How can creating eLearning that offers more options and access to more learners save time for instructional designers and developers?

It’s not a riddle; it’s an argument for Universal Design for Learning, designing eLearning using what UDL experts Thomas Tobin and Barbi Honeycutt call “plus-one thinking.”

Plus-one thinking means that, for every interaction between a learner and something—the instructor, the material, another learner, or something else—an additional option is provided. What might this look like?

  • In addition to presenting material as text-plus-photos, offer a short video
  • In addition to presenting an audio track for a video, offer a transcript or closed captions
  • In addition to offering text on a screen inside an LMS, offer a downloadable file
  • In addition to asking learners to provide written responses to assessment questions, offer them a game or a simulation
  • In addition to presenting required content in a video, allow learners to read an article or review electronic “flashcards” on a mobile device

Tobin and Honeycutt recommend starting in content areas where learners are frequently confused. “Think of the places in the course where learners always: 1) have questions, 2) get things wrong on tests and assignments, and 3) request explanations in different terms. Apply ‘plus one’ design to these elements: add one choice, alternative, or means of self-regulation in each place identified,” they write. “Plus-one thinking helps to focus one’s design efforts to the places where they are likely to have the greatest impact for learners.”

Principles of UDL

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, is a mindset, an approach to design that is based on three principles:

  • Present information in different ways
  • Provide multiple ways for learners to engage with information and apply it
  • Offer learners multiple ways to demonstrate learning or mastery

UDL encourages instructional designers to think of at least two ways to present each new piece of information. If the primary method is text—lecture notes, a study guide—the secondary format can be audio. If the primary format is a video, the secondary can be a transcript. “UDL doesn’t ask us to create materials to anticipate every possible use,” Tobin and Honeycutt write. “Just to ‘design for the extremes.’”

Doing this opens up the benefits of multimodal learning: People learn better when they can consume content in more than one way. (See “Capture Learners’ Attention with Multimodal eLearning.”) Having choices and some control over how they engage with content is also motivating for learners.

Offering multiple ways to demonstrate mastery might be the hardest of the principles to implement, according to Tobin and Honeycutt. “Look at the objectives for assignments and think of whether students must use a particular format in order to demonstrate those objectives, or if they can accomplish the same tasks in different ways,” they advise.

How can UDL save development time?

Providing “accommodation” often requires making a specific change to remove or mitigate a barrier to an individual’s access. If a class is held in a building whose entrances all have stairs, an accommodation for a learner who uses a wheelchair might mean holding the class in a different building. In eLearning, an accommodation might mean disabling timers on some content so that a learner can spend more time completing an exercise. But with accommodation, the emphasis is on the individual: one change, done one time, for one person.

Since learners are diverse and their needs are diverse, the potential need for accommodations can be enormous—and daunting. That’s why many instructional designers have negative associations with the very concept—they see accommodation as something that takes a lot of extra time and benefits only one or a very few individuals.

UDL is a better way to improve access.

It grew out of the concept of universal design, which emphasizes physical design—of buildings, environments, and objects—that is useful to as broad a variety of people as possible. For example, a design with curb cuts and ramps provides access to people who are walking, biking, using wheelchairs, pushing baby strollers, or riding skateboards. When buildings are based on universal design, fewer individuals will need accommodations; fewer barriers mean that more people can access the building—and the services it houses.

In the same vein, if eLearning is designed with multiple modalities—and thus fewer barriers to access—fewer individuals will need accommodations to access the material. Modifying eLearning when someone requests an accommodation—adding captioning or simplifying a complex text, for example—can be expensive and time-consuming; UDL helps avoid that.

UDL is about much more than providing access to learners who have disabilities, though. All learners are more engaged when they have choices and control over how, when, and where they learn, and many people who do not have disabilities benefit from features like captions and content that is available on multiple devices.  

  • Multimodal learning supports learners’ preferences and gives them flexibility. A busy person who wants to watch a video on the train or after the kids are asleep can use captioning and keep the sound off, for example.
  • Offering eLearning that is not tied to a specific software tool or format and that can be consumed on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone frees learners to consume it when and where they want.
  • Offering material in multiple formats means more learners will understand the content, since they can review it in a couple of different ways.
  • Showing learners’ progress or providing time estimates for each topic or section offers learners more control over their scheduling.

Learners who can access eLearning on their own terms are likely to be more engaged, spend more time with the material—and learn and retain more.

Summit on eLearning accessibility

Interested in learning more? Join The eLearning Guild for an eLearning Accessibility Summit on May 17 and 18. Eight live online sessions will explore ways to design and create accessible eLearning content.


Tobin, Thomas J., and Barbi Honeycutt. “Improve the Flipped Classroom with Universal Design for Learning.” In Handbook of Research on Innovative Pedagogies and Technologies for Online Learning in Higher Education. Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2017.