September/October 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 7

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Creating Universally Accessible Online Instruction

Mamadi Corra, East Carolina University, and Tracy E. Ore, St. Cloud State University
It is clear that an increasing number of college and university courses are being taught via some form of distance education, whether online, hybrid/blended online, or other mode of distance education delivery. Generally, distance education is “a formal education process in which the student and instructor are not in the same place.” (Parsad and Westat 2008). According to a recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report (Radford 2012), in the 2007–08 academic year, about 20 percent of undergraduate students enrolled are in at least one distance education class, and about 4 percent enrolled in a distance education degree program.[1] In terms of change over time, this constituted an almost two fold increase for the former and a one fold increase for the latter in less than a decade.

According to Parsad and Westat (2008), at the institutional level, two-thirds (66 percent) of 2-year and 4-year Title IV degree-granting postsecondary institutions reported offering online, hybrid/blended online, or other distance education courses (credit or non-credit) in the 2006–07 academic year. This constituted an estimated 12.2 million enrollments/registrations in college-level credit-granting distance education courses (Parsad and Westat 2008).

The number of students with disabilities attending higher education has likewise increased in recent years. One NCES report (Westat and Farris 1999) puts the number of postsecondary undergraduate students identified as having disabilities in the United States at 6 percent of the undergraduate student body. The report also found students with mobility disabilities enrolled in a distance education course more often than students with no disabilities (26 percent compared with 20 percent). However, they found no other statistically significant difference between students with and without disabilities. These numbers suggest that a sizeable number of students enrolled in distance education courses have disabilities.

Making Classes Accessible

As instructors, many of us are aware of pedagogical and demographic changes at our colleges and universities, and we may also be aware that legal as well as our professional ethics necessitates making all classes accessible. But, how do we accomplish this? The first step to providing accommodation to students with disabilities is to recognize that distance education presents unique challenges for such students. The second step is to bear in mind that solutions to these challenges are as diverse as the students who require accommodations

Rather than trying to find ways to change your instructional methods when you have a student who needs some form of accommodation, always create your online instructional materials using elements of Universal Design. This will simultaneously address issues of accessibility for learners with disabilities and elevate the learning experience of all students. While our traditionally designed courses focus on the “average” learner, and accessible design focuses on people with disabilities, Universal Design expands the priorities of the learning experience to make them useful to groups that are diverse in the broadest sense (Burgstahler and Cory 2008).

As we work to meet the needs of our increasing number of students in the online environment, consider designing your instruction with the following goals[2]:

  1. Equitable use so that instruction is accessible by people with diverse abilities. This means providing methods of use for all students that are identical whenever possible, equivalent when not.
  2. Flexibile use so that instruction can accommodate a wide range of individual abilities by providing choice in methods of use.
  3. Simple and intuitive so that instruction is delivered in a straightforward and predictable manner, regardless of the student’s experience or abilities.
  4. Perceptible communication so that necessary information is defined clearly and effectively to the student, regardless of conditions in the environment or the student.
  5. Tolerance for error so that there are allowances for variation in individual student learning pace and skill level.
  6. Low physical effort so that nonessential physical effort is minimized in order to allow maximum attention to learning.
  7. Accessible size and space for approach and use so that there is consideration for appropriate size and space for the learning environment regardless of a student’s body size, posture, mobility, and communication needs.
  8. Promoting a community of learners so that the instructional environment promotes interaction among everyone involved in the learning experience.
  9. Welcoming instructional climate so that it is inclusive of all learners.

Colleges and universities are experiencing many pedagogical and demographic changes. Foremost among these are in the area of online course design and delivery. The demand and delivery of online courses continues to increase dramatically, and the diversity in the students taking such courses also continues to grow. These changes clearly offer unique opportunities for students and instructors. But they also present unique challenges, especially how to create universally accessible online instruction that makes all new aspects of the learning experience fully accessible diverse groups in the broadest sense (Burgstahler and Cory 2008).

References and Resources

Brault, Matthew. 2008. “Disability Status and the Characteristics of People in Group Quarters: A Brief Analysis of Disability Prevalence Among the Civilian Noninstitutionalized and Total Populations in the American Community Survey.” Available online at

Brault, Matthew. 2012. “Americans with Disabilities: 2010.” Available online at

Burgstahler, Sheryl E. and Rebecca C. Cory (Eds.) 2008. Universal Design in Higher Education From Principles to Practice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Do-It: Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology. (See

Lewis, Laurie, and Elizabeth Farris. 1999. “An Institutional Perspective on Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education.” Available online at

Parsad, Basmat and Laurie Lewis Westat. 2008. “Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2006–07.” Available online at

Radford, Alexandria Walton. 2012. “Learning at a Distance Undergraduate Enrollment in Distance Education Courses.” Available at

“Ensuring Accessibility in Online Education Webinar.” Tuesday March 25, 2014. Hosted by Mesa Community College and the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction.


[1]NCES reports related to this topic: “A Profile of Participation in Distance Education: 1999–2000 (NCES 2003-154),”; “Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2006–07 (NCES 2009-044),; “Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2000–2001 (NCES 2003-017),”; and “Distance Education Instruction by Postsecondary Faculty and Staff: Fall 1998 (NCES 2002-155),”

[2]Adapted from Sally S. Scott and Joan M. McGuire, “A Case Study to Promote Practical Application of Universal Design for Instruction.” In Sheryl E. Burgstahler and Rebecca C. Cory (Eds.) 2008. Universal Design in Higher Education From Principles to Practice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


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