Inclusive design considerations for international students

Concurrent Session 8
Equity and Inclusion

Brief Abstract

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and designing for accessibility have become the “gold standard” in instructional design. Yet, these approaches may miss various linguistic and cross-cultural considerations could lead to missed opportunities for maximizing the learning experience for international students. This session will feature considerations for designers creating courses for non-American students.


Kimberly (Kimmy) Rehak works as an instructional designer at the University of Pittsburgh's College of General Studies. She has earned master's degrees in applied linguistics and public policy & management, and a graduate-level certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Kimmy is currently a doctor of education (DEd) candidate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on inclusive curriculum development and instructional design practices as well as digital rights for students in higher ed. She is committed to critical pedagogy and extending educational access. She has extensive work experience in ESL/EFL instruction, foreign language test development, faculty training, and as a curriculum specialist in public health and has worked in the USA, Germany, Austria, and the United Arab Emirates.

Extended Abstract

With the shift from face-to-face courses to online and hybrid courses in the post-COVID 19 world, we find ourselves revisiting the importance of online course design. This growing interest in the field calls for a reflection on best practices for equitable and inclusive design. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and designing for accessibility have become the “gold standard” in instructional design. UDL offers guidelines developed from the cognitive sciences to guide designers in creating material that is engaging and equitable for all learners. Accessibility refers to design that is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and, similar to UDL, prioritized as a way to provide every student with similar access to educational content. 

With over one million international students enrolled in higher educational institutions across the country, we can expect that a majority of these students will access online course materials at some point during their studies. However, much of the attention to inclusive practices in the literature relates to designing for students with disabilities. The unique needs of international students as they relate to online course design are seldom addressed. 

Designing for international students may be less of a concern for course designers as non-American students are mostly required to take in-person classes on account of visa restrictions. Moreover, designers may also rely on the UDL guidelines as a “catch-all” for targeting all students in their courses. However, there are also linguistic and cultural considerations for instructional designers to utilize when creating online courses for this subset of university students.

While international students are not a monolith, there are certain considerations that can help designers target this particular group of students within the online learning environment.  For example, the recently-proposed WisCom model, which is based in sociocultural learning theory and situated learning in a community of practice, aims to design culturally inclusive online courses. Furthermore, a deeper understanding of second language acquisition (SLA), language processing, and cross-cultural communication can help designers become attuned to barriers to learning for international students – especially those with lower English proficiency.

This session will share design considerations for session attendees to utilize when creating course materials with international students in mind. While the focus of this session is on online course design, by extension, many of the inclusive design considerations included in this talk are relevant for face-to-face course designs, as well. Attendees will also come away from this session with tangible strategies for designing courses that are sensitive to the needs of non-American students at the tertiary level. More specifically, we will offer strategies for linguistic and cultural inclusion and insight on recognizing opportunities for engaging international students within the online learning environment through the application of the WisCom model. 

Finally, interactivity will be provided through crowd-sourcing polls and inductive questioning about various topics.