A shift in mindset on inclusive eLearning design is long overdue: Consider the idea that creating content that is easily accessible to a broad range of learners is not “accommodation.” Instead, recast accessible eLearning design as good design that leads to optimal user experience (UX).

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, promotes a broad approach to building inclusivity and accessibility into content from the design phase onward. Adopting its principles is a great starting point for implementing this “from the ground up” approach to inclusive eLearning design.

Inclusive content creates better UX

Creating broadly usable content isn’t (only) about accommodating an individual learner with a specific disability. Nor is it primarily about meeting standards, following the law, or even actualizing nebulous ideas about “doing the right thing.”

It’s about the learners’ experience.

In an interview for a Learning Guild research report, Creating Accessible eLearning: Practitioner Perspectives, Brian Dusablon, founder of Learning Ninjas, said, “When I talk about accessibility, it really starts with moving beyond 508 and basic compliance and what the tools allow us to do. It’s more about rethinking design practice; starting in the design process rather than in the middle of development.” His current approach, Dusablon said, is to design for as many people as possible. “Everyone deserves the chance to learn” is not just his company's mantra, it's also his deep-seated belief.

Improving learner or user experience (UX) can improve engagement and boost retention. A key ingredient in all of this is managing cognitive load and setting learners up to succeed.

“When things are challenging for people, we set them up for failure,” Jean Marrapodi of Applestar Productions told Jane Bozarth, The Guild's research director and author of the report. “It’s important to think about the ways people are going to be accessing our stuff and how they need help, and the things we need to configure to enable them to do so. I'm interested in the idea of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which helps us think about accessibility in the beginning rather than as an afterthought. When we design for the fringes we create a better learning experience for everybody.”

Nick Floro, president of Sealworks Interactive Studios, summed up the inherent value of creating accessible eLearning: “I care about accessibility because without it we can’t connect with our audience.”

A framework for creating accessible content

UDL is a design approach, a framework for creating usable eLearning, that understands that by making eLearning easy to use and understand, eLearning designers can potentially improve engagement and learner retention. It assumes that accessibility is part of the content creation process from the beginning of the design phase, and that ease of use is built in to every aspect of eLearning content.

In the Universal Design for Learning: The Hidden Chapters webinar, presenter Thomas Tobin emphasized that design based on UDL “meets learners where they are” and ensures that everyone can access learning. It provides “multiple pathways to learning” that make content available to the maximum number of learners, and promotes equity and inclusivity.

UDL does not change or impact learning objectives and goals or assessment strategies, and it is separate from identifying, teaching, and assessing needed competencies. It is a framework for designing and presenting the content that supports those goals and needs.

Offer multiple paths for inclusive learning

UDL emphasizes that eLearning design should offer multiple means of:

  • Engaging learners
  • Presenting information
  • Demonstrating skills

In addition, UDL encourages offering learners choices about how to respond to learning. Many practitioners refer to the UDL approach as “plus-one thinking.” At its simplest, this means offering at least two choices for every interaction between learners and content: Offer transcripts with video and audio content, offer infographics in addition to long text descriptions, etc.

This approach gives learners choices about how they interact with content, and accommodates a range of abilities and learner preferences.

CAST, an education research and development organization that promotes inclusive learning opportunities, offers UDL guidelines. The organization has also published a downloadable rubric for implementing UDL that guides designers along the path from an emerging awareness of UDL in eLearning design to proficiency and, ultimately, to expert UDL design practice.

Dig in to inclusive design

Download Bozarth’s report, Creating Accessible eLearning: Practitioner Perspectives, for deeper insights into how several eLearning experts improve UX by building inclusivity into their eLearning design process.