UDL in the Cloud!: How to Design and Deliver Online Education Using Universal Design for Learning

UDL in the Cloud!: How to Design and Deliver Online Education Using Universal Design for Learning

by Katie Novak, Tom Thibodeau

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UDL in the Cloud helps educators design and deliver more accessible, engaging, and effective online learning experiences. Drawing on years of experience in K-12 and postsecondary settings, authors Katie Novak and Tom Thibodeau offer a highly practical approach to developing e-courses, virtual snow days, flipped classes, and blended learning experiences that meet the needs of diverse learners.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780989867481
Publisher: CAST Professional Publishing
Publication date: 03/01/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 106,182
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Katie Novak is the Assistant Superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Massachusetts and a leading expert on Universal Design for Learning implementation. Tom Thibodeau is Assistant Provost at New England Institute of Technology and a board member of the New England Faculty Development Consortium.

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UDL in the Cloud!

How to Design and Deliver Online Education Using Universal Design for Learning

By Katie Novak, Tom Thibodeau

CAST, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 CAST, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9898674-9-8


The Case for Better Online Course Design

IN THIS CHAPTER, we describe how education has changed throughout time and discuss some of the current issues with teaching online. Statistics and case studies are used to showcase the barriers that are very real and have implications for the future success of online learners. At the conclusion of the chapter, we profile five cloud learners to exemplify the significant variability in the online education community. We follow these learners throughout the text to exemplify how the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework may result in greater learning outcomes for all students.

"The Idea of what is true Merit, should also be often presented to [learners], explain'd and impress'd on their Minds, as consisting in an Inclination join'd with an Ability to serve Mankind, one's Country, Friends and Family; which Ability is (with the Blessing of God) to be acquir'd or greatly encreas'd by true Learning; and should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning."

— Benjamin Franklin, 1749

@PoorRichardUDL * Maintain our focus: true learning results when learners are inclined to increase their ability = succeed. #currenttranslation

Benjamin Franklin believed in the power of education, and he celebrated innovations that increased access to and availability of knowledge. In 1749, Franklin wrote Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania[sic], which garnered enough support to build an academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy League powerhouse we know today. In his proposal, Franklin penned, "The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise Men in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths."

Franklin had it right. Education has always been, and continues to be, a path to success and the bedrock of a free society. If the "pursuit of happiness" was a fundamental objective of the democracy Franklin helped create, then a robust and effective educational system was needed. Franklin and his fellow patriots believed that effective citizens and participants in society had to be informed, skilled, and able to articulate their opinions and demands. After all, he said, "The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself."

In Franklin's day, providing a rich education to citizens was a daunting challenge, just as it is today. The population was spread out and communication was difficult. But the basic purposes of a sound and fundamental education have not changed. Today we talk about higher-level skills, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, collaboration, and communication as "21st century" skills, but when haven't they been essential?

As both a printer and a scientist, Franklin could appreciate the ways in which the technology of printed materials had expanded learning opportunities from the time of Gutenberg going forward. The large-scale manufacture of books and pamphlets accelerated learning and empowered average folks in ways that hadn't been possible before. We imagine Franklin would be thrilled — though not necessarily surprised — by what digital technologies afford us today. These technologies connect the world and put volumes of information literally at our fingertips, all at a relatively low cost. As the first Postmaster General of the United States, Franklin would have loved email. If Poor Richard were alive today, such proverbs as "Diligence is the mother of good luck" and "The learned fool writes his nonsense in better languages than the unlearned; but still 'tis nonsense," would be retweeted with alacrity.

@PoorRichardUDL * Diligence is the mother of good luck. #thetruth


We would like to think that Franklin, as one of the architects of a people's government, also would have been pleased with the demographic changes in today's students. In Franklin's time, education was reserved for a relatively homogenous population, one that was white, male, and well-heeled. Of course, that's no longer true. Today, we celebrate the diversity and variability of learners. We see individual differences and heterogeneous populations as a strength and an asset.

Nowhere are the opportunities and challenges offered by today's technologies more evident than in the field of online learning. Online enrollments are soaring. K–12 students are spending more and more time learning in the cloud. In 2000, there were only an estimated 50,000 K–12 students in virtual schools. By 2013, that number exceeded one million (Hawkins et al., 2013). This increase is related to the increasing opportunities that these students have to access education online. Cyber-charter schools, state-led virtual schools, and district-level supplemental online classes are now present in every state in America. In higher education, more than 21 million students took distance-learning courses in 2012-2013, most of them online (NCES, 2014).

As options grow to pursue online education, so does student variability (Archambault, Kennedy, & Bender, 2013). When virtual high schools originated nearly two decades ago, "virtual school students were described as highly motivated, honors/advanced, independent learners who were more likely to attend four-year college than their face-to-face counterparts" (Barbour, as cited in Hawkins et al., 2013, p. 64). Today, a much more diverse population enrolls in these programs. Students of color represent a larger proportion of online participants, as do students from less affluent socioeconomic backgrounds and those with documented disabilities (Molnar et al., 2013). Also, virtual schools are becoming available to younger and younger students. Recent research tells us that 26 states offer online schooling for students in grades K-5 (Hawkins et al., 2013).

There are also increasing trends toward hybrid-online (that is, blended) learning experiences in K–12. Chapter 7 will deal with these experiences exclusively, but we want to highlight them here briefly. Two hybrid-online offerings are the flipped classroom and the virtual snow day. In a "flipped classroom," traditional instruction is inverted. In traditional classrooms, students spend class time listening to lectures, which is a lower cognitive skill. The more difficult work, the application of that knowledge, is often done at home independently. When teachers flip their classrooms, students get their first exposure to new material when they are at home and then they can apply their knowledge with access to peers and the instructor, who can address misconceptions and provide mastery-oriented feedback. The use of flipping as a teaching model has "almost exclusively been tied to the incorporation of video or digital technology introduced prior to the in-class session" so students complete all initial learning activities in the cloud (Westermann, 2014, p. 44).

Districts that have virtual snow days require K–12 students to attend class online in inclement weather so they can continue learning despite the snow. Although these sessions are often asynchronous, elementary students are typically expected to complete five hours of work during the day, while their secondary counterparts are expected to complete six hours (Roscorla, 2014).

Whereas online courses and virtual high schools exist in learning management systems (LMSes), flipped classrooms and virtual snow days can take many different forms. Some districts use an LMS, such as My Big Campus or Canvas, whereas others use Google Classroom, Google Docs, or even Twitter through iPads and cell phones (Gumbrecht, 2015). It's important to note, however, that research has not yet confirmed the effectiveness of using social media in place of an LMS.

Given that learners of all ages are heading to the cloud for education, it's more important than ever that online instructors have a solid understanding of how to design learning opportunities to minimize barriers and maximize engagement.


The exponential growth of online learning begs a question: Do these courses result in the same learning outcomes as in face-to-face classrooms? After a review of research, it appears that the answer is no — but not because there are significant differences in the learning outcomes of students who complete online courses. The disparity is due to the fact that too many students do not persist and complete online courses. As noted in a recent review of literature (Jaggars, Edgecombe, & Stacey, 2013), nearly every study comparing course completion rates between online and face-to-face community college courses has concluded that online completion rates are substantially lower. Not only that, but these online courses affect student grades and their overall progress in their program of study. This phenomenon is not unique to online courses at the college level.

In a recent review of literature on the completion rates for K–12 virtual schools, Hawkins et al. (2013) write: "Although no official attrition statistics exist for virtual schools by state or school type, individual evaluations of some K–12 online learning programs indicate that attrition ranges broadly from 10% up to 70%" (p. 65). They cite two schools, the Illinois Virtual High School and the Alberta Distance Learning Center, which have 53% and 47% completion rates, respectively. Like the research completed at institutions of higher education, this research tells us that online education, as we currently know it, is failing many of our students. Something has to change.

Consider, too, the success of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. These highly produced online courses, some designed by the likes of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford using their most acclaimed faculty, draw huge numbers of students. Course rosters can swell to well over 40,000 students. Yet on average, the completion rates are dismal. In fact, a University of Pennsylvania study examined millions of users and found that only about 4% of students completed their courses (Lewin, 2013). Of the 155,000 students who signed up for an MIT course on electronic circuits, only 23,000 (15%) even finished the first problem set. Only 7,000 (5%) completed and passed the course (Carr, 2012). This may be, of course, because in the eyes of some, MOOCs are already passé because of their poor instructional design — that is, they lack interaction, which is a key element of good instruction.

Even when students persist in these courses, they are not always as successful as their peers in face-to-face courses. Although a meta-analysis of 20 years of research on distance learning suggests that students in distance-learning courses outperform their peers in face-to-face courses (Shachar & Neumann, 2010), there are other large-scale, peer-reviewed studies that suggest the opposite is true. For example, in an examination of 498,613 courses taken by 51,017 students in 34 community and technical colleges in Washington State, students were more successful in face-to-face classes than in online sections. When students persisted through to the end of the term (N = 469,287), the average grade was 2.95 (on a 4.0-point scale), with a gap between online courses (2.77) and face-to-face courses (2.97).

This gap, coined the online performance gap, was even more pronounced with male students, Black students, and students with lower levels of academic preparation, which exacerbated the performance gaps present in face-to-face courses (Xu & Jaggars, 2014).

Satisfaction outcomes also differed in a recent study. Keramidas (2012) found that online students were less satisfied with a variety of factors when taking online courses. These factors included instructor interaction, instructor enthusiasm, instructor approachability, quality of the program, and the evaluations of student performance. This perceived satisfaction rate may also be influenced by barriers that prevent some students from being successful in an online course: academic barriers, cultural barriers, financial barriers, technological barriers, instructional barriers, and institutional barriers (Irvin et.al, 2010). If one of the objectives of virtual learning is to increase accessibility and learning for non-privileged populations, while closing the learning gap, the current models have not been wholly successful (Xu & Jaggars, 2014). Some research, in fact, "[implies] that the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity" (Xu & Jaggars, 2014, p. 651).

Because of the conflicting research outcomes of the online learning experience, it is clear that in at least some cases, the online performance gap is a disturbing reality. Let's take the fact to Twitter:

Online courses, although they increase access, do not guarantee increased student success. #depressing

How's that for less than 140 characters? Now, we are in no way arguing that all online learning experiences are inferior, because research has found examples of students who were successful in online courses, but it's not all students and it's not in all learning environments. But we are asking why outcomes differ so wildly so we can also begin to explore ways to improve online learning.

Given the barriers, can students succeed online? Throughout this book we argue that yes, they can. Or, as we might put it on Twitter:

@PoorRichardUDL * So many barriers can prevent students from succeeding in online learning environments. #timeforUDL


Benjamin Franklin would have been a big fan of Facebook. He loved sending and receiving messages, and with modern technology, there wouldn't be weeks, months, or even years between replies. We also believe he would have been an avid "Googler," as his intellectual curiosity led him to investigate anything that piqued his interest. One such anecdote from Franklin's life weaves together his love of messaging and investigation; it involves his friend, Jan Ingenhousz, a Dutch chemist.

The story starts in 1783 with Ingenhousz's electrocution. After shocking himself, he did what most people do today after suffering a tragic accident — he posted it on Facebook. Well, of course there was no Facebook, but if it had been invented, we wager that he would have updated his status immediately. Since that wasn't an option, he set paper to pen to write to his friends about the experience.

Franklin, who already had an interest in medical electricity, was delighted to learn that Ingenhousz's acuity was increased after being shocked. Ingenhousz wrote: "It did seem to me I saw much clearer the difficulties of every thing, and what did formerly seem to me difficult to comprehend, was now become of an easy Solution" (Beaudreau & Finger, 2010). In today's world, Franklin could have pulled out his iPhone and responded via Twitter:

@PoorRichardUDL * The great @Ingenhousz just shocked himself into a hyper state of elation, awareness, and comprehension. #awesome

Instead, Franklin responded by letter and reminded Ingenhousz that he, Franklin, had once shocked himself intentionally to determine whether or not it was dangerous.

Together, they came to the same conclusion. Because electric shock did not appear to have negative consequences, and in Ingenhousz's case may have had positive consequences, the use of shock should be explored in clinical trials with "mad men" as a possible cure for melancholia (Beaudreau & Finger, 2010). To learn more about this, you will have to rely on Google, but we won't leave you hanging completely: Ingenhousz and Franklin discovered a new way to treat mentally ill patients — electroconvulsive therapy — that is still widely used today. This resulted because they were motivated, autonomous learners who were hungry for knowledge and wanted to explore learning in authentic, relevant, meaningful ways.

In order for online learners to be successful, they need to be equally motivated to pursue knowledge, ask questions, and connect with others in cyberspace to advance their learning. As instructors and course designers, we must find ways to engage and motivate online learners to help them succeed in this medium. Addressing the online performance gap that continues to create educational inequality for students who are unable to attend face-to-face courses is essential (Xu & Jaggars, 2014).

But what are the characteristics of a self-directed learner — besides a willingness to electrocute oneself in the name of science? And how can online instructors design courses that help all students internalize those characteristics?

We surveyed a number of articles about online learning to help us better understand the characteristics of successful online students and courses and to see if these relate to UDL. Many of these articles discuss the features of successful online course design without ever mentioning UDL. When viewed through a UDL lens, however, the recommendations provide some helpful guidance for shaping online education. Furthermore, our survey also points out the need for UDL.


Excerpted from UDL in the Cloud! by Katie Novak, Tom Thibodeau. Copyright © 2016 CAST, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of CAST, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 The Case for Better Online Course Design,
2 Fewer Barriers, More Support: UDL Guidelines in Action,
3 How to Develop a Syllabus the UDL Way,
4 Cultivating "Instructor Presence" to Support Engagement,
5 Delivering the Package,
6 Scaffolding Time Management,
7 Application to the World of Hybrid-Online,
8 Giving Our Students the Final Word,
Appendix Pedagogy and Andragogy: Why K–12 and Adult Learners Aren't So Different,
About the Authors,

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