One Step at a Time: Creating Paths for Diverse Learners through Universal Design for Learning

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Are you ready to move forward on the road to meeting all students’ needs?  Learn how you can use the principles of “Universal Design for Learning” (providing all individuals an equal opportunity to learn) to make your online course welcoming and usable for all of your students.


Aisha Haynes is the Program Manager for Distributed Learning at the Center for Teaching Excellence. She manages the design, creation, delivery, and ongoing improvement of distributed-learning delivery methods on the USC-Columbia campus and for the USC regional system. Aisha is a certified Quality Matters Peer and Master Reviewer and has earned Online Teaching certifications from the Online Learning Consortium (formally Sloan C). She has been designing online courses for over 8 years. She teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses online, including Information Literacy, Computer Applications in Business and Technological Applications for Diverse Populations.
Karen Edwards is the Faculty Associate Director for Distributed Learning Pedagogy at the University’s Center for Teaching Excellence. She is also is a senior instructor in the Department of Retailing, where she teaches retail- and law-related courses in both online and face-to-face formats. Through USC's Center for Teaching Excellence, she develops and facilitates workshops and individualized coaching on effective teaching techniques and other issues affecting higher education. Ms. Edwards is certified by Quality Matters® to review and assess the quality of online courses offered by higher education institutions. She earned her Juris Doctor Degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law and her Bachelor's degree from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina.

Extended Abstract


Schools and college campuses are becoming more diverse in terms of not only students’ physical abilities, but also with respect to other characteristics, such as cultural background, sexual orientation, learning style, and native language.  In its early stages, Universal Design (UD) emerged as an effort to eliminate barriers in the physical environment for people with disabilities.   By designing products, buildings, and environments to be used by the widest possible range of users, UD focused on accessibility in the “built” environment, including classrooms and campuses.  Rose and Mayer transferred UD principles to education and encouraged access to educational curricula for all students, including those with disabilities, in A Practical Reader in Universal Design for Learning (Rose and Mayer, 2008).

Today, the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) involves purposefully designing learning environments to address the physical and sociocultural needs of learners, ultimately providing all individuals an equal opportunity to learn. The research-based UDL approach to course design provides flexibility in the ways information is presented and how students are engaged, and provides a variety of opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter.  In essence, UDL is intended to reduce barriers to instruction, provide anticipated accommodations, and support students while maintaining high expectations of achievement (HEOA, P.L. 110-315, §103(a)(24)). 


In this interactive workshop, beginning and intermediate faculty, instructors, instructional designers, and staff will learn useful steps toward transforming online courses into useable and inclusive virtual environments through UDL.  By the end of the session, participants will be able to: 

  1. Explain how the three key principles of UDL provide better access to the dynamic processes of learning;
  2. Identify practices which foster a richly diverse and inclusive online learning environment; and
  3. Apply basic technical strategies to enhance accessibility of online courses.    

KEY principles of UDL (15 min.)

We will begin this workshop with an online response system “quiz” of the audience, posing multiple-choice questions to stimulate thought and discussion.   Questions will focus on research-based concepts about how people learn, ways learners become engaged, and the means by which people may express themselves.   This exercise reinforces the proposition that the ways in which people learn can be unique, and transitions us to an introduction of the “Three Principles” of UDL – the core concepts behind widely-accepted UDL Guidelines for creating curriculum (CAST; The Three Principles).   

The presenters will explain the UDL foundational principles that: 1) multiple means of representation gives learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge; 2) multiple means of expression provides learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know; and 3) Multiple means of engagement taps into learners' interests, challenges them appropriately, and motivates them to learn.   Then, referencing the University of Arkansas’ Ten Simple Steps toward Universal Design of Online Courses, participants will learn specific ways they can design their online own courses to integrate UDL best practices (Ten Simple Steps, n.d.).

Fostering diversity and inclusion (10 min.)

Universal Design is an objective that puts a high value on both diversity and inclusiveness (Burgstahler, 2015).  Although it may seem counterintuitive that these issues pertain to the online environment, it is important to note that “students cannot check their sociocultural identities at the door, nor can they instantly transcend their current level of development” (Ambrose et. al., 2010, p. 169).  Similarly, faculty and course designers are affected by their own life experiences.  Accordingly, good online course development takes into account that individuals’ backgrounds, self-awareness, and sensitivities will vary, and applies strategies to create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment.  (Saunders and Kardia, n.d.).   

Presenters will lead participants in a guided self-reflection exercise excerpted from the Anti-Discrimination League (2007) Personal Self-Assessment of Anti-Bias Behavior.  Participants will consider three to four statements regarding their own backgrounds and experiences, and silently assess their own potential personal biases.   After debriefing, presenters will discuss the benefits of using inclusive teaching strategies, and provide examples of ways in which participants can incorporate diversity and inclusion into their online courses.  Highlights of best practices culled from Saunders and Kardia’s (n.d.) Creating Inclusive College Classrooms will be discussed.

Technical strategies for accessibility (10 mins.)

Next, we will explain that because online courses are generally designed long before any particular students are identified, incorporating UDL principles enable practitioners ensure that their courses will meet the needs of all students, including those with disabilities (Rao, K., 2015).   In this way, learners who enroll may find that the accommodations they might otherwise have requested have already been addressed (Silver, et al., 1998).    

In addition to reducing the barriers for students with disabilities, UDL can also maximize learning for learners with other challenges, such as those whose native language is not English (Dell, et al., 2015; Rao, K., 2015).  We will include an overview of best practices for accessibility in online courses, and provide examples of tools and resources available, including options for closed-captioning videos/presentations.  The presenters will demonstrate how to use headings to quickly and easily convert a Word document into a format which is accessible by a screen reader (text-to-speech computer program) and usable by all students.

Practical Application and Question & Answers (10 mins.)

Presenters will ask participants to pause to reflect on how purposeful planning of instructional goals, methods, and materials might increase access to learning in their own online courses.  They will then pair with another participant and share one UDL idea from the session that they would like to incorporate into their own course.  A few volunteers will be called upon to share their thoughts with the larger group.  The session will close with an open-forum question and answer time.


  • Interactive response system poll
  • Guided personal reflection
  • Demonstration of accessible document navigation
  • Paired discussion
  • Open forum Q & A


PowerPoint presentation with transcript and a one-page accessible handout (with useful web resources) will be made available to registrants through the conference website.  In addition, a limited number of the printed handouts will be available at the session.   Participants will be encouraged to bring their laptop or mobile device in order to download materials and participate in the online response exercise. 



Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M. & Lovett, M. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Anti-Discrimination League (2007). Personal Self-Assessment of Anti-Bias Behavior.  New York, NY: Education Division.  Retrieved from 

Burgstahler, S. (2015). Introduction. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from

CAST (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA.   

Dell, C., Dell, T. and Blackwell, T. (2015).  Applying Universal Design for Learning in Online Courses:

Pedagogical and Practical Considerations.  The Journal of Educators Online, 13(2).  Retrieved from

Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, P.L. 110-315, §103(a)(24).

Rao, K. (2015). Universal Instructional Design of Online Courses: Strategies to Support Non-Traditional Learners in Postsecondary Environments. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.). Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from

Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (2008). A practical reader in universal design for learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press.

Saunders, S. and Kardia, D. (n.d.).  Creating inclusive college classrooms.  Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan.  Retrieved from

Silver, P., Bourke, A., & Strehorn, K. C. (1998). Universal instructional design in higher education: An

approach for inclusion. Equity & Excellence in Education, 31(2), 47–51. 

Ten Simple Steps toward Universal Design of Online Courses.  University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  Retrieved from

The Three Principles. National Center on Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from