22 Basham, Smith, and Satter, “Universal Design for Learning”


Basham, J. D., Smith, S. J., & Satter, A. L. (2016). Universal Design for Learning. Journal of Special Education Technology, 31(3), 147–155. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162643416660836.


The number of students using online learning in the K–12 setting continues to climb. Following recent trends of higher education, both educators and learners are seeing the benefits of digital instruction for specific students. Basham, Smith, and Satter (2016) discuss the importance of accessibility in online learning, as well as developing and implementing tools to determine validity, effectiveness, and expectations for online programs, materials, and systems. One tool that is discussed, using the Universal Design for Learning framework, is the UDL scan tool. This tool, created by researchers, is able to analyze online learning programs to assess how well aligned they are to the UDL framework. It is essential that educators, as well as online program creators, have a benchmark in which to measure the effectiveness of online learning. This will, in turn, create better online learning materials for all learners.

Key points

  • Online learning:
    • The significant majority (up to 90%) of K–12 online learning is instructed via prepackaged content and/or curriculum (Patrick, Kennedy, & Powell, 2013).
      • Instead of teachers creating individualized learning, students are exposed to learning created by outside sources. Teachers often do not have the ability to modify for differentiation.
    • Accessibility guidelines for digital materials
      • Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973 enhances access to broadband (e.g., Internet, online learning) technology and services for individuals with disabilities.
      • World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) accessibility guidelines for the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (2014).
      • International Digital Publishing Forum’s (IDPF) EPUB (2014) content publication standards.
      • The Office of Civil Rights extends Section 508 to include elementary and secondary schools, however the parameters of accessibility are restricted to sensory and physical considerations only.
    • Struggling students and students with disabilities
      • With the rise of online education, there is an increase of users who struggle academically or have disabilities
      • Current research has little to say about the effects of prepackaged online materials these students
      • 36% of states guarantee that their K–12 environments are accessible for students with disabilities (Basham et al., 2015).
    • Evaluating for accessibility
      • The Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) was created to test for accessibility concerning sensory and physical disabilities, but is not able to check for accessibility concerning students with cognitive, learning, attention, or behavior needs.
      • The UDL Scan tool provides researchers and educators with a measurement tool to review online content systems for their potential to support learner accessibility and variability (Basham, Smith, & Satter, 2016).
    • Universal Design for Learning
      • A framework for designing and implementing learning environments, systems, and assessments for ALL learners.
      • The framework ensures advanced accessibility or even a metacognitive state of learning.


While there have been sufficient tools to test for basic accessibility of online learning programs, there has never been a tool that was able to evaluate other needs of learners (that were not sensory or physical). With the development of the UDL Scan Tool, users are able to determine how well an online program aligns with the UDL framework, ensuring that the needs of all learners, including those with disabilities, are being met. While the UDL Scan Tool has limitations, such as not being able to assess learning management systems (LMS), it is a step in the right direction for questioning the validity of online educational materials and programs. This tool gives educators a better way to measure how well suited a program would be for their students.

Discussion questions

  1. As tools continue to be developed to make online programs more accessible for all students, what is something that you wish could be assessed?
  2. Think of an online program that was created for learning (example: Khan Academy). How accessible would you consider this program? What could be improved?
  3. When creating work for others to view, do you think about accessibility? What are ways that you can ensure your work is accessible?

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