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Author: Thomas Tobin, PhD

The Case of the Unevaluated Online Courses

The president and the provost were talking about their biggest challenge: retention. Between students’ freshman and sophomore years, the college was losing almost 40 percent of its students. For many students, the causes were well documented: time and money. The college’s “average student” was no longer an eighteen-year-old white male coming straight from high school and taking a full load of five courses while living on campus. These days, the typical student was a 32-year-old Latina mother of two with a job at a big-box retail store taking one or two courses at a time. That described most students at the college: nontraditional learners had become the majority, a group not tied to the campus or able to focus on study full time: both danger signs for retention problems. If work or family demands became too pressing, adult learners dropped out of college temporarily or permanently.

“If only there were a way,” mused the provost, “that we and our faculty members could help more students find more time for studying and engagement with their courses.” The college didn’t have a lot of online courses, and most of the college’s students lived within 20 miles of campus anyway. The president thought for a while, then asked the office manager to print some data from their most recent student outreach surveys. When the office manager brought the printouts, the president put forward a radical idea. “It says here that 86 percent of our students have smart phones (Chen et al. 2015), and that the numbers are even higher for students near or below the poverty line.” 

The provost put his hand to his chin and added, “That makes sense. If it’s a choice between a computer for the family and a phone, the phone wins. It does more, and it’s less of an up-front investment.” 

“Where are you going with your idea?” the president asked. “How can we help our students overcome the clock? Their problems are less time management and more just not having enough hours in the day. What if we could give them back twenty minutes here and forty minutes there?”

The provost laughed. “If only there were such a magic time-adding process, we’d adopt it in a heartbeat. But there’s no such thing.”

“Only there is,” countered the president. “It’s called universal design for learning, or UDL, and it provides learners with access, engagement, and choices about their learning—all from their phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.”

If you have heard about UDL, you probably know it as a way to make course materials accessible to students with disabilities. That’s the reason higher education hasn’t yet tapped its potential as a broad mobile-device outreach strategy: by and large, we’re thinking too narrowly and too negatively. 

Most faculty members and institutional staffers have had the experience of working on requests for accommodations from students with disabilities. However, most people have not received training or done research about UDL (Lombardi and Murray 2011), and are unlikely to know specifics about it. This sets us up to color our emotional response to UDL with the valence we associate with accommodations. For neuropsychologists, the term “valence” has to do with how we add emotional coloring to “events, objects, and situations” that “may possess positive or negative valence; that is, they may possess intrinsic attractiveness or aversiveness” (Frijda 1986, 207). In plain English, this means that our emotions affect how we perceive the events that we experience.

Researchers have been asking college and university faculty members for decades about how they respond to having students with learning differences in their courses. We all know how faculty members should respond when students come to them with forms for accommodating learning differences. Of course, their response should be, “Sure, I’ll set that up. Thank you for letting me know.” This, thankfully, is how most people do respond.

But how do faculty members actually feel when presented with accommodation requests? Based on several large research studies (Fonosch and Schwab 1981; Fichten 1986; Nelson et al. 1990; Houck et al. 1992; Bento 1996; Benham 1997; Bigaj et al. 1999; Cook et al. 2009; Murray et al. 2009; Zhang et al. 2010; Lombardi and Murray 2011; Murray et al. 2011), the emotional valence associated with accommodations is uniformly negative. In many faculty members’ minds, the fact that one must accommodate learners with disabilities brings up feelings of uncertainty about the legitimacy of giving one student different treatment, confusion about where to start or what actions to take, annoyance at having to do extra work, and even anger at the student for asking for a perceived unfair advantage over others in the course.

By reframing UDL away from its narrow application in disability support situations, campus leaders can advocate for adopting simple UDL strategies that allow faculty members to reach out to students on their mobile devices. Think of the single mother who has to put her children to bed but still wants to watch a professor’s how-to videos. She turns the sound off and the captions on, and she finds 40 minutes for school work that she would not have had before. The sports team studying on the bus to an away game, the working student studying on the train on the way home from work—everyone benefits from having at least one choice about how they interact with their courses, peers, and faculty members.

UDL is not the same as accommodations. In fact, UDL is about making changes at the level of design that make accommodations less necessary. Campus leaders can advocate for adopting UDL at its simplest level—and in only three places in the curriculum—to increase three student behaviors: 

UDL, according to its neuroscientist originators at CAST, involves creating multiple ways for learners to be engaged with their learning, multiple ways to represent information, and multiple ways for learners to demonstrate their skills (CAST 2014).

We can simplify this even further by saying that UDL is merely “plus one” thinking: wherever there is an interaction in a course, add one more way to have that interaction. Student persistence, retention, and satisfaction consistently correlate with learners whose courses provide them with choices about how they get information, show their knowledge, and stay engaged with the course (Tobin 2014, 18–20). Faculty members already likely know the points in their courses where learners always

Those are the three “pinch points” in each course where offering choices to learners helps increase access and understanding. Where learners always ask questions, create a FAQ and then make an alternative format, like video responses to some of the most common questions. Where learners always get things wrong on tests, create a study guide that takes more than one format: text and audio, for instance. Allow learners to create a traditional three-page essay or turn in a five-minute video report, as long as the same objectives cover both formats. Where learners always want different explanations, provide encouragement to help them go out and find answers that fit their questions. 

The president jotted down a few notes on her legal pad and asked the provost to speak to the faculty senate at its next meeting to get the members’ input and guidance about how to reach out to the college’s students on their mobile devices. Although neither of them would use the words “universal design for learning,” their vision would be guided by the thought that they were trying to carve time back out of already busy student lives, and that by providing better access to interactions and materials, they and their faculty colleagues would also be reducing the need for anyone—disability or not—to have to ask for special treatment. It was all about offering learners choices. The provost took some notes, closed his binder, looked at his watch, and realized he was already late for his next appointment. As he hurried off, the president smiled quietly, knowing that UDL would be the faculty’s idea and that she would support it wholeheartedly. 


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Tobin, T. J. 2014. “Increase Online Student Retention with Universal Design for Learning.” Quarterly Review of Distance Education 15 (3): 13–24. http://www.engl.duq.edu/servus/cv/QRDE.UDL.Article.pdf.

Zhang, D., L. Landmark, A. Reber, H. Hsu, O. Kwok, and M. Benz. 2010. “University Faculty Knowledge, Beliefs, and Practices in Providing Reasonable Accommodations to Students with Disabilities.” Remedial and Special Education 31 (4): 276–286.

Thomas Tobin, PhD, is the conference programming chair and a faculty associate on the Learning Design, Development, & Innovation team at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Academic Leader. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.