Universal Design for Learning: Implementing Inclusive Design Strategies to Remove Barriers to Learning in Online Courses

Pre-conference Workshop Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Online education broadens the prospective student population to a globally-distributed audience with greater cultural diversity and learner variability. This workshop introduces Universal Design for Learning as a framework for designing engaging, meaningful, and memorable online educational experiences that account for cultural diversity as well as other differentiating factors.  

The fee for this Pre-Conference Workshop is: $205 Early Bird / $235 Full Price

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Kadriye O. Lewis, EdD, is the Director of Evaluation and Program Development in the Department of Graduate Medical Education at Children's Mercy Hospital CMH). She is also Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine (UMKC SOM). Prior to coming to Children’s Mercy, Dr. Lewis worked for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) for more than 13 years. She played a major role in the development of the Online Master's Degree in Education Program for Healthcare Professionals. This program has developed a national and international reputation for excellence and played an important role in training future leaders in medical education. Dr. Lewis served as an education consultant to the medical center's faculty development program. She applied her educational background and academic skills to health literacy by establishing a Health Literacy Committee at CCHMC in 2007 and chaired this committee successfully for three years. Along with her many accomplishments in the area of scholarly activities, she also established the e-Learning SIG in Medical Education for the Academic Pediatrics Association (APA) in 2008 and served this group as the chair person for six years. Dr. Lewis is active in medical education research and her scholarly interests include performance-based assessment, the construction of new assessment tools as well as the improvement and validation of existing tools and methods. She also has a particular interest in instructional design and implementation of innovative technologies for curriculum delivery at many levels in healthcare education due to her extensive experience in e-learning and web-based technologies. Currently, she is involved in an NIH funded grant project on genome, various curriculum development projects for the graduate medical education programs at CMH and teaches an online/blended course in the Master of Health Professions Education program at UMKC SOM (http://med.umkc.edu/mhpe/). Dr. Lewis presents extensively at many professional meetings and conferences, and has been an invited speaker at many national and international universities.

Additional Authors

With over 17 years of experience developing adult-centered online programs, Jennifer knows what drives student success— learning experiences that connect academic content to learners’ own lives in realistic, relevant, and relatable ways. Jennifer has managed e-learning initiatives and operations for public, private, and for-profit institutions of higher education. She has led the development of solutions focused on scaling instructional design processes using Lean and project management principles while building infrastructures to keep pace with the evolving state of online higher education. Jennifer earned a BA in Corporate Communication from Marietta College, an MAEd in Adult Education and Distance Learning from the University of Phoenix, and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from The University of Dayton. She is also a graduate of the OLC's Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Education.

Extended Abstract

The beauty of online education is in the opportunity for learners to achieve their educational goals without the barriers of time and place. In removing those barriers, the prospective student population broadens to a globally-distributed audience representing different abilities, ages, backgrounds, genders, and cultures. Most instructors would advocate that diversity among students adds value to learning environment by increasing the variety of perspectives applied to the collective exploration of course topics. However, the globalized online classroom also presents contextual challenges that can lead to misunderstandings related to local relevance of examples provided, use of slang or jargon, dissimilar academic standards, and culture (Shirvani, Scorza, Alkhathlan, & Garcia, 2011). Therefore, designing for cultural diversity and learner variability becomes even more essential to online courses.    

Although most frequently associated with design of instruction that is accessible to learners with disabilities, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has powerful potential for designing courses in which cultural diversity is the differentiating factor among learners. UDL is a research-based framework for designing educational experiences that are accessible to the greatest number of learners in the most flexible ways (CAST, 2011). Three fundamental design practices are at the heart of UDL:

  • representation of course topics and materials in multiple formats;
  • variation in the ways that students can demonstrate knowledge and skills;
  • use of multiple methods of engaging and motivating learners (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014).

A typical online course follows a fairly repetitive model that includes a video lecture or narrated slide show, text-based readings, practice exercises, discussion posts, and written assessment. Because of preconceived notions of what can be done online, or a lack of awareness of effective instructional design principles, the more tactile and personal elements are often left out of online course design to the detriment of engaging, meaningful, and memorable educational experiences. Meyer, Rose, and Gordon’s (2014) implementation of UDL as a framework to optimize learning across all learner populations has direct application to designing online courses that account for cultural diversity, among many other differentiating factors.

The workshop will use short didactic presentations interspersed with small group activities and discussion to explore the application of UDL for inclusive online course design. Participants will be asked to complete a brief survey prior to attending the workshop to assist the facilitators with preparing for the didactic presentations and small group activities. Facilitators will model UDL principles in the design and delivery of the workshop; participants will obtain practical tools for incorporating the UDL framework into their online courses.

Upon completion of the workshop, participants will be able to:

  • Explain the three primary principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and examine their application to designing inclusive online courses;
  • Analyze online instructional materials to assess for multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement and make recommendations for enhancing design using UDL;
  • Discuss benefits and potential challenges of implementing UDL in online courses.


Introductions and Overview (10 minutes)

  • Introductions and agenda review
  • Introduction of KWL sheet. Facilitators will ask participants to revisit the sheet throughout the session.
  • Outline of expectations for facilitators and participants

Small Group Activity 1: What Are the Barriers? (15 minutes)

Working in small groups, participants will complete the following tasks and submit their responses on Padlet:

  • What barriers to learning might students encounter in an online course? Brainstorm for 2 minutes, writing all of the barriers on your   
  • Review the online instruction example (provided by facilitators) and note all of the possible barriers to learning that you observe.
  • Be prepared to summarize your findings to the collective group.

Didactic Presentation 1: Learner Variability and Online Courses (15 minutes)

  • Research on learner variability
  • Primary classes of networks in the human brain: Affective, Recognition, Strategic
  • Implications for Online Course Design

Small Activity 2: Exploration (20 minutes)

Working in small groups, participants will complete one of three different exercises demonstrating learner variability within the three primary networks (Affective, Recognition, and Strategic). Exercises will be distributed based on number of participants and groups. Results will be reported to the large group and used to guide the UDL presentation that follows.

Didactic Presentation 2: An Introduction to Universal Design (UDL) (25 minutes)

  • What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?
  • Three primary principles for effective design (multiples means of representation, action and expression, and engagement)
  • UDL as a framework for inclusive course design

BREAK           (10 minutes)

Didactic Presentation 3: Online Course Design with UDL (20 minutes)

  • How to apply the framework to online course design
  • Key considerations
  • Effective practices for online course design


Small Group Activity 3: Application (35 minutes)

  • Using a template (provided by facilitators) each group will design an online module/ lesson using the UDL framework
  • Groups will share a summary of their work with the collective group

Interactive Presentation: UDL in Context (15 minutes)

Participants will engage in an interactive presentation (modeling UDL) that addresses

  • Anticipated challenges or barriers to implementation of UDL in online course design;
  • Potential resolutions or techniques for overcoming the challenges/ barriers;
  • Ideas for how to apply the new knowledge and skills to their own online courses.


Key Points / Pulling It All Together (10 minutes)

  • Top Ten List: Collective discussion of key takeaways and next steps


Wrap up (5 minutes)

  • Closing/ reminder to complete session evaluation


Note: Bring your laptop or mobile device to optimize your experience.


CAST (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/

Chita-Tegmark, M., Gravel, J.W., Serpa, M. del. B., Domings, Y., & Rose, D.H. (2012). Using the universal design for learning framework to support culturally diverse learners. Journal of Education, 192(1), 17-22

Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory & practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.

Shirvani, H., Scorza, J., Alkhathlan, K., Garcia, F.L. (2011, November 27). GLOBAL: The challenges of global online education. University World News. Retrieved from http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20111125211420618