Post-pandemic Future of Online and Blended Learning

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

Universal design (UD) has emerged as a paradigm for addressing diversity and equity issues in the design of a broad range of applications in education. Learn about aspects of a UD framework that you can flesh out to develop more inclusive future online learning practices at your institution.

Extended Abstract


Universal design (UD) has emerged as a paradigm to address diversity and equity in the design of offerings in higher education that include on-site and online learning resources and activities. UD requires that a broad spectrum of abilities and other characteristics of potential students be considered when developing instructional products and environments, rather than simply designing for the average student and relying on accommodations alone for individual students with disabilities. UD is defined by the Center for Universal Design (n.d.) 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.” Principles for the UD of any product or environment ensures:

  • Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  • Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  • Simple and intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  • Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  • Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  • Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  • Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility. (Story, Mueller, & Mace, 1998, pp. 34–35)

These principles, originally applied to the design of architecture and commercial products, have also been broadly applied to the design of IT, instruction, and student services (Burgstahler, 2015). Many UD-inspired frameworks have emerged to specifically address instructional applications. Each is based upon a common finding in educational research: that learners are highly variable with respect to their abilities and responses to instruction. The most common UD-inspired framework applied in K-12 settings is called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), UDL promotes offering students multiple means of 

  • Engagement: For purposeful, motivated learners, stimulate interest and motivation for learning.
  • Representation: For resourceful, knowledgeable learners, present information and content in different ways.
  • Action and expression: For strategic, goal-directed learners, differentiate the ways that students can express what they know (Center for Applied Special Technology, 2018).

Many specific barriers to digital tools and content faced by individuals with disabilities in online components of courses today have well-documented solutions. These include those articulated by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), originally published in 1999 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and most recently updated to WCAG 2.1 (2018). The Guidelines dictate that all information and user interface components must follow the four guiding principles that ensure that IT is:

  • Perceivable: Users must be able to perceive the content, regardless of the device or configuration they’re using.
  • Operable: Users must be able to operate the controls, buttons, sliders, menus, etc., regardless of the device they’re using.
  • Understandable: Users must be able to understand the content and interface; and
  • Robust: Content must be coded in compliance with relevant coding standards in order to ensure its accurately and meaningfully interpreted by devices, browsers, and assistive technologies.

While the WCAG standards were developed to apply to web-based technologies, their principles, guidelines, and success criteria can also be applied to digital media, software, and other technologies

Applying the combination of UD, UDL, and WCAG principles is particularly suitable for addressing both technological and pedagogical aspects of online learning in order to ensure that students are offered multiple, accessible ways to gain knowledge, demonstrate understanding, and interact. Although the need is minimized with this approach, reasonable accommodations will in some cases still be necessary to ensure full access and engagement to a particular student when the universally designed offering does not already do so. For example, a student with a learning disability engaging in a universally-designed online course may require extra time on an examination as determined by a special education teacher or a postsecondary disability services office.

Online learning technologies and pedagogies that are engaging and effective for all learners result when designers assume that users will have a wide variety of abilities, understand challenges individuals with disabilities often face, and engage in design approaches that result in accessible, usable, and inclusive online learning applications. Even as online learning research pushes the boundaries of current practices, practitioners and researchers can trust that UD, UDL, and WCAG principles will stand the test of time.

As a wide range of digital technologies become more abundant in formal and informal learning opportunities, the need to make technological innovations and pedagogical practices more inclusive of potential students and instructors with disabilities is critical. This presentation will reveal that

  • US civil rights legislation requires that students with disabilities have access to educational opportunities, including opportunities that make use of IT;
  • There is little evidence that online learning technology and pedagogy research and practice routinely address access issues for individuals with disabilities.
  • Established principles, guidelines, and practices currently exist to guide the development and use of accessible, usable, and inclusive cyberlearning technology and pedagogy.
  • Some accessible design practices that focus on disabilities benefit other groups as well.
  • To achieve systemic change toward more inclusive online learning, it is important that researchers, instructors and course designers, computing faculty, IT companies, funding agencies, and other stakeholder groups be engaged.
  • Stakeholders need training and resources tailored to their particular roles in ensuring that future online learning innovations are more inclusive of individuals with disabilities.

The ideal state for future online learning research is that researchers routinely include individuals with disabilities and accessibility considerations within every phase of research, design, development, and evaluation processes. Reaching this goal requires a paradigm shift from designing for some to designing for everyone.

The presenter of this onference session will share aspects of the UDHE Framework—including scope, definition, principles, guidelines, exemplary practices, process—and explore with participants how they can flesh it out to support diversity and equity goals on their campuses overall and to online learning courses specifically. The presenter will also share useful resources (e.g., Burgstahler & Thompson, 2019) that include the Center for Universal Design in Education and encourage participants to share their resources as well.


Burgstahler, S. (Ed). (2015).Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

Burgstahler, S., & Thompson, T. (Eds). (2019). Designing accessible cyberlearning: Current state and pathway forward. Seattle: University of Washington. Retrieved from

Center for Universal Design. (n.d.). History of universal design. Retrieved from

Center for Universal Design in Education. (n.d.). Retrieved from http:/

Story, M. F., Mueller, J. L., & Mace, R. L. (1998). The principles of universal design and their application. In M. F. Story, M. L. Mueller, & R. L. Mace (Eds.), The universal design file: Designing for people of all ages and abilities (pp. 32–36). Raleigh, NC: Center for Universal Design. Retrieved from

World Wide Web Consortium. (2018). Web content accessibility guidelines, 2.1. Retrieved from