss disability-related accommodations and other special learning needs.
||Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants.
||Assign group work where learners must support each other, which places a high value on different skills and roles.
|Physical environments and products
||Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.
||Develop safety procedures for all students, including those who are blind, deaf, or wheelchair users.
||Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners.
||Use multiple modes to deliver content; when possible, allow students to choose from multiple options for learning; and motivate and engage students-consider lectures, collaborative learning options, hands-on activities, Internet-based communications, educational software, fieldwork, and so forth.
|Information resources and technology
||Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students.
||Choose printed materials and prepare a syllabus early to allow students the option of beginning to read materials and work on assignments before the course begins. Allow adequate time to arrange for alternate formats, such as books in audio format.
||Provide specific feedback regularly.
||Allow students to turn in parts of large projects for feedback before the final project is due.
||Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools and adjust instruction accordingly.
||Assess group and cooperative performance, as well as individual achievement.
||Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.
||Know campus protocols for getting materials in alternate formats, rescheduling classroom locations, and arranging for other accommodations for students with disabilities.
How to approach resistance to change
There are obvious barriers hindering the implementation of accessibility principles in higher education for online learning. On this matter, authors like Rao, Edelen-Smith and Wailehua (2015) and Horvitz, Beach, Anderson and Xia (2014) postulate that faculty often feel overwhelmed by their full teaching loads and institutional responsibilities. These negative sentiments can lead professors to believe that implementing accessibility principles in their online courses would be an extra burden – something else to add to their already hectic schedules.
However, as these authors remark, there are different approaches universities can take to support their faculty on this endeavour. For instance, it is important to emphasize that even if adjusting online content to be accessible can take considerable amounts of time and effort at the beginning, the flexible format of these accessible components lend themselves to being reused and repurposed for future course iterations (Rao, Edelen-Smith & Wailehua, 2015).
Universities can support professors “by providing professional development opportunities and recognizing that this proactive and deliberate instructional design takes time. Instructors often require additional support to learn how to create flexible resources, learn how to use emerging technologies and to work with their Disabilities Student Services offices to integrate specific supports that students might need” (Rao, Edelen-Smith & Wailehua, 2015, p.51). Moreover, Linder, Fontaine-Rainen and Behling, (2015) suggest that a way to reduce faculty’s apprehension and anxiety towards implementing universally designed components in their online courses could foster a mind switch from a reactive approach to a proactive one. Namely, accessibility issues need to be considered from the beginning of the course design and not after the fact, once the students or other stakeholders have identified some barriers. This would require universities’ Teaching and Learning Centers and Centers for Students with Disabilities to support faculty members with workshops and one-on-one consultations (Linder, Fontaine-Rainen and Behling, 2015). Plus, Linder et al. point out that there needs to be a culture change within all campuses in that accessibility must be perceived as a proactive process instead of a reactive one. Accessibility needs to be taken into consideration at the early stages of the course and curriculum design instead of providing accommodations for a few students after barriers have been identified- at this point, it is more expensive and time-consuming to remediate the situation.
It is vital to fully understand that integrating accessibility principles in online learning is not an easy fix; it requires proper modelling. For example, Evmenova (2018) suggests that educators are more likely to implement UDL principles in their classrooms when they have been exposed to effective UDL modelling. Accessible instruction does not simply consist of telling professors what accessibility is and expect them to do it all on their own; it is about inclusion and the benefits it can bring to all students in a class.
Al-Azawei, A., Serenelli, F., & Lundqvist, K. (2016). Universal Design for Learning (UDL): A Content Analysis of Peer Reviewed Journals from 2012 to 2015. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 16 (3), 39-56. doi:10.14434/josotl.v16i3.19295
Dell, C. A., Dell, T., & Blackwell, T. (2015). Applying Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses: Pedagogical and Practical Considerations. The Journal of Educators Online, 12(2). doi:10.9743/jeo.2015.2.1
Evmenova, A. (2018). Preparing Teachers to Use Universal Design for Learning to Support Diverse Learners. Journal of Online Learning Research, 4(2) 147-171. doi:10.5040/9781350005075.part-004
Horvitz, B. S., Beach, A. L., Anderson, M. L., & Xia, J. (2014). Examination of Faculty Self-efficacy Related to Online Teaching. Innovative Higher Education,40(4), 305-316. doi:10.1007/s10755-014-9316-1
Linder, K. E., Fontaine-Rainen, D. L., & Behling, K. (2015). Whose job is it? Key challenges and future directions for online accessibility in US Institutions of Higher Education. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning,30(1), 21-34. doi:10.1080/02680513.2015.1007859
Rao, K., Edelen-Smith, P., & Wailehua, C. (2015). Universal design for online courses: Applying principles to pedagogy. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning,30(1), 35-52. doi:10.1080/02680513.2014.991300