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How Designing Accessible Curriculum For All Can Help Make Online Learning More Equitable

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As the dust settles from emergency distance learning, schools now have the summer to reckon with what worked and what must change as they grapple with the uncertainty of the next academic year. Whatever the fate of online learning, the past months have exposed some glaring disparities in access to education and technology, while families with children who have disabilities and special needs experienced significant challenges even when technology was available. Consequently, many parents have been left feeling helpless, guilty and defeated by their inability to simulate school at home.

Some educators who want to make online learning more engaging and accessible are exploring the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. UDL – originally developed by researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in collaboration with Harvard University – supports special education students, but its flexibility, technology guidelines and aim to individualize learning are best practices that can serve every student.

“While UDL can benefit students with disabilities, it’s a way of thinking about how to make instruction accessible for all,” said Kavita Rao, a professor in the department of special education at the University of Hawai‘i. “The beauty of UDL is that it addresses ‘learner variability’, which is the norm in our classrooms.”

A key premise of UDL is that there is no “average learner.” Every learner has a unique set of characteristics – including strengths, preferences and learning needs – that may change or evolve in varied contexts. Whether deployed in a classroom or online, UDL focuses on integrating flexible pathways to learning that can address learner variability.


But what does this look like in practice, and how feasible is it for educators to implement the framework?

Online Class Design

Unsurprisingly, the way in which an online class is designed can significantly impact how learners engage with and process the instructional material. Some online lessons can be text heavy, require high reading proficiency and offer narrow assessment options. Also, many rely on prepackaged content such as Khan Academy or Study Island.

“These content management systems were created to follow specific standards and give specific lessons,” said Sean Smith, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas. “And those are the areas that are fraught with barriers for a lot of our learners with disabilities.” Teachers and parents should identify where the barriers are in varied curriculum offerings and build in supports as needed.

More than 14 percent of students enrolled in U.S. schools receive special education services, but the classroom protocols designed to accommodate specific needs do not cleanly translate to online delivery. For example, children who are non-verbal can have trouble communicating online without adequate technology, while those with processing issues may struggle to internalize instructions without close guidance. 

Online learning can also make demands on executive function, a set of cognitive processes that help kids prioritize, organize, maintain attention, regulate behavior, and control distractions. Many students struggle with executive function, but it can be particularly challenging for kids with special needs and, in the absence of established classroom routines, the onus to assist falls on parents, many of whom are overwhelmed and/or working.

“One of the challenges at the elementary and middle school level has been the need for the parent or the adult to become a learning coach,” said Smith. “The executive function skills that are required for that level of independence in online learning are all challenges for students. The role of the adult at home has been vital to success, and we’ve found that if the parent is not available, students tend to leave the online environment.”

Universal Design for Online Learning

The focus of UDL is to reduce barriers in curriculum and make instruction engaging and accessible to all learners, according to Rao. “The UDL framework provides a structure to think about how you can design activities and assignments that integrate supports for students.”

UDL originates in the universal design movement in architecture that strove to make buildings and built environments accessible to all people. Similarly, its curricular incarnation provides a series of guidelines to help educators design accessible learning conditions. 

“The guidelines focus on ways to intentionally and proactively design learning environments and instruction, building in flexibility, supports and scaffolding that can help all learners succeed,” said Rao.

By “supports” Rao means a flexible repertoire of tools and strategies adapted to accommodate a range of learners. The UDL guidelines organize supports according to three umbrella categories: representation, which assists learners by presenting information in diverse multisensory formats; action and expression, which lets kids interact and respond to what they’ve learned in a variety of ways; and engagement, which is achieved by providing students with options and approaches which are relevant to their interests.

Multimodality is the lynchpin of the UDL approach. Written instructions might also be delivered as video, audio or as a series of images. Similarly, the framework encourages offering a variety of options by which students can respond to what they learn, whether they create comics, podcasts, short videos, infographics or voice-to-text dictations. Finally, the framework supports executive function by delivering information in manageable “chunks,” using visual checklists, auditory prompts and providing regular feedback. This way, learners are empowered to access and process information in a way that works for them.

In addition to the instructional benefits, some educators report that UDL helps better connect them to their students. “Teachers who provide feedback, participate in activities and use various ways to explain, approach or deliver instruction will motivate students and show them you care: using a meme to evoke humor that relates to the topic, videos that explain a definition, being available for discussion via virtual meetings, or using a Tik-Tok video to deliver instruction,” said Jonah Nakaza-Koizumi, a PhD candidate and special education teacher at Roosevelt High School in Honolulu.

Originally designed for traditional in-person classroom settings, UDL’s reliance on multimedia and technology translates well to online delivery.

“In some cases, it can be easier to implement UDL online because there are many different digital tools that can easily be built into the framework of the course that may be harder to integrate in a face-to-face setting,” said Cary Torres, who instructs on UDL at Kapi’Olani Community College. Torres found that applying UDL online can benefit students who struggle in face-to-face classes.

“Providing multiple means of action and expression with digital tools has helped many of my students who are language learners and students who have anxiety,” said Torres. “I have used online text-based discussion boards and Flipgrid videos and noticed that students who often do not participate much in class discussions provide much more detailed and thoughtful contributions and feedback.”

However, the shift online is not without obstacles. “Moving from a classroom environment to an online environment can be a challenge because there are more constraints,” said Nakaza-Koizumi. “The teacher has to be very meticulous and clear of what he or she is posting, asking, and requiring of the student. This is not to say it isn’t the same in a classroom, but there is and can be a lot more fluidity in design in a classroom.” 

To support the integration of UDL in online learning, professors Rao, Smith and Torres launched School Virtually, an open website that curates an array of free tools with corresponding guidelines to support educators and parents who seek to implement the framework.

Designing for Success: Start Small and Iterate

The prospect of integrating UDL for the first time can be daunting. Torres recommends a gradual approach for educators to ease into it according to their level of comfort. 

“When people first look at the guidelines, they see the 31 checkpoints and sometimes feel overwhelmed thinking that they are supposed to implement all of them in every lesson,” said Torres. “If they first think about what barriers they want to reduce, they can then look at the guidelines like a menu that they can choose from to meet their needs. I also advise teachers to start small.  As they successfully use UDL, they can then build in more and more supports in subsequent lessons, but if they try to do everything at once, they may feel overwhelmed and give up. The more you use UDL, the more these ideas will naturally come to you as you are designing lessons, and it will become easier to redesign or revise curriculum and instruction little by little.”

As with any design process, developing a UDL curriculum is an iterative cycle of implementation, reflection, and adjustment, and it can be integrated during the lesson planning process.

“In my courses, I teach students to use the UDL Design Cycle, which is essentially just a systematic step-by-step process to start with your goals, consider barriers and students’ preferences/needs, and then develop assessments and methods that can reduce barriers and take students’ preferences into account. This gives teachers a way to take the UDL framework and apply it to a design thinking process,” said Rao.

It is impossible to predict the extent to which online learning will play into the immediate future of education, but what is clear is that further efforts must aim for inclusivity in design and deployment. Universal Design for Learning offers accessibility for special education students and, perhaps even more importantly, it unfolds a vision of education, whether online or in the classroom, which supports all learners to thrive.

Universal Design for All

As Rao points out, UDL improves the quality of instruction for special needs students, but its flexibility and adaptability is a boon to any learning environment. High school teacher Robin Dazzeo learned about UDL as part of her training in special education, but she now integrates the framework in her regular sophomore English classes.

“UDL is a natural fit for me when designing, planning, and implementing lessons, both in our face-to-face curriculum and now as we are teaching remotely. It is so important to consider the ways in which each learner can access the curriculum and demonstrate mastery before actually teaching the lesson. I’m thankful for my [special education] background, which makes it second nature to adapt and modify my lessons to meet the needs of all of my students as I’m going along rather than wait to see who is struggling after instruction.”

Additionally, the UDL framework provides a cohesive foundation by which to integrate technology for learning. “It facilitates the mind-shift needed for teachers to adopt new technologies and practices. UDL provides the rationale frame for how these new tools or approaches help students. It creates links between various options for student work, and how that work aligns with their unique needs and preferences,” said Jon Pennington, an Instructional Technology Specialist at an independent K12 school.


This story is part of a MindShift series that explores solutions for returning to school during the COVID19 pandemic, supported in part by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. MindShift retains sole editorial control over all content. 

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