A Journey Through the Development of Online Environments: Putting UDL Theory into Practice

A Journey Through the Development of Online Environments: Putting UDL Theory into Practice

Christopher P. Ostrowski, Jennifer Lock, S. Laurie Hill, Luciano da Rosa dos Santos, Noha F. Altowairiki, Carol Johnson
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1851-8.ch010
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As higher education institutions move toward offering more online courses, they need to carefully consider how the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) should be integrated into the design and development of the online environments so to better meet the needs of all learners. An example of how this can occur is illustrated in the chapter with a design project that used principles of UDL in the creation of online environments for field experience courses at one Canadian university. The design team shares the journey of developing their understanding of UDL and applying these principles when creating online environments for both students and instructors. The provision of educational developmental opportunities for instructors using various strategies is also highlighted. The chapter concludes with three recommendations for future research.
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Contemporary higher education institutions have an increasingly diverse student population. Instructors need to take into account diverse learning needs when designing courses and learning tasks. Adding to this complexity, more face-to-face courses are being transitioned to blended or online learning environments. As instructors confront the challenges of transforming their teaching from face-to-face to online, they have additional opportunities to take advantage of new digital technologies and pedagogies to better meet students’ learning needs.

This chapter shares the journey of a team of instructors and graduate students who studied and implemented Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in the design of online learning environments for field experience (practicum) courses. The project described provided the design team with an opportunity to develop their understanding and to apply the principles of UDL. Further, the way in which UDL guided the design of the online environments and the educational development of the field experience instructors is examined. The chapter concludes with recommendations for future research focused on using UDL for designing online environments and supporting instructors’ educational development. The objectives of this chapter are the following:

  • To provide an overview of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

  • To describe how a team developed their knowledge and skills to design and develop online environments using principles of UDL.

  • To share strategies used by the team to support instructors in the use of the online environments.

  • To provide recommendations for future research.



There is a growing trend in higher education institutions to offer online and blended learning. With the demand for more flexible learning, institutions can take advantage of the affordances of multimedia, social media, interactive websites, and informal online learning opportunities (e.g., YouTube, Lynda, iTunes U) in developing robust learning within technology-enhanced environments (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2014). Furthermore, since learning is both an individual and a social process (Oztok, Zingaro, Makos, Brett, & Hewitt, 2015), there is an opportunity to create learning experiences that foster a community of learners as well as nurturing student engagement (He, 2013). With the development of rich online and blended environments, careful planning must be given to both the pedagogical and technological components to meet the learning needs of all students.

To meet the diverse needs of students with varying experiences and expertise, abilities, and approaches to learning, care must be taken in the design of learning tasks, courses, and programs to incorporate flexibility (Scott, Mcguire, & Shaw, 2003). One framework that provides a comprehensive approach to designing learning to meet the needs of students using multiple approaches and multimedia is Universal Design for Learning (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). Founded on neuroscience and educational research, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework can help instructors to design for diverse learning needs and enhance learning experiences for all students (Mangiatordi & Serenelli, 2013).

Appropriate educational development opportunities need to be provided for instructors to develop knowledge and skills with regard to designing learning using the UDL framework. They need to have an understanding of the principles of UDL and what that looks like in practice in support of student learning. Further, instructors will need to learn how to implement the components of UDL in both the design and facilitation of learning in technology-enhanced learning environments (e.g., online).

In the following sections, the authors provide a brief overview of four areas related to online learning and UDL. First, a brief description of current trends in online learning within higher education contexts is provided. Second, a description of UDL and its three principles are shared as an overview of the framework. Third, the manner in which UDL is used in online environments is discussed. Fourth, educational development for teaching online, along with integrating UDL in online learning is examined.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Educational Development: “All the work that is done systematically to help faculty members to do their best to foster student learning” ( Knight & Wilcox, 1998 , p. 98).

Online Learning: “[R]efers to a learner's interaction with content and/or people via the Internet for the purpose of learning. The learning may be part of a formal course or program or simply something learners pursue for their own interests” ( Means, Bakia, & Murphy, 2014 , p. 6).

Community Of Practice: A group of people who share a common interest or concern and improve their practice through regular interaction ( Wenger, 1998 ).

Universal Design for Learning: “Universal design for learning (UDL) is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn” ( CAST, 2015 ).

Field Experience: Practicum placement in a K-12 school context with a mentor teacher.

Coaching: A supportive learning experience wherein a coach has technological and pedagogical knowledge that is provided to the learner during a practical one-to-one teaching session.

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