Redesigning Course Materials with Universal Design in Mind

From Lissa Pompos —

Recently, while researching accessibility statements for course syllabi, I came across some literature on “universal design.” The concept is often credited to Ronald Mace, who was an architect and the founder of The Center for Universal Design (CUD). According to the CUD website, engaging in universal design involves “designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.” Some popular examples of universally-designed structures and products include curb cuts and ramps, closed captions, wide doors, and ergonomic handles.

While the concept of universal design originally applied to architecture and product design, it is now being used to design more accessible classroom content, particularly content for online courses. This new movement is called Universal Design for Digital Environments (UDDE) or Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Through this research, scholars have suggested that universal design benefits all students, whether they require specific disability accommodations or not.

According to the Center for Applied Special Technology, learning materials that follow universal design principles meet three criteria. They provide: 1) multiple means of representation, 2) multiple means of action and expression, and 3) multiple means of engagement. One example of providing “multiple means of representation” is presenting course material in multiple formats—as text, as audio, and as a visual. For instance, when describing the concept of “discourse communities,” instructors can assign a textual reading, explain the concept in a mini lecture, and represent the concept in a graphic organizer. An example of providing “multiple means of action and expression” is giving students options of how to demonstrate their understanding of a concept. Instructors can allow students to write a paper, create a multimedia project (e.g., video), engage in a conversation, take a test, and so on. An example of providing “multiple means of engagement” is letting students choose what readings or topics they want to study in more depth (from a list of instructor-approved choices) so that they can develop “mastery” in one subtopic of the general course based on their personal interests.

This summer, I plan on revisiting and redesigning my course materials so that I can proactively account for the various learning needs of my students. This is in line with universal design scholarship, which suggests that content accommodations should be incorporated into the beginning stages of the design process, rather than as additions to existing course content (Rowland et al., 2010). Bill Vicars (2014), a professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies at California State University, Sacramento, explains that the differences in designing something to be universally accessible and of accommodating disabilities:

Universal design tends to take place before and during the creation process, whereas accommodation of disability is all too often an afterthought. A well-designed course can be used by the maximum amount of people, including people with a disability…. If, throughout the development of a course, you’ve implemented ways for students to access the course that are convenient, flexible, and platform independent, all of a sudden you find that serving a diverse audience becomes easier. The accommodations are built-in.

Some concrete ways I’ll be (re)designing my course materials with UDL principles include: creating closed-captioned versions of all the videos I plan on showing in class (along with transcripts), formatting my syllabi so that it has text equivalents of all visual content and can be read by screenreader technology, offering project options for the presentation task I assign at the end of the semester, and reframing my “disability statement” into an “accessibility” statement. More specifically, I plan to adapt the strategies described in the Kairos Praxis Wiki titled “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements.”

Although redesigning my course materials will surely involve a large amount of time and effort, I believe that my students—including those with disabilities—will benefit from it. I’d encourage other faculty in the department to think about some small ways that they can incorporate the three principles of universal design into their course materials. If we all start with a few small changes, we can make a large difference in our students’ learning experiences.

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