How to plan online lessons with Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

As schools plan for a year that may include distance learning, you may be looking for how to improve your online lesson plans. One way to make online learning more accessible to all students is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Whether you’re new to UDL or have been using it for years, planning with UDL in mind can help you remove barriers to learning in your online classroom. According to CAST, the organization that developed the UDL framework, there are three principles to consider within a UDL approach

  • Engagement and the why of learning 

  • Representation and the what of learning

  • Action and expression and the how of learning

Here are some ways to use these UDL principles before, during, and after each online lesson. 

Before online lessons

Planning ahead is a must when using UDL in online learning. Your plans will help you be more responsive to all your students’ needs. You can use this UDL lesson planning tool to lay out your lessons in advance.

Think about how you design your physical classroom to be accessible to all. Now think about how to design your online learning space with the same goal in mind. For instance, how are you displaying information to make sure students and families can easily locate it?

Consider what technology you can use in the lesson. Keep in mind that prepping your technology may take longer than you expect, especially if you’re still getting comfortable with it.

Strategies to try: 

  • Set aside time to explicitly teach about the technology you’ll use. Give students and families time to explore the online learning environment just as they would explore a physical classroom during an orientation or open house.

  • Anticipate any misconceptions or questions students might have about a lesson’s tasks, materials, or technology. Proactively address them with readily available and accessible resources. 

  • Think about the pacing of lessons in the online setting. Plan for how you can use scheduled breaks during instruction and work time. 

  • Check the accessibility of materials you create or use. For example, check to see if you can include captioning or speech-to-text for students who benefit from reading content. Or you can try virtual math manipulatives for those who benefit from visual representations.

During online lessons

Rather than taking a “one size fits all” approach for presenting information, offer different options as you teach online. Giving students meaningful choices can help them engage with the content. These choices can also motivate students to learn in challenging or new situations like online learning.

To offer choice in an online setting, you’ll need to rely on the features of the technology you’re using, like breakout rooms, discussion boards, screen captures, and chat boxes. When you collaborate with other staff members, including co-teachers, specialists, and paraprofessionals, you can use one-on-one or small group meetings to offer students different options for learning. 

Strategies to try:

  • Provide choices for how students can interact online. For example, you might allow students to decide whether to join live video lessons with their video on or off. Students who have anxiety might benefit from being able to choose to keep their video off.

  • Offer options for how students can engage with the content. You can offer a choice board so students can choose to listen to a podcast, watch a video, or read an article about the topic.

  • Give students some control over how and when they engage in the work. For instance, you can record your live video lessons so students can choose to rewatch all or parts of the session.

  • Be open-minded about the format that students’ work can take—from text documents to visual arts products. Among other options, students can make digital learning portfolios with a tool like Seesaw. Or they can use a tool like Flipgrid to make videos about their learning. 

After online lessons

Since online learning is new for many teachers and students, take time to reflect after your lessons. You and your students can think about the roles you played in a lesson, and how those roles work together.

 Strategies to try:

  • Help students reflect on their strengths and needs when learning online. They can keep a list of which online learning features and strategies best support those strengths and needs. 

  • Allow students to co-create approaches for online learning activities. Students may know about different technology that you’re still learning about. This is a good chance to build on students’ strengths and empower them in their learning.

  • Learn about ways you can improve your virtual instruction by asking students what they think. Use surveys, rubrics, or journaling to give students a chance to assess their own learning and give you feedback about your teaching.

  • Share your insights with other teachers and staff members. Helping students better access their learning is a shared responsibility among school staff. 

Putting it all together

UDL can seem daunting if you try to cover every single aspect of it all at once, especially when you’re new to using it with online learning. Begin with a few strategies and be consistent with implementation. This will make your new practices become habits. 

By proactively planning for accessibility and variability, you’ll be more prepared to welcome many different learning and thinking needs in your physical or virtual classroom. 


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