Universally Designing in Universal Chaos

Father of two tries to work at computer while little girls place stuffed animals on his head and other one tries to do homework

As we all experienced, 2020 turned higher education on its head while spinning and trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube.  I was lucky enough to have experience with online teaching and hybrid teaching, but my personal turmoil and childcare challenges resulted in sheer panic at the upcoming semester.  Having a background in special education, I was always an advocate for universal design for learning (UDL).  Planning our courses to be accessible to any student that might enroll can improve the learning experience for all students, especially those with learning challenges.  I lived UDL by choice before 2020, now I need UDL to survive… and so do my students. 

UDL focuses on proactively embedding multiple opportunities for students to learn material, engage with the course, and express their learning (CAST 2020).  Keeping UDL at the forefront of my course design during the pandemic has provided much needed stability and consistency within my courses. I keep the following three guidelines in my course planning, and I have seen significant benefits within my courses. 

1. Remaining predictable and true to myself

Student engagement can be a significant challenge in online courses, especially for students who didn’t sign up for a program with fully online courses (all of mine!).  At the beginning of the semester, establishing a very clear routine within a course can be hugely beneficial, especially in this time of uncertainty.  I create weekly course plans (Boettcher and Conrad 2016) sent through our learning management system with specific expectations for the week.  My goal is to keep the course expectations and requirements organized for students (and myself).  Another priority is to keep my personality, teaching style, and passion alive in a fully online format.  One of the ways my personality permeates my course is through the weekly announcements. 

On the day of our class, I submit an announcement with explicit instructions on how we are meeting (asynchronous/synchronous), topics covered for the week, and assignment expectations.  This strategy enhances students’ ability to manage information and resources, a component of multiple means of representation in the UDL framework (CAST 2020).  The image below includes an example of a weekly announcement.  The recipe I use for my announcements is:  

  • a personal message/meme 
  • reminder of class meeting method 
  • tasks for the week

These announcements are sent via the learning management platform (we use Blackboard).  Students are told at the beginning of the semester that announcements will be utilized to introduce weekly content.  These announcements serve initially as executive functioning supports to organize the weekly topics and tasks for students.  Secondarily they convey my personality to maintain my teaching and social presence within the online course (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer 2000). 

2. Keeping consistency

Consistency in organization and presentation has been indispensable in my online courses.  Using the same frame to present the weekly content and activities allows me to focus my student interactions on teaching content vs course navigation challenges.  My teaching presence (Garrison and Arbaugh 2007) is displayed through the systematic directions and steps to engage with the content each week.  I use visual cues as multiple means of representation for directional supports within the course.  For example, I have a home symbol for the weekly home page and arrow buttons linking to the next step of content.  I also use a speaker symbol to remind students they can use a text to speech tool to listen to the text.  UDL emphasizes the use of multiple methods to engage with content and to promote understanding (CAST 2020).  Although the activities, resources, and learning goals change each week, the format in which they are presented remain uniform.   

This frame also keeps me organized when building my asynchronous classes for students to complete.  I use a blank template to add the weekly content in each week.  The outline below displays an example of my consistent weekly frame added in our learning management system. 

  • Weekly learning goals 
  • Recording of me reviewing weekly content 
  • Specific Steps for Completion 
  • Step 1 folder 
  • Step 2 folder 
  • Step 3 folder 
  • Homework for next class 

Using this template allows me to establish system and transparency as I build my online content, which is vital to student navigation (Nilson and Goodson 2018).  At the beginning of the pandemic I found myself clouded by stress and misguided by worry when sitting to develop content; never previously experiencing this in my teaching.  The implementation of this framework gives me a clear routine and allows me to ensure my content is focused on student learning and course outcomes, which can be so easily shrouded by “online busy work.”  To avoid the creation of superficial online work, as I plan each activity, I align it to the course and weekly learning outcomes.  This alignment is essential to prioritizing deep engagement with the essential learning material. 

3. Allowing options

Instilling student choice within my course structure enhances student engagement and their ability to express learning more fluidly (CAST 2020).  Especially during this pandemic, students have frequently expressed the “lack of control” they have felt in their personal and professional lives, which is a common feeling in the midst of a pandemic (Usher, Durkin, and Bhullar 2020).  Designing at least one opportunity for individual choice within each asynchronous class has enhanced student engagement and empowerment in courses.   

For example, one way I incorporate student choice is during note taking.  I use active note taking as a formative assessment to gather evidence on my students’ learning process throughout the course (Khan et al. 2017).  An emoji is added as a symbol to indicate when students need to respond to a question for submission.  In addition to the emoji😃, I increase the size of the question and it is bolded and italicized.  I allow students to choose their method of response: typed, handwritten, audio, or video.  I have established a video-based discussion board through FlipGrid (www.flipgrid.com) for the course where students can post reflections for any asynchronous notes.  Many students have expressed relief that they can handwrite their notes and attach pictures instead of typing. This flexibility relays the message to my students that I value their unique learning preferences as adult learners.  Adding in this consideration of “What are my students choosing?” during my design process prioritizes UDL within my course and helps contribute to my student engagement.  Student choice also respects the adult learner to establish control in their learning experience, especially when they have been involuntarily forced into online learning. 

In closing…

During these times of uncertainty, having a plan, routine, and controlling what we can is vital.  Although we are living (and learning) in unprecedented times, the reality is our students still need to learn and we are expected to facilitate that learning.  How we design that experience is crucial to positive outcomes.  I know each week and activity I plan isn’t perfect… heck… some have failed, but that is how I grow.  Reflecting back on what worked, what didn’t, and how to adjust has helped me move forward.  Gathering my students’ feedback on their learning or aspects of activities that worked helps me to continually improve in my course design.    

Establishing these design routines grounded in UDL allow for consistency and stability for me and my students.  Who knows what new challenges the upcoming semesters will bring, but keeping UDL as a frame to design learning will help my teaching improve and focus on the essentials.  

Dr. Lauren Tucker is an assistant professor and coordinator of the assistive technology graduate program at Southern Connecticut State University. She has a dual certification in special and regular education with over 10 years in the field.  Dr. Tucker has expertise in assistive technology, universal design for learning, online learning, and technology implementation.  She supports teachers, students, and individuals in appropriate consideration, selection, and implementation of tools to increase student learning.  In addition to her work with assistive technology, Dr. Tucker passionately promotes universal design for learning to enhance learning for all individuals. Her research focuses on technology integration, teacher learning, assistive technology for accommodations, and implementing communication and visual supports in community experiences, specifically the theatre. 


Boettcher, J. V., and R. M. Conrad. 2016. The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips. John Wiley & Sons. 

CAST. 2020. “About Universal Design for Learning.” 2020. 

Garrison, D. Randy, and J. B. Arbaugh. 2007. “Researching the Community of Inquiry Framework: Review, Issues, and Future Directions.” Internet and Higher Education 10 (3): 157–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2007.04.001. 

Khan, Arshia, Ona Egbue, Brooke Palkie, and Janna Madden. 2017. “Active Learning: Engaging Students to Maximize Learning in an Online Course.” Electronic Journal of E-Learning 15 (2): 107–15. 

Nilson, L. B., and L. A. Goodson. 2018. Online Teaching at Its Best. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Usher, Kim, Joanne Durkin, and Navjot Bhullar. 2020. “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Mental Health Impacts.” International Journal of Mental Health Nursing 29 (3): 315–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/inm.12726.