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The Intentional Design Of The Online Classroom

The Intentional Design Of The Online Classroom
Universal instructional design could give educators a structure through which to address the most unique student needs. Photo by Ali Harrison.

Every learner is unique and has a unique set of needs. Unfortunately, the modern classroom has only relatively recently begun to address the most obvious of those needs. Physical disabilities are more frequently addressed, while often leaving cognitive, affective, cultural, or even learning preferences unaddressed. One might imagine that the technology-based online classroom could easily facilitate accessibility, but often does not. Further, while faculty are subject matter experts, their expertise should not be assumed to include online pedagogy or accessibility. Universal instructional design brings pedagogy and concepts around access to the intentional design of the online classroom.

Accessibility of the online classroom is not innovative, but foundational. Many organizations (Quality Matters™; University of Washington, Seattle; Michigan Virtual University; Chico State University) have detailed standards for the accessibility of online course sites. The adoption of accessibility standards should be considered requisite for the successful online classroom and should include accommodations such as the following addressed by the Quality Matters™ rubric:

  • The course employs accessible technologies and provides guidance on how to obtain accommodation.
  • The course contains equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content.
  • The course design facilitates readability and minimizes distractions.
  • The course design accommodates the use of assistive technologies.

The process of making a course site universally accessible need not be revolutionary, but it must be thoughtful and intentional. Similarly, universal instructional design creates an opportunity to be deliberate and thoughtful to transform how learning occurs. Any good universal instructional design framework should include items such as those proposed by Hitchcock, Meyer, Rose and Jackson (2002):

  • Goals provide an appropriate challenge for all students.
  • Materials have a flexible format, supporting transformation between media and multiple representations of content to support all students’ learning.
  • Methods are flexible and diverse enough to provide appropriate learning experiences, challenges and supports for all students.
  • Assessment is sufficiently flexible to provide accurate, ongoing information that helps teachers adjust instruction and maximize learning.

Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies has leveraged the concepts of universal design to improve accessibility for a variety of learners. In building courses and course sites, we strive to be conscious regarding the diversity of our learners. Regardless of their needs, students are able to access and process learning content in order to construct artifacts that demonstrate their mastery of the stated learning outcomes.

While the concepts around accessibility and universal design are not new, for many faculty the thoughtfulness around teaching to diverse learners is new, as such models were not part of their preparation for teaching.

Universal instructional design creates a structure through which faculty may become more reflective about the unique needs, among their students. With that awareness, faculty may become increasingly able to create communities with their students to construct personally meaningful experiences that engender mastery of the course goals based on their unique skills and needs.


Works Cited:

Hitchcock, C., Meyer, A., Rose, D., & Jackson, R. (2002). Providing New Access to the General Curriculum. Teaching Exceptional Children, 35(2), 8. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Quality Matters Program. (n.d.). Quality matters rubric standards 2011-2013 edition. Retrieved from

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