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Why you should apply Universal Design for Learning in online courses

Imagine that you want to run a marathon. You need comfortable shoes to support a proper running form, so you go into the store to find the perfect pair. However, the store only carries a men’s size 10.5 with no extra cushioning. They’re the same model, color and have the same manufacturer!

In the real world, you can’t run a marathon in ill-fitting shoes. That’s why the thought of having only one choice is ludicrous.

Outside of specialized stores, the one-size-fits-all model can be found everywhere around us. Unfortunately, this also applies to education. Each person is different, and they learn at different paces through different strategies and mediums.

When we ignore these differences and assume that everyone can interact with our learning content just fine, we encounter some unwanted side effects. For example, we might have unengaged learners who find it challenging to navigate courses because they can’t overcome the learning barriers that online courses unintentionally have. In a worst-case scenario, learners can’t access the material since it doesn’t accommodate their needs. In addition, we also have language or cultural barriers to address.

This is where practice (creating courses for a large audience) meets education science. Because we want the best of the best for our courses, we look at what the research has to say. A perfect example is Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a principle that can help you transform the way you teach online and gain more learners.

Read on to find out how!

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

UDL is a framework based on scientific insights into how people learn. It can help all instructors optimize their teaching practices, and it also works well with online learning.

Architect and disability advocate Ronald Mace coined the term universal design to describe a way to design objects and products for everyone, regardless of their gender, age, or ability. An architect’s job is to find out what is the most accessible design for buildings, but there are many things that you can learn from them as a course creator.

One particular finding stands out: a design is of much lower quality for everyone whenever you design for the average person. In other words:

Instead of designing for the average person, designing for the outliers, the people who don’t fit the mold, is the key to accessibility.

That is also known as the myth of the average, and it doesn’t apply just to designing seats or making sure that there are flat, ground-level entrances to buildings; it also applies to online course design.

Think about it. In many cases, we design with a learner type in mind, which fits our buyer persona and best represents the average learner. However, the type fits only a percentage of potential learners because the truth is that the average learner doesn’t exist. There are many types of learners with many different preferences and needs.

Read more: The entrepreneur’s guide to buyer personas for online courses [Part 1]

On the one hand, you have people with disabilities left out if your course design doesn’t accommodate their needs. On the other hand, all learners can benefit from a more accessible course design since some prefer written content as that’s how they absorb information. Then, some need to visualize the content through images and videos. Or, some learners have common eyesight issues, which make it hard to read learning content on-screen every day, so they need to be able to listen to lessons. That would be me!

The 3 Universal Design for Learning principles course creators should know

People seek out online courses because they offer more flexibility than formal education. As such, your job is to make sure that there are no barriers to learning that could put them off.

Using UDL opens up a world of possibilities for designing better courses based on three major principles: engagement, representation, and action. Here’s what each of them does:

  1. Multiple means of Engagement: motivated learners

    Providing multiple means of engagement answers the question of WHY they should learn. It corresponds to the affective networks since motivation is highly related to our emotional side.

    Emotions play a critical role in learning. For example, you don’t learn and remember things just as well on an empty stomach or when you’re happy or sad. Some learners are more likely to see learning as a challenge, and others see it as a threat. Indeed, some prefer to take the course with minimal interactions, while others need to know that someone else is there with them, either the instructor or other learners.

    Ideally, you want to offer something for everyone. Some people are delighted by novelty and actively seek it, while others stay away from it and stick to a routine. That’s why providing a choice in how they want to navigate the course is essential.

    To engage learners, you have three major directions: recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence, and self-regulation.

    Some examples of doing this in courses include:

    • Use the power of community: groups, forums, chats, these are all things that learners can choose to participate in if they want to;
    • Individual choice: for example, they can take modules in any order that they wish to or follow a different scenario than other users to complete the course;
    • Make your examples relevant and authentic: relate to the learners’ individual goals and give examples that include everyone, not just a particular learner (examples can reflect their ethnicity, age, gender, social status, etc.);
    • Focus on the learning goals: send automatic reminders to come back to the course whenever learners are inactive. Make sure to remind them often of their learning goals and why they should complete short-term objectives (such as finishing a whole module) to reach long-term ones (become better at what they do).

    Read more: 9 Tips on how to build a learning community using LMS tools

  2. Multiple means of Representation: knowledgeable learners

    Providing multiple means of representation answers the question of WHAT they should learn? It’s all in the recognition networks related to perception, communication, and executive functions (organizing, planning, etc.).

    Each person perceives things differently, and as such, they process information differently. A deaf person will not be able to access your videos if you don’t add captions. A blind person will not take your course if you don’t optimize the content for a screen reader. However, some people simply learn better when they watch a video instead of reading something. In the same way, if you want to attract learners from different countries or even states, making references to your particular culture may confuse them more than help.

    To create an optimal learning environment, you have to take perception, language and symbols, and comprehension into account.

    Here are some examples:

    • Take down learning barriers: make sure that everything is clear for everyone. For example, in a cooking course, something as simple as offering the recipe in metric and imperial measurements makes a big difference.
    • Clarify vocabulary and symbols: create course glossary to offer definitions for unfamiliar terms and even acronyms, explain symbols (if you are using them), and offer alternative text descriptions;
    • Offer multiple media: you could have a written content page and also embed an audio file. Alternatively, you could offer written content and a video. They all deal with the same subject; it’s the medium that differs.
  3. Multiple means of Action & Expression: goal-oriented learners

    Providing multiple means of action and expression is all about HOW they learn. This requires learners to use their strategic networks to complete a course.

    As we’ve seen so far, not all learners can make the most out of their online learning experience. Some have limited mobility, others have limited executive function skills, and others have learning disabilities. Providing different ways of navigating the course and even ways to assess what they’ve learned is the way to go.

    Moreover, taking an online course requires commitment and independent learning skills, which course creators can encourage with a bit of help and guidance.

    This part comprises physical action, expression and communication, and executive functions.

    Here are a few ideas:

    • Guide to accessibility tools: ensure that learners know how to use the LMS or other learning platform’s accessibility tools. A quick guide at the beginning is enough to teach them to use the high contrast theme, the skip to content shortcuts, and more. Tell them exactly why your content is accessible.
    • Multiple problem-solving methods: show many ways of solving problems related to your subject and suggest alternatives in terms of equipment or materials used, etc. This is especially important if you want to make sure that your course is budget-friendly and equitable.
    • Support planning: to make it less overwhelming for your learners, show them a simple way to plan their learning schedule, day by day, weekly, or even monthly.

    Read more: How knowledge entrepreneurs design accessible e-learning content

All in all

I hope that we managed to bust the myth of the average learner once and for all. We’ve also seen how Universal Design for Learning relates to online course creation and how each course entrepreneur can make their courses accessible. Finally, to attract a larger audience, provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression.