How do you like to provide and receive information? What circumstances allow you to express yourself best? Our students’ learning experiences center on the exchange of information, and since they don’t typically get to design their own courses, we implicitly ask students to adapt to our communicative norms. I’m not a student, and for 40 hours each week, I work with colleagues who speak a shared language of diagrams, file naming conventions, and annotated comments.

dense email with color-coded table
Would you like to receive this email? This is how I felt most comfortable communicating with an instructor when deciding between two ways to facilitate a 4-step peer review process.

But in my everyday interactions with people outside of work, when I enter other professional domains, I am keenly aware of my communicative disadvantage, not unlike what our students sometimes face. Paying attention to these interactions gives me humility and makes me curious about how I can give students the agency to express themselves in the ways that suit them best. Let me share an anecdote from outside the office.

Recently I had to visit the doctor for a routine health issue, and he showed me a diagram of test results while using some terms I wasn’t familiar with. When I left, I thought in frustration, I would have benefited from having been provided a glossary of key terms in advance, and a reading list afterward to learn more about the implications of the diagnosis. Surely this doctor could have tailored the visit better by assessing my introductory level of knowledge on the subject and then by expanding on what I already knew, while filling in on the gaps he’d discovered. That’s the confident critique from the instructional designer in me. But of course, I was at someone else’s office this time, operating outside of my professional identity, and my expertise wasn’t being solicited. And I was pretty uncomfortable. What did this medical professional think of me? I could barely follow along with the conversation! And, more importantly, what had I gained from the (quite expensive) interaction, for which I had just taken time off from work?

Our students are in a similar bind. Time spent in our courses is time they can’t spend with their families or in the workplace – and they’re paying for it! So how can we make students’ experiences more satisfying?

I return to the UDL Principle “Provide multiple means of Action & Expression” regularly, and I think it’s worth simply reading the original text:

Learners differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, individuals with significant movement impairments (e.g., cerebral palsy), those who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (executive function disorders), those who have language barriers, and so forth approach learning tasks very differently. Some may be able to express themselves well in written text but not speech, and vice versa. It should also be recognized that action and expression require a great deal of strategy, practice, and organization, and this is another area in which learners can differ. In reality, there is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for action and expression is essential.

This UDL principle reminds me to be open to ways of demonstrating and communicating knowledge that are outside my own comfort zone. So, when you create your course’s assessment plan, consider building variety and options into assignments. How will certain activities advantage some students and not others? Consider how can you draw on your students’ funds of knowledge. Like me, who brought along a specific communication toolkit, our students’ backgrounds have prepared them to communicate in unique ways. If your course relies entirely on one type of assessment (all exams, all essays), ask yourself whether the learning outcomes require it. What evidence of learning will be acceptable to prove students’ newly developed skills? What experiences will provide that evidence? For example, you might provide students with opportunities to:

These options can expand the range of actions and expression available to your students so that more of them can communicate to you, and to themselves, that they are successful learners.

The other day, my six-year-old asked me what the word “industrious” means, and I was overcome with pride and, moments later, mild panic as I tried to answer his question and couldn’t clearly articulate the meaning of the word.

This experience ended well (thanks, Alexa), but prompted me to think about how often we use words without fully understanding what they mean. We don’t question the meaning of these words when they are used in our work or daily interactions. We may use these words ourselves on occasion–or with regularity–but when we stop and try to define these words, the proper associations and descriptions don’t come immediately to mind.

In my work as an instructional designer, it’s common to talk about universal design or inclusive design, and in many cases, to use these descriptors interchangeably, when talking about design that is usable by a wide range of people. To a lesser extent, accessibility is used in a similar way, but, I think, our shared understanding of this term is more reliable.

For this blog post, I would like to spend some time defining and distinguishing these terms and grounding them in a historical context to more fully convey the nuances and layers of meaning ascribed to each term. I’ll wrap up with some strategies for designing courses to better meet the needs of all learners.


According to the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), “Web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” It’s clear from this definition that accessibility is intended to address the needs of users with disabilities, so let’s consider disability. 

Prior to 2001, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined disability as a personal health condition. This definition placed emphasis on the individual. However, in 2001, the WHO redefined disability as a mismatched interaction between a person and their environment. This new definition places emphasis on the environment, rather than the individual. As a result, the onus is no longer only on the disabled individual to manage their health condition; rather, those who have influence over the environment need to make changes to the environment to better accommodate everyone who is interacting with it. In our case, the learning environment is the web, or more specifically, online courses. 

Unlike the other two design approaches we’ll consider, accessibility is intended to address the needs of users with disabilities. Another distinguishing feature of accessibility is that it describes an end goal. Our web content should be presented in such a way that the end result is an accessible website or technology. While this post will not go into the how of making web content accessible, here are some elements you may be familiar with: alternative text (alt tags), headings (H1, H2, H3, etc.), color contrast, captions and/or transcripts, reading order, keyboard navigation, and descriptive URLs are all examples of accessibility elements. All of these elements define what our design should look like, not how to get there.

Another distinguishing feature is that accessibility is required by law. We won’t delve into the specifics here, but it’s important to recognize that accessibility is a legal compliance issue.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

While accessibility addresses specific features of a website or online learning environment, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) takes a broader approach. UDL guidelines still emphasize accessibility, but the emphasis is not solely on making disability accommodations or complying with the law. The goal of UDL is to provide the greatest degree of access and usability for the widest range of individuals.

UDL includes a framework with three general principles, each of which includes multiple guidelines and checkpoints for actual practice. A UDL approach is structured and practical and, similar to accessibility, UDL defines an end goal: a product that is usable by the widest range of individuals possible. The framework, however, emphasizes the design, which is only one aspect of creating an online course.

To broaden our understanding of UDL, it’s important to understand that UDL emerged from universal design, which is an architectural concept. Architecture, unlike the web, is physically fixed, and as such, the emphasis is on a single design that works for everyone. 

Inclusive Design

While UDL emerged from architecture, inclusive design was “born out of digital environments,” and, while architecture is fixed, the web is flexible and ever-changing. As such, inclusive design emphasizes flexibility and process. Inclusive design is iterative. With an emphasis on iteration and process, inclusive design cannot be separated from the lived experience of actual users. In other words, if the users (in our case, students) are contributing to and evaluating the design, then we can no longer separate the design and delivery–the creation and facilitation activities.

With a focus on process, inclusive design emphasizes co-creation and frequent feedback from multiple developers as well as end users. In particular, seeking contributions from excluded communities during the entire design and evaluation process is critical to an inclusive process.

Unlike accessibility and UDL, inclusive design is focused on process and iteration. To help illustrate how we see these three design approaches working together, my colleague, Elisabeth McBrien and I created the figure below (figure 1).

Three circles. The outer circle represents inclusive design. The middle circle represents UDL. And the smallest circle represents accessibility.
Figure 1. An inclusive design process will always include UDL and accessibility as end goals.

We see accessibility compliance as core to any design. UDL goes beyond the requirements of accessibility to meet the needs of all users. In an inclusive design process, UDL and accessibility are always the end goal, but inclusive design emphasizes the importance of feedback and iteration. We can always improve and we always have more work to do.

In Practice

Now that we have a better understanding how accessibility, UDL, and inclusive design work together to contribute to a learning environment that meets the needs of all learners, how do we apply them and improve? Ecampus has many guidelines and templates that help us to meet the goals of accessibility and UDL, but how can we be more inclusive throughout this process? 

Here are some inclusive approaches that you might consider integrating into your course facilitation and teaching:

  • Build rapport with students. This is accomplished by infusing instructor presence whenever possible. Respond to Q&A questions and emails within 24-48 hours. Share resources. Deliver feedback promptly. An important element of rapport and presence is showing your personality, so consider using video to welcome students and to encourage them throughout the course.
  • Solicit feedback. One of the easiest ways to solicit feedback from your students is to use a survey. Keep surveys short and consider asking students to share in a few words how the course is going or what they find most challenging.
  • Establish clear criteria and structure. Rubrics, templates, examples, and consistent naming and organization of course materials are just a few ways to provide clarity and structure.
  • Acknowledge student contributions. Praise is an instant confidence booster. Do you have a student–particularly, an underrepresented student–who did an exceptional job on one of your assignments? Let them know. Consider sharing their work as an example–with their permission, of course.
  • Feature counter-stereotypical examples of people in your field. One common barrier to success for underrepresented students is that they don’t see themselves reflected in a particular discipline. Make sure your readings, examples, and other course materials represent a variety of identities. If there’s a lack of diversity in your field, find a way to acknowledge this to your students.
  • Promote student agency and autonomy by giving them choice, whenever possible. Providing choice and promoting agency allow students to connect your course to their own experiences and values.
  • Emphasize real world applications of course work. Often, we assume that our students understand the purpose of course activities, but this is not always the case. Sharing real world applications will help students to see the value and greater purpose of their studies.

Final Thoughts

We’ve covered a lot in this post, and I hope that we’ve come away with a better understanding of disability, accessibility, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and inclusive design. One of the most important takeaways is that inclusive design is an ongoing process of feedback and iteration. As our student body changes, so do their needs. In an upcoming blog post, Elisabeth McBrien will share more details about student needs and how you might use student personas to design more inclusively.  

As we continue the challenging–yet meaningful–work of creating welcoming online learning environments, it’s important that we have a shared understanding of what that work entails, what work we have done, and what work we have yet to do.


  1. Appert, L. et al. (2018) Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia. Columbia University: Center for Teaching and Learning.
  2. Gannon, Kevin. (2018) The case for inclusive teaching. Chronicle of Higher Education.
  3. Hogan, Kelly A. and Sathy, Viji. (2019, July 22) “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive: Advice Guide.” Chronicle of Higher Education.
  4. The inclusive design guide. Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University. CC-BY 3.0.
  5. Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom. EdX course from Columbia University.

Why Accessibility?

Online education provides access to all types of students and from all across the world. Each student is unique and has unique educational needs. To better attend to our student’s needs, we can develop course materials from the beginning to be more accessible for everyone.

What can I do?

Provide the equivalent alternative to multimedia

When creating or selecting multimedia for a course, an equivalent option should be provided for students that cannot access the multimedia. As an example, if you are creating lectures you should create a word for word transcript that can be posted or better yet, be used to create closed captions.

Provide “alternative” description for images

For students who use screen readers, adding an “ALT-TAG” on all images used in the course helps them to “see” images or skip over unnecessary decorative images efficiently. The ALT-Text should describe the educational value of that image. What they are they supposed to gain from that image and why is it essential to the course material?

Make all file types accessible

When creating or selecting documents to use in your class, you’ll want to make sure that all files are accessible to students. Using built-in accessibility feature in Word, PowerPoint and PDF documents will help to develop an accessible structure for that document.

Creating meaningful link names

All students will benefit from having a link that describes where they are going to link out to. Students who use screen readers will be especially grateful if they have a link that says “Oregon State University Library resources” instead of “click here” or simply the URL.

Use contrasting colors

Blind person frustrated because the computer says to push the red button but has no other ways of conveying which button to push.
Credit: Zero Project Conference

Dark text on light backgrounds or light text on dark backgrounds will help all students read your important information easier than, perhaps, orange text on a red background. Doing this also limits the trouble that students who are color blind to see the difference between the background and text. Remember to not use color as the only form of meaning. If you have red and green text showing students what to and not to include in a paper, make sure there are headings that also state that information. Want to know what colors and backgrounds work? Check out WebAIM’s Color Contrast Checker.

If you have any tips or questions, please leave them in the comment area below.

The instructional designers at Ecampus held a Research & Development Day recently to explore the topic of user experience (UX) design as it applies to Ecampus courses. As part of that day, fellow instructional designer, Dorothy Loftin and I explored how Canvas functions when used on Mobile Devices. Below are some findings from our testing.

Generally, we found that iPads work great as long as a student accesses the course through a browser. It was using the Canvas App (necessary on a smart phone) that presented changes and challenges in functionality. The good news is that many of these can be addressed with a few additions in course design. These additions should not significantly alter the experience for students who are using desktop and laptop computers. Today, I will present one of those strategies.

The most significant impact we experienced in using the Canvas App is navigation, how a student gets to content, activities and assessments. It can take quite a few clicks or taps to get to a specific page in Canvas using the mobile app, or to get from one page to another, and the navigation can vary depending on the device used. This may negatively impact the student user experience, distract, and generally increase cognitive load.

Navigation Strategy

One strategy to improve navigation is to provide alternate links for students to jump to commonly needed items in your course. Turns out, this can also benefit students who are on desktops or laptops.

The Home Page that I often use is immediately available for users on all devices. I have added links and buttons so students can jump directly to important sections of the course from here. This turns the Home Page into more of a landing page with quick links.

Page View in Desktop Browser Page View on iPhone
Desktop browser screen grab iPhone Screen Grab

The buttons take a student to the Module Page for a particular week. Module Pages, on the App, present students with links to all content and activities for that week. I limited the buttons to 3-across to make clicking them on a phone easier. As you probably notice, the App translates buttons into links. So, simply providing a list of text links would also work on multiple devices.

This Strategy to improve navigation can be used on any page where you want a student to be able to move quickly to new material, reducing frustration and cognitive load by making the navigational journey more immediate.

How to do it yourself resources:

By Christopher Lindberg

boardwalk2“Universal design is 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” –Ron Mace, NCSU Center for Universal Design

A fundamental of online instructional design is that learning materials should be accessible to all students. Ecampus works closely with faculty to ensure accessibility of course content for everyone. For example, since some students cannot hear an audio track on a lecture video, it’s essential that a transcript of the narration or closed captioning is provided.

Martha Smith and Gabe Merrell are OSU campus leaders in universal design and accessibility, and frequently discuss universal design for instruction with OSU faculty and staff. Martha is Director of Disability Access Services, and Gabe is Senior Accessibility Associate and Deputy ADA Coordinator in the Office of Equity and Inclusion. They note that the principles of universal design offer guidance for the design of every element of an instructor’s “toolkit,” from syllabi to presentation of content, course activities and assessments.  They point out that universal design benefits all learners. For instance, some students who can hear the audio track on a lecture video find that they learn more if they take a few extra minutes to read the companion transcript.

Gabe and Martha emphasize the importance of considering universal design up front in the development of teaching materials, instructional methods and means of assessing student learning. This is the approach the Ecampus Course Development and Training team takes with online and hybrid course development. As Ecampus serves an increasingly diverse student population, universal design enhances learning in the online classroom.

Ecampus instructional designer Melanie Kroening has created a great guide called 5 Accessibility Tips for “DIY” Course Designers that provides practical techniques for instructors to enhance the accessibility of course content.

To find out more about universal design, speak to any Ecampus instructional designer, contact Martha Smith or Gabe Merrell or visit the Center for Universal Design in Education.