Universal design for learning is often thought of as something that strictly benefits students with disabilities in brick-and-mortar classes. However, the truth is that it can benefit all learners, but particularly adults in online classes.
That’s according to Nancy Swenson and Amy Sugar, instructional designers at the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning. The two presented at the recent Sloan Consortium conference in Orlando.
If you’re looking for ways to boost academic success among adult learners in online classes at your institution, their approach could help.
“At the University of Central Florida, we’ve experienced a tremendous amount of growth in online learning, and with that growth has come a huge increase in the diversity of our learners,” Swenson said. “Universal design has been a way for us to meet the varied learning needs of our students.”
Many adult students may come to college with undiagnosed learning disabilities, they explained. Because those students have found coping strategies for other areas of their lives, it might not occur to them that a disability might be to blame when they experience academic problems.
Others may have symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, even if they don’t actually have the condition. After all, adults typically have work and family demands, so their attention is often divided. And paying attention to class content can be difficult after a long and tiring day of work or taking care of a family.
And for some students, English may be a second language, so learning in English-only classes can be challenging for them.
But that’s just the beginning, the presenters explained. Think about students who are visual or auditory learners. Online classes that are primarily text-based could derail their academic efforts.
All of those examples are further complicated by the fact that in online classes, instructors can’t physically see when they’re losing students’ attention.
The pair advocate for UDL’s three-pronged approach in online courses. It calls for providing multiple means of (1) representation; (2) action and expression; and (3) engagement.
Using multiple means of content representation recognizes that how we gather facts and categorize what we see, hear and read varies from person to person. Ensuring multiple means of action and expression recognizes that people go about planning and performing tasks in very different ways. And providing multiple means of engagement recognizes that people get engaged and motivated in different ways.
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