Universal Instructional Design in Online Courses

Universal Instructional Design (UID) is an educational design approach that seeks to provide access to learning for all students. By considering the potential needs of all learners, UID recognizes and removes barriers that impede learning (Burgstahler, 2015). 

The Principles of UID 

The following outlines the UID principles and strategies to implement during the phases of designing, delivering, and evaluating an online course. 

UID PrincipleDesignDeliveryEvaluation
  1. Be accessible and fair
  • Consider if your course is accessible on a desktop, laptop, tablet, and phone.
  • Post accessible resources. For example, videos with captions, audio files with transcripts, accessible file format of resources, and electronic textbooks.
  1. Be straightforward and consistent
  • Develop assessments and learning activities that align to the learning objectives.
  • Give clear instructions on assessments and include grading rubrics.
  • Ensure consistency of course navigation and layout from week to week.
  • Break content into smaller sections over multiple pages with plenty of white space.
  • Use headings, subheadings, lists, and tables.
  • Ensure ease of readability of font type, size, and colour.
  • Be consistent with using the terminology and naming structures that are used in UM Learn.
  • Encourage students to share their diverse experiences and perspectives in online discussions.
  1. Provide flexibility in use, participation, and presentation
  • Design frequent opportunities for assessment in the term.
  • Design peer and self-assessments.
  • Consider whether your assessments can offer students choice in the topic they select.
  • Consider whether your assessments can offer students choice in medium they select. For example, tests, assignments, journals, blogs, video/audio recordings, artistic representation, etc.
  • Vary the type of questions and activities in the discussion forum. For example, think-pair-share, role-play, case studies, debates, problems, etc.
  • Provide materials in multiple modalities such as video, audio, images, diagrams, text, etc.
  1. Be explicitly presented and readily perceived
  • Include the U of M Student Accessibility Services statement in your course syllabus.
  • Include a section in your syllabus on student and instructor expectations.
  • Provide learning objectives at the beginning of a unit.
  • Define new terms and acronyms at the beginning of a unit. Avoid jargon and slang.
  • Make key points in a unit stand out so students know where to focus their attention.
  • Add alternative text (ALT text) descriptions for images and tables to be identified by screen readers.
  • Post weekly updates and reminders in the announcement tool in UM Learn.
  1. Provide a supportive learning environment
  • Consider if time restrictions on assessments are necessary or if they will increase student anxiety and stress.
  • Break down large assessments into smaller chunks for students to submit in intervals and receive instructor and/or peer feedback.
  • Include an outline at the beginning of each unit and a summary at the end.
  • Design self-understanding and comprehension checks for students at regular intervals in a unit.
  • Post a welcome message in the announcement tool in UM Learn.
  • If possible, send individual welcome e-mails to students at the beginning of a course and periodically throughout the term.
  • Be available to students using a variety of methods: virtual office hours, e-mail, phone, etc.
  • Be present online by posting and responding to discussion forum posts.
  • Set up an icebreaker, water cooler, and Q&A discussion forums.
  • Discuss and model netiquette for discussion forum posts.
  • Provide frequent, timely, and constructive feedback.
  • Elicit feedback from students throughout the term. Conduct a mid-term evaluation using the survey tool in UM Learn.
  • Reflect upon what worked an did not work in the course to make the necessary adjustments for the next time you teach the course.

Making Accessible Documents

Accessibility Features in UM Learn 


ReadSpeaker reads aloud written text and the descriptions of images and tables provided through alternative text (ALT text). This feature is particularly useful for students who require the use of assistive technology such as screen readers.  

  • In an HTML content file in UM Learn, the ReadSpeaker button shows at the top of the page.
  • In a Microsoft Word and PDF content file in UM Learn, click the Open with docReader button at the bottom of the page. 

Accessibility Checker 

The accessibility checker indicates accessibility errors of an HTML content file. It will also provide recommendations for fixing these errors. 

  • While editing an HTML content file in UM Learn, the accessibility checker  shows at the bottom of the page. 


Burgstahler, S. (2015). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice (Second ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press. 

University of Guelph. Universal design – Best practices for online learning. Retrieved from: https://opened.uoguelph.ca/instructor-resources/UD—Best-Practices-for-Online-Learning 

University of Guelph. Universal instructional design (UID) – A workbook for faculty teaching at a distance. Retrieved from: https://opened.uoguelph.ca/instructor-resources/resources/uid-workbook-DE.pdf 

University of Guelph. Universal instructional design principles. Retrieved from: https://opened.uoguelph.ca/instructor-resources/resources/uid-principles.pdf 

University of Guelph. The universal instructional design implementation guide. Retrieved from: https://opened.uoguelph.ca/instructor-resources/resources/uid-implimentation-guide-v13.pdf 

University of Manitoba. Universal instructional design. Retrieved from: https://centre.cc.umanitoba.ca/development/resources/universal-instructional-design/ 

York University. BOLD – Going remote. Provide content in a variety of ways. Retrieved from: https://bold.info.yorku.ca/provide-content-in-a-variety-of-ways/  

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