Secret Boss Training: Engage Online Leaders to Adopt Universal Design for Learning

Concurrent Session 10

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This interactive, research-based session gives you meaningful tools to radically re-frame UDL away from a disability mindset and toward broader mobile-device access arguments about online learner persistence, retention, and satisfaction, to obtain advocacy and support from your president, provost, and campus leaders.

Extended Abstract

This interactive and research-based session focuses on how distance-learning professionals can get faculty and senior-leader colleagues to adopt the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. Only about ten percent of faculty members across North America currently use UDL or inclusive-design strategies (CAST, 2015; DO-IT, 2015).

UDL is a scalable, research-backed framework that increases the learning effectiveness of many online-education practices by increasing learner access to materials, interactions with other learners and instructors, and providing learners with choices about how they stay engaged with their studies, take in new information, and demonstrate their skills. Learners who have such choices stay with online programs at higher rates and report greater satisfaction with their studies (Davies, Schelly, & Spooner, 2013).


Addressing Barriers

Many online-program leaders resist program-level inclusive-design techniques, perceiving them as a) being beneficial for only a small segment of learners; b) requiring a significant outlay of time, people, and work effort; and c) having a limited impact on learner outcomes. This session will provide attendees the tools needed to re-frame UDL in order to

  • INNOVATE by getting online program leaders to adopt and champion UDL as a means to increase learner persistence, satisfaction, and retention;
  • REPLICATE the benefits by creating consistent learning interactions that save instructor time while encouraging learner choices and creativity;
  • create positive IMPACT by providing distance-learning students with more time for study and practice in their busy days;
  • find compelling EVIDENCE by re-framing UDL away from a disability mindset and toward emerging technologies; and
  • increase the SCOPE of online programs by bringing new learners into online learning.


Session Objective

This session posits inclusion, diversity, equity, and advocacy (IDEA) in its most inclusive form: instead of relying solely on providing accommodation services to online learners with disability barriers—which is most often a last-minute, ad-hoc, reactive process—adopting UDL as part of an institution’s culture of online course design and teaching practices allows all learners to benefit, regardless of their place on the ability spectrum or access challenges like bandwidth, device ownership, and distance from service nodes.

The not-so-secret goal of this education session is to enable participants to become “quiet evangelists” for UDL techniques and get buy-in, advocacy, and support from their presidents, provosts, and other online leaders. Attendees will be given practical, hands-on strategies (cf Smith, 2012; Tobin & Behling, 2018) for expanding learner access and increasing student persistence, retention, and satisfaction—an outcome for which we have 35 years of evidence-based practice and research (Fonosch & Schwab, 1981; Fichten, 1986; Nelson et al., 1990; Houck et al.,1992; Bento, 1996; Benham, 1997; Bigaj et al., 1999; Cook et al., 2009; Murray et al., 2009; Zhang et al., 2010; Lombardi & Murray, 2011; Murray et al., 2011).


Session Outcomes:

Participants will be able to

  • create and describe learning interactions that save instructor time while encouraging innovative ideas,
  • provide students with more time for study and practice in their busy days, and
  • re-frame UDL away from a disability mindset and toward emerging technologies: learners on their mobile devices.


Engagement Strategies:

This session uses active-learning techniques and provides use-them-now resources for participants. The first 15 minutes will be an overview of advocacy techniques and ideas, the second 15 minutes will be devoted to application exercises, and the final 15 minutes is reserved for take-aways and open-structure conversation. Especially by relating UDL to broader access benefits for all learners, this session’s activities serve as a model for participants to re-frame accessibility and inclusion conversations on their campuses. This is best accomplished through an incremental approach, using a “next-20” series of milestones that leaders can support—achievements that can be attained in the next 20 minutes, 20 days, and 20 months (Tobin & Behling, 2018).



Benham, N. E. (1997). Faculty members attitudes and knowledge regarding specific disabilities and the Americans with Disabilities Act. College Student Journal, 31, 124-129.

Bento, R. F. (1996). Faculty members decision-making about “reasonable accommodations” for disabled college students. College Student Journal, 30(4), 494.

Bigaj, S. J., Shaw, S. F., and McGuire, J. M. (1999). Community-technical college faculty members willingness to use and self-reported use of accommodation strategies for students with learning disabilities. Journal for Vocational Special Needs Education, 21(2), 3-14.

CAST. (2015). UDL on campus: Universal design for learning in higher education—a guide.

Cook, L., Rumrill, P. D., and Tankersley, M. (2009). Priorities and understanding of faculty members regarding college students with disabilities. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21(1), 84-96.

Davies, P. L., Schelly, C. L., & Spooner, C. L. (2013). Measuring the Effectiveness of Universal Design for Learning Intervention in Postsecondary Education. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 26(3), 195–220.

DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology). (2015). Applications of universal design in postsecondary education. Center for Universal Design in Education. University of Washington.

Fichten, C. S. (1986). Self, other, and situation-referent automatic thoughts: Interaction between people who have a physical disability and those who do not. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 10(5), 571-587.

Fonosch, G. and Schwab, L. O. (1981). Attitudes of selected university faculty members toward disabled students. Journal of College Student Personnel, 22(3), 229-235.

Houck, C. K., Asselin, S. B., Troutman, G. C., and Arrington, J. M. (1992). Students with learning disabilities in the university environment: A study of faculty members and student perceptions. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25(10), 678-84.

Lombardi, A. R., & Murray, C. (2011). Measuring university faculty members attitudes toward disability: Willingness to accommodate and adopt Universal Design for Learning principles. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 34(1), 43-56.

Murray, C., Lombardi, A., Wren, C. T., & Keys, C. (2009). Associations between prior disability-focused training and disability-related attitudes and perceptions among university faculty. Learning Disability Quarterly, 32(2), 87-100.

Murray, C., Lombardi, A., & Wren, C. (2011). The effects of disability-focused training on the attitudes and perceptions of university staff. Remedial and Special Education, 32(4), 290-300.

Nelson, J., Dodd, J., & Smith, D. (1990). Faculty members willingness to accommodate students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23(3), 185-189.

Smith, F. G. (2012). Analyzing a College Course that Adheres to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Framework. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(3), 31–61.

Tobin, T. J. & Behling, K. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Zhang, D., Landmark, L., Reber, A., Hsu, H., Kwok, O., and Benz, M. (2010). University faculty members knowledge, beliefs, and practices in providing reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities. Remedial and Special Education, 31(4): 276-286.