Week 3: Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (Winter 2023 Webster)


Accessibility and universal design for learning (UDL) are two approaches to course design that are often conflated by instructors. Accessibility is typically focused on specific materials or media genres at hand. Universal design for learning is a design philosophy that permeates curriculum and course projects.

The layout of this course has made it logical to develop accessible media in the earlier weeks that introduce each media genre. This week, therefore, we will focus on accessibility principles for online learning at a platform, site, and page level, and on UDL.

UDL differs from accessibility in two significant ways. First, it is aimed at the providing options over a significant chunk of learning; it is not a comprehensive system for meeting accessibility needs or individual accommodations for all elements of a unit of learning. Second, it strives to provide options that support a wide range of abilities and preferences among learners (including many who would use accessibility or accommodation options), but it is not necessarily comprehensive. For example, a well-designed unit of learning that incorporates UDL principles will already provide some support for a student without vision, but there may still be accessibility issues. Similarly, a unit of learning could be effectively accessible (learners with a wide range of abilities could access the materials) but not lead to student learning. In online learning, accessibility is a technical approach to website presentation and specific media pieces, while UDL is a design approach.

Learning Outcomes

When you have completed this week, you should be able to:

  • Implement accessibility and UDL principles in educational media.

Topic 1: Accessibility

You’ve already gained some experience designing accessibility into media you have produced. In this unit you can now explore some more macro-level approaches to accessibility. This unit includes important elements that don’t relate directly to online media but to any lesson or course. As this course resides within a program dedicated to online teaching and learning, this topic will concentrate on the online environment, but the principles explored will apply in any teaching and learning environment.

Any form of content used for learning has advantages in some situations and shortcomings in others. This relates to different abilities among learners, but also relates to the different circumstances that all learners find themselves in. Closed captioning on a video allows a hearing-impaired student to follow the dialogue, but it also benefits the student studying after their baby is asleep.

This topic will be discussed in each week we learn about media in this course, but we will introduce the basic concepts here. First some definitions are needed. Accessibility, accommodation, and universal design for learning are often confused, and in reality there can be some overlap. For the purpose of this course, I’ve created these definitions as versions that work for educators. In this course we will focus on accessibility and universal design for learning, two strategies that are proactive.

Accessibility: The degree to which learning materials are usable by students with different abilities and situations, both permanent and temporary. Accessibility is proactive. See the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for principles such as: perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.

Accommodation: The alteration, adaptation, or duplication of learning materials to support the learning of a specific student. Accommodation is reactive.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL): The design of a course meets the UDL principles of multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement. UDL supports all learners, but it may not be sufficient for some students with specific abilities. UDL is proactive.

POUR is a set of accessibility principles against which online learning resources can be measured. POUR stands for:

  • Perceivable: Can materials be observed, heard or seen by learners?
  • Operable: Can learners interact with the site as intended?
  • Understandable: Is the site and associated media comprehendible by learners?
  • Robust: Does the site work across platforms (Windows and Mac, tablets or phones) and is it usable by assistive technologies like screen readers?

Keyboard navigation is an important accessibility feature for online course sites or learning materials. It supports learners with vision and mobility issues but it can also be more convenient for other users in different situations. In the first activity you will get a chance to read about keyboard navigation and try it out for yourself.

You may find many barriers preventing you and your institution from achieving a desired level of accessibility. These can be financial constraints, policy issues, staff time and expertise, or others. An important tool in measuring where you are on the road to accessibility is an accessibility checklist. You will see some here, but they are unique to an institution and/or an instructor. You may have lofty goals for accessibility after completing this unit but, as with all things, priorities must be set and your initial goals for accessibility may reflect the typical range of your student abilities and the resources presently available. The act of developing an accessibility checklist forces you to examine your teaching environment and how the key learning experiences you support could be experienced by a range of students.

Activity 1: Read and Apply

Read Hyatt’s (2012) post “The POUR Principles: The Starting Point for Creating Accessible Blogs” about the POUR principles for accessibility on her Blog Accessibility site.

We also recommend her post “Surf a GB with Glenda’s Thumb” (2012) to better understand her experiences using a computer to access the Web. Glenda Hyatt now blogs at Do It Myself Blog.


As you read, consider the learning management system or web-based platform you use in your teaching. Reflect on how it matches with the four key principles.

Next, review this Accessibility Checklist from Cullipher (2017), and consider these items against your chosen platform.

Finally, read the introductory paragraphs and the section titled “Test a Website’s Keyboard Accessibility” on the Keyboard-Only Navigation for Improved Accessibility resource from the Nielsen Norman Group (2014). Try using keyboard-only navigation on your platform.

Activity 2: Measuring Accessibility

Complete ONE of the following tasks:

Task 1: Write a short portfolio post on where your platform meets or falls short of accessibility guidelines. Remember that in many instances this will reflect decisions made at your institution, but there are also practices you could adopt. There are some elements (like using alt text) that you won’t be able to evaluate without administrator access. In your blog post, comment on what would be the most effective change you, your institution, or the platform provider could make to support accessibility.

Task 2: Develop an accessibility checklist to use at your institution. It should reflect the types of materials you use and the learning activities your students undertake. The accessibility checklist should be realistic in the expectations from your institution. It should check for things that you could and should be doing for your students now. Post your accessibility checklist as a portfolio post, and try it against a unit or a course in your teaching practice.


If you would like to read more, see Accessibility vs. Accommodation (University of Minnesota, n.d.) and Universal Design for Learning and Digital Accessibility: Compatible Partners or a Conflicted Marriage? (Ableser & Moore, 2018).


Topic 2: Universal Design for Learning

Universal design for learning (UDL) is based on providing options for learners across a unit, course or curriculum, specifically UDL intends to:

  • Provide multiple means of engagement.
  • Provide multiple means of representation.
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression.

There are many online resources to support your adoption of UDL, and some of them are linked here or in the required and optional resources. Included with the optional readings is a recent literature review on research into the effectiveness of UDL.

The key element to UDL is “design”. This set of principles is intended to inform the design of learning. It can be applied after the fact, but it will always involve the design of learning in addition to the development of components that support options for the widest range of learners.

Activity 3: Integrating UDL

Watch the YouTube video UDL: Principles and Practice (2010) from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, and review The UDL Guidelines (2018) from CAST. Read the main headings in this document and scan the rest.

Then read either Redford (2018) When It Comes to Universal Design for Learning, Don’t Wait to Be an Expert (K–12 focus) or Gronneberg and Johnston (2015) 7 Things You Should Know About Universal Design for Learning (post-secondary focus), depending on which is most relevant to your teaching context (or read both if you wish).

Once you have a good handle on universal design for learning, develop a short summary (no more than 250 words) based on your own teaching experience or on an educational project in which you have been involved.

The summary could include a short description of your teaching context including:

  • Educational level
  • Age and other demographic info
  • Range of abilities
  • Subject area
  • Classroom (with web-based components), blended or online
  • Class size
  • Description of any learning challenges present

Post your summary to your portfolio, and add a comment to your own post describing one component from the UDL guidelines that could be integrated into your teaching to improve learning. Visit the posts from at least two fellow students and offer your own recommendations on how UDL might support learning in their institution.

References and Resources

Required Readings and Resources

CAST. (2018). The UDL guidelines (version 2.2).

Gronneberg, J., & Johnston, S. (2015, April 6). 7 things you should know about universal design for learning [Brief]. Educause Learning Initiative.

Hyatt, G. W. (2012, January 3). The POUR principles: The starting point for creating accessible blogs. Blog Accessibility.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2010, March 17). UDL: Principles and practice [Video]. YouTube.

Nielsen Norman Group. (2014, April 6). Keyboard-only navigation for improved accessibility.

Microassist. Accessibility checklist: 10 critical areas to evaluate for website accessibility. Digital Accessibility Digest.

Redford, K. (2018, January 24). When it comes to universal design for learning, don’t wait to be an expert. Education Week Teacher.

Optional Readings and Resources

Alberta Education. (2015, January 30). Making sense of universal design for learning [Video]. YouTube.

CAST. (2010, January 6). UDL at a glance [Video]. YouTube.

CAST. (2010, November 22). UDL guidelines structure [Video]. YouTube.

CAST. (2018, October 3). UDL stories from the field [Video]. YouTube.
https://youtu.be/spv1G_WSObE (three K-12 UDL implementation stories)

Cullipher, V. (2017, June 7). Digital accessibility checklist: 10 critical elements to evaluate for website accessibility. Digital Accessibility Digest.

Hyatt, G. W. (2012, September 14). Surf a GB with Glenda’s thumb. Blog Accessibility.

Jaiswal, C. (2018). Alt text tester [Chrome browser extension]. Chrome Web Store.

Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST.
http://udltheorypractice.cast.org/ (free registration required)

Ok, M. W., Rao, K., Bryant, B. R., & McDougall, D. (2017). Universal design for learning in pre-K to grade 12 classrooms: A systematic review of research. Exceptionality, 25(2), 116–138.
https://doi.org/10.1080/09362835.2016.1196450 access from course Moodle site

Olander, L. (2018, February 21). Case studies in UDL [Video]. YouTube.

Olander, L. (2018, December 30). UDL for teachers [Video playlist]. YouTube.

Rose, D., & Johnson, M. (2017, May). Universal design for learning (UDL) & accessibility in K–12 education: Designing learning to serve all students [Webinar]. iNACOL.
https://youtu.be/otqGZsq907w  (K-12 focus)

WebAIM: Utah State University. (2018, November 20). Keyboard accessibility.

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