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Engaging Learners in Online Environments Utilizing Universal Design for Learning Principles

By Aleksandra Hollingshead, Davin Carr-Chellman / February 2019

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Student learning outcomes depend on the depth and quality of their engagement in learning. Since the early 2000s, the concept of engagement has gained a lot of attention from researchers. Scholars often define engagement as a complex construct that consists of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional components, and argue instructors should attend to each one of these components to effectively engage their learners. In agreement with Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris [1] and Finn and Zimmer [2], we propose that “sustained student engagement (a) functions as a facilitator of student learning, (b) leads to meaningful outcomes, (c) prevents students from dropping out, and (d) prevents boredom and lack of respect for authority” [3].

The behavioral component of engagement would require the learner to be physically oriented towards the instructor or materials [1, 3]. In an online setting, that entails accessing and manipulating the content (e.g., reading posted materials or submitting the assignments). The cognitive component of engagement involves cognitive processing of information as demonstrated by responding and posting questions, and attending to learning tasks [1, 3]. Lastly, the emotional component of engagement refers to student motivation to learn and their emotional responses to learning tasks [1, 3]. In addition, researchers examining student engagement argue engagement is “malleable” [4] and as such can be impacted by student characteristics as well as the quality of instruction.

Online learning environments may present some inherent barriers to student engagement [3], therefore both synchronous and asynchronous instruction requires intentional and meaningful design. This article begins with a discussion of possible barriers to student engagement in online learning, followed by a description of “Universal Design for Learning” (UDL), and concludes with practical strategies that align with UDL and have a potential to boost learners’ engagement.

Barriers to Engagement in Online Environments

The quality of student engagement correlates directly with the quality of student learning: An engaged student learns better. While convenience, accessibility, and flexibility attract many students to online learning, the learning environment can be alienating if not thoughtfully designed.

The learners drawn to online learning bring an increasing diversity of abilities and represent vast differences economically, geographically, racially, linguistically, religiously, culturally, and sexually [5]. As a result, traditional online instruction that is, for example, text-based, driven by information provision, and assessed through regurgitation will not offer the flexibility to meet the variety of learning needs [3, 5]. In this light, the role of the instructor and the design of the learning environment are the primary determining factors in student engagement [6, 7].

The behavioral, cognitive, and emotional components of engagement are elusive in the absence of deeper relationships with the instructor, other students, and the material itself. Online learning environments deprived of these relationships can leave students feeling isolated and unsuccessful [5]. As the student population for online learning presents increasingly complex needs and characteristics, instruction and instructional design should adapt to increase student engagement:

Distance and post-secondary education instructors face increasingly diverse students with disabilities, language and cultural barriers, and significant skill deficiencies. In spite of this demographic diversity, the type of education delivered has not significantly changed. Individual accommodations have been applied, but the structure and culture of higher education, and the nature of what constitutes knowledge, its acquisition, and its expression in practice, have not responded [8].

In this light, UDL can provide an effective bridge to support student engagement in online learning.

Universal Design for Learning

Thoughtfully designed online instruction has proven to enhance learner’s engagement with the course, the instructor, and with one another [9]. Universal Design for Learning is an instructional design framework offering flexibility and adaptability to meet the needs of increasingly diverse learners and maximizing engagement [10, 11]. In online as well as any learning context, it provides an intentional and systematic approach for building an environment that accommodates diversity and difference between and among the students.

The UDL framework is nested in neuroscience with a particular focus on how the brain works and which parts of the brain are activated during the learning process [12]. The objective of UDL is to first identify and overcome unnecessary barriers to instruction, then systematically plan for embracing diversity of all learners by providing flexible methods and assessment, accessible materials, and meaningful learning goals [11, 12]. The flexibility of instruction is built through three principles of multiple means of engagement, multiple modalities of instruction, and multiple means of assessment as well as additional guidelines and checkpoints, which all together constitute the UDL framework.

Six Example Strategies for Online Teaching Aligned with UDL

To illustrate how UDL-based instruction can support student engagement in an online environment the following section focuses on six selected teaching strategies and their alignment to each of the three UDL principles. These six strategies were selected from a longer list of strategies compiled from research on UDL in online teaching [3]. A set of practices aligned with the UDL framework should not replace systematic and thoughtful planning for learner diversity. In other words, these practices are only examples and should not be perceived in isolation independent of a larger UDL framework.

The Center on Applied Special Technology (CAST) offers a detailed description with examples of what each of the guidelines and checkpoints within each of the UDL principles means. The following sections focus on two selected strategies that align with the multiple means of engagement principle of UDL.

Multiple means of engagement. The first of UDL principles focuses on ensuring that learners are provided with a variety of ways to engage with materials, the instructor, and each other. This principle supports the affective parts of the brain and corresponds to “the why” of learning, which means that it helps create learners who are vested in the learning process because they feel motivated and understand why they are learning. To achieve that, instructors should focus on strategies that stimulate students’ interests, strengthen their effort and persistence, and support self-regulation.

1. Weekly written communication with students. Weekly communication between an instructor and learners (either as a group or individually) can serve multiple purposes [8, 13]. First, weekly communication builds a stronger sense of community and strengthens connection between the instructor and learners. It shows the learners that their instructor is equally committed to learners’ success and engaged in the online course.

Weekly messages from the instructor may motivate learners to stay on task and help them refocus on the online course. To further align with UDL framework, such weekly correspondence should include multiple formats so the students have a choice in how they engage with information. For example, instructor’s written message could also contain a link to a brief video and/or audio recording conveying the same message. Additionally, such weekly check-in from an instructor may encourage learners to respond with any questions or requests for clarification they would not otherwise voice. For the instructor, a weekly calendar reminder to send a message to the learners is an easy strategy to ensure consistency in communication.

2. Note takers for synchronous sessions. Many online instructors prefer to offer weekly or monthly synchronous sessions to ensure all learners participate in a lecture or group activities and have an opportunity to work together via video conferencing software like Zoom, BBCollaborate, or Go to Meeting. It is a great strategy but due to the nature of video conferencing it may be challenging to gauge how much learners are actually learning during synchronous sessions and how engaged they are.

Rose, Harbour, Johnston, Daley, and Abarbanell suggest assigning a new student each time to take notes during the synchronous session may be highly beneficial [14]. This strategy puts a responsibility on a selected student to provide notes to all classmates after a synchronous session. That way, other students can focus on actually engaging with the activity or lecture knowing that they will be able to supplement their notes with the ones from an ‘official’ note taker. Moreover, the instructor should supplement the written notes from an “official note taker” with audio and video recording of the synchronous session so the students have a choice of format.

Additionally, assigning a different note taker for each synchronous session allows each student to have a sense of responsibility for their peers’ learning and participation. In larger classes, an instructor can either assign groups of note takers or seek volunteers for note taking as an extra credit assignment or engaging students in name drawing to select note takers.

Multiple means of representation. The second of UDL’s principles addresses the recognition parts of the brain to provide “the what” of learning. In other words, it refers to the content of learning and its presentation. In particular, the goal of this principle is to create learners who know how to access information and have resources to do so by providing them with alternatives for receiving information, options for supporting language and symbols recognition, and options for comprehension. The next two sections describe two strategies aimed at providing learners with a variety of ways in which information is presented to them.

3. Posting flexible presentations. The majority of online content consists of assigned readings, assignments, and content-rich presentations. Rao [5], He [13], Rose et al. [14], Lowrey et al. [15], and Smith [16] all argue instructor’s presentations are more accessible to students and ultimately more effective if they consist of multiple ways of representing the content. These scholars suggest instead of posting static slides, instructors should provide students with a combination of slides with text, links to video clips, audio recordings, and graphics. This way, a learner has autonomy to decide whether to learn from written text, a video representation, a graphic, or a combination of all of these formats.

4. Accessibility of digital materials. Online learning revolves primarily around digital materials. With the intention of overcoming barriers to instruction and supporting learners with diverse needs, instructors need to ensure that all digital materials are accessible to learners [8, 14, 15]. In fact, Lowrey et al. [15] proposes “distance education coursework is required to meet federal accessibility standards” and “representation of digital materials from an accessibility perspective means that users will be able to perceive, understand, navigate and interact with digital content.”

Digital materials are more accessible when presented in multiple formats. For example, a digital textbook should be accessible through enlarged font, contrasted text color, or through text-to-speech application. Instructors utilizing Blackboard, Moodle, or Canvas learning management systems may want to explore the Ally software, which assists with ensuring accessibility of online content by assessing instructor’s materials as well as providing students with options of a variety of formats [8].

Multiple means of action and expression. The third principle of UDL addresses the strategic parts of the brain, or the “how” of learning. Consequently, the ultimate goal of implementing this principle is to develop learners who can set goals for their learning and are strategic in how they express their knowledge and skills. Specifically, this principle is addressed by providing learners with a variety of opportunities for physical action as well as options for communication and expression, and multiple chances for improving executive function (i.e., strategic planning and executing steps of a learning task). The following two strategies exemplify the principle of multiple means of action and expression in online instruction.

5. Choices in demonstration of knowledge. The most fundamental yet complex strategy aligned with the principle of multiple means of action and expression requires instructors to offer their learners choices in how they demonstrate knowledge. Rogers-Shaw et. al [8], He [13], Rao [15], and Smith [16] all argue learners benefit from more than one option for demonstrating their skills and knowledge. Having a choice in expression may benefit the student by leading to a greater sense of ownership of learning.

In practice, it means that for each assignment an instructor provides more than one way in which students can show their learning. Instructors need to realize that allowing options for student knowledge and skill demonstration does not lower the rigor of the assessment. For example, learners may have a choice to either write a 10-page paper, or prepare narrated slides, or create a website, or submit an audio recording of answering the assignment questions.

Depending on the assignment, the number of learners in a course, and other contextual factors, an instructor may want to provide students with a menu of three to five options or leave it completely open-ended. As with any assignment, it is more beneficial to the learner when a rubric accompanies any given option for assignment submission to clarify instructor’s expectations and ensure consistent assessment criteria regardless of a chosen submission format.

6. Interactive online discussions. One of the typical components of online coursework includes peer-to-peer discussion. Rao and Tanners [17] suggest traditional online discussion has a risk of being static and inauthentic and instructors should explore better alternatives that give learners’ options for expressing themselves. Some of the traditional LMS discussion boards include options for creating posts as written text, or embedding videos, or audio recordings though these might not be very intuitive and most learners end up relying on written text. Some other alternatives include programs like VoiceThread or FlipGrid. For example, in a VoiceThread-based discussion each participant has an option of expressing themselves in a variety of formats. Participants can comment on each other’s recordings and post questions or comments to slides submitted by the instructor. Having a variety of means to express oneself builds a more authentic conversation around a topic posed by the instructor than a traditional discussion board would provide.


Online learning environments present certain barriers to student engagement but UDL as a thoughtful and systematic instructional design framework has potential to overcome those barriers. Beginning the design process with learner variability in mind, followed by an intentional design of accessible materials, flexible methods, goals, and assessments, UDL-based environments can facilitate learner engagement and lead to meaningful learning outcomes.


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About the Authors

Aleksandra Hollingshead is an assistant professor of special education in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. She earned her doctorate degree from the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on student engagement in learning through a lens of Universal Design for Learning. 

Davin Carr-Chellman is an assistant professor of education in the Adult, Organizational Learning and Leadership Program in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at the University of Idaho.  His research focuses on individual, organizational, and community capacity building, especially within the framework of adult learning and agency.  The specific contexts for his investigations include online education, religious organizations, public schools, and doctoral and graduate education.

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