5 tips on how unis can do more to design online learning that works for all students


The COVID-19 pandemic has driven a rapid shift to online learning at all Australian universities. This presents unique opportunities for both educators and students, but also new challenges. Recent media reports suggest online learning might not be meeting the needs of all students.

In particular, university students with disabilities report they are struggling with online learning that lacks the features they need to fully participate.

Why is this important?

Pre-pandemic research tells us students with disabilities are more likely to drop out of higher education than their peers without disabilities. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has identified that higher education institutions have an obligation to improve their approach to the inclusion of students with a disability. Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that “without discrimination and on the basis of equal opportunity, [signatories] shall ensure an inclusive education system at all levels”.

Online learning can be effective in supporting students with disabilities. However, accessibility must be central to online course development. Designing online learning with this in mind can have a profound effect on student engagement, academic performance and completion rates.

What are the pros and cons?

Online learning has many benefits. For a start, it offers students flexibility and convenience.

It also enables teaching to expand beyond traditional methods. For instance, the use of technology and multimedia can provide students with new examples, explanations, activities and means of assessment.

However, online learning reduces classroom interaction time. The result may be less contact between lecturers and students.

Students also need to learn how to navigate new technology, often with little direct support. The resulting frustration, anxiety and confusion can lead to a sense of learner isolation and higher attrition rates.

How can these challenges be overcome?

Our team is evaluating a methodology to enhance the accessibility of online learning in higher and professional education. The evidence-based principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) underpin this work.

UDL principles guide curriculum and instructional design, with the aim of removing barriers to learning so all students have an equal opportunity to succeed.

UDL is about designing proactively for accessibility. This approach ensures that:

  • the way students navigate through the online classroom is simple and intuitive
  • content is clearly organised and readable
  • students have multiple means – including video, audio and text – of engaging with the content.

We’ve found the layout of online learning environments is not always simple and intuitive. This makes it hard for students to find the information they need. In addition, we’ve found multimedia content is often inaccessible to students with disabilities.

Simple steps to make learning accessible

There are a lot of things you can do to improve the accessibility and inclusiveness of your online learning content. Here are our top five tips:

1. Consider how students will navigate through your online classroom.

Aim to make navigation simple and intuitive. Keep the structure of your online learning environment consistent from week to week. This helps save students from spending a lot of time figuring out where to access the most critical information they need to get started and engage with the content.

One way we do this is by breaking the semester down into weekly topics. Create a set of topic-level learning objectives for each week and a set of learning activities (video lectures, podcasts, mini-quizzes and text) aligned to each objective.

2. Provide a video tour of your online classroom at the start of the semester.

In the video, you can share your screen and show students how the content is displayed on the learning management system (LMS). You can walk students through sections of your online classroom to show them where they can find readings, course assignments, learning activities and other resources. At the end of your video tour, you can tell students what to do first to start engaging with the week 1 or topic 1 content.

3. Ensure all Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and PDFs are accessible and searchable.

It is best to avoid uploading scanned material. Scans of Word documents, PowerPoint presentations and PDFs are not accessible or searchable. Scans also cannot be read by screen readers, which read out loud the content that is on the screen.

Clicking the “review” tab on Word documents and PowerPoint slide decks will allow you to run a quick accessibility check. This will help identify accessibility problems or areas for improvement.

Adobe Acrobat Pro also allows you to use an inbuilt accessibility checker. It will identify and automatically correct most accessibility problems with the click of a button.

4. Add alternative text (alt text) to your images and graphics.

Alternative text allows the image or graphic to be read aloud to students who are using a screen reader. You will often be prompted to do this when uploading your image and graphics to your LMS, so be sure not to skip this step.

5. Add captions and transcriptions to your videos.

YouTube easily generates captions for videos. Students can turn these captions on or off when viewing the video.

Other video hosting software may not generate captions automatically. Check with your institution’s technology support team to identify how to add captions to your video lectures.

If possible, we recommend providing transcripts for your video lectures. As well as helping students with hearing difficulties, transcripts are a great reference for your students to keep and refer back to later. Google Chrome offers extension software that allows you to create transcriptions of audio files or speech.

Good design benefits all students

The principles of Universal Design for Learning can help educators make small changes to the design and delivery of online courses that can benefit all students.

UDL offers flexibility in the ways that content is delivered and how understanding of the content is assessed. These principles can be applied to both physical and virtual environments. The result is opportunities for teaching innovation and creativity that make content accessible to all students.

Author Bios: Erin Leif is a Senior Lecturer, Educational Psychology & Inclusive Education, Christine Grové is a Senior Lecturer and Educational and Developmental Psychologist, Laura Alfrey is a Senior Lecturer in Health and Physical Education, Stella Laletas is a Lecturer, Educational Psychology & Inclusive Education and Umesh Sharma is Professor and Academic Head, Special Education and Educational Psychology all at Monash University