When providing instruction online, it is important to consider whether the material we provide is accessible to all of our students. As the VCU Disability Support Services website points out:
“Greater numbers of students with disabilities are attending colleges and universities due to increased medical advances, growth in adaptive technology, a changing job market and greater student and family awareness regarding legislative protection. Over half of students with disabilities in colleges and universities have hidden disabilities. A growing percentage of students with hidden disabilities are first diagnosed in college.”
As faculty, you already are not physically seeing your students, so you may not be aware of a student’s disability. Students seeking accommodations are required to register with Disability Support Services, but you can be proactive to help avoid unpleasant surprises and make it easier to re-use existing material.
Universal Design for Learning
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for designing educational environments that enable all learners to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. This is accomplished by simultaneously reducing barriers to the curriculum and providing rich supports for learning.
Students come to your class with a variety of needs, skills, talents, and interests. The issue is whether your curriculum and instructional processes provide ease of access or barriers and roadblocks. UDL attempts to address this issue by focusing in both curriculum and learning processes.
To improve educational outcomes for diverse learners, the National Universal Design for Learning Task Force suggest applying the following principles to the development of goals, instructional methods, classroom materials and assessments.
- Provide multiple and flexible methods of presentation to give students with diverse learning styles various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
- Provide multiple and flexible means of expression to provide diverse students with alternatives for demonstrating what they have learned, and
- Provide multiple and flexible means of engagement to tap into diverse learners' interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.
The term “universal design” is borrowed from the movement in architecture and product development that calls for curb cuts, automatic doors, video captioning, speakerphones, and other features to accommodate a vast variety of users, including those with disabilities. The National Task Force noted that all such flexible designs are less expensive and cumbersome than costly retrofits, and that, in fact, everyone benefits from universal design features, as anyone who has watched video with captions in a busy gym or airport can attest.
Students differ from one another in many ways and present unique learning needs in the classroom setting, yet high standards are important for all students. By incorporating supports for particular students, it is possible to improve learning experiences for everyone, without the need for specialized adaptations down the line. For example, captioned video is of great help to Deaf students—but is also beneficial to students who are learning English, students who are struggling readers, students with attention deficits, and even students working in a noisy classroom.
The advent of digital multimedia, adaptive technologies, the Read-Write-Web, and other advancements make it possible on a broad scale to individualize education for individual students. Developers and practitioners of UDL apply the inherent flexibility of digital media to individualize educational goals, classroom materials, instructional methods and assessments. Thus, each student has an appropriate point-of-entry into the curriculum—and a pathway towards attainment of educational goals.
Accessibility in Distance Education: A Resource for Faculty in Online Teaching
This University of Maryland web site focuses on helping faculty develop accessible online learning materials for people with disabilities. It is divided into five major sections, targeting common accessibility questions:
- What does the word "accessibility" mean? (What is Accessibility?)
- What disability laws should I know about if I teach online? (Legal Issues)
- What do I need to consider if I have a student with a disability in my online course? (Understanding Disabilities)
- How do I make my Web site accessible to everyone, including students with disabilities? (How-To)
- What does an accessible Web site look like? Does it have to be text based? (Best Practices)
The University of Maryland also provides some excellent tips in Effective Practices in Online Teaching: Accessibility. Of particular note is its coverage of the use of color in web material.