Five Course Design Tricks to Maximize Learning, Creativity, Engagement (EDUCAUSE 2015)

On October 19th I was invited to present at a widely renowned national conference called EDUCAUSE. EDUCAUSE brings together higher education professionals, leaders, IT providers, administrators, faculty, and some of the most brilliant minds in the field.

My topic? Five Online Course Design Tricks to Maximize Learning, Creativity, Engagement.

Universal Design for Learning is a framework for designing learning experiences that meet the diverse needs of a wide variety of learners, including those with disabilities. Happily, when you design with those diverse needs in mind the experience of every student will be improved. The result will be increased learning, creativity, and engagement.

For an 8 AM session I had a large and engaged audience who were eager to share their ideas, impressions, and takeaways. At the end of the session, participants were invited to tweet at least one thing they would do now based on the presentation. Check out the hashtag #myUDL to see their responses. Below are some highlights:

Now I will:

  • @maggiericci says, “Check out the personas on”
  • @dancinjul says, “Create accessible templates”.
  • @maggiericci says, “Start the UDL conversation really early and make it positive, not apologetic.”
  • @CharleyButcher says, “Give students different ways to demonstrate their mastery of outcomes.”

Have UDL ideas of your own? Feel free to use #myUDL and share!

Want to join the conversation virtually or in person at the next UDL/Accessibility Think Tank at Ohio State? Register here.

UDL/Accessibility Think Tank: Building Expertise in UDL/Accessibility

Two frogs stretching their muscles.

On November 4 from 1-2 PM myself and Laura Fathauer, Grad Asst. and Coordinator of Transcribe OSU, will share a training plan, outline, and prototype for helping faculty and staff exercise and build UDL/accessibility muscles. We are hoping to get feedback and insight from roles across OSU in order to gather and eventually address the variety of needs. On Wednesday the 4th we will unveil plans for Phase 1 of the UDL/accessibility training program and gather feedback. We will also begin to talk about Phase 2, which involves different tracks for different roles. Your participation, whether virtual or in person, will be invaluable to the future of accessibility training in Distance Education and across OSU in general.

Join us in Stillman 115 or virtually via CarmenConnect and share your accessibility training needs, ideas, and feedback!

Please register in advance to reserve your place at the table!

Questions? Email

Creating Universally Designed Discussions

Student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction in an online classroom are crucial to engagement and success. In fact, that these opportunities exist is something that Quality Matters feels so strongly about that Standard 5 was created specifically related to this (check out the Quality Matters blog to learn more).

Not only is this crucial for engagement during the course, opportunities to interact and collaborate help students to build soft skills like communication, negotiation, team work, and leadership, which are highly desirable skills for employers.

When designing discussion to be placed online, a unique opportunity emerges. In an online setting, multiple means of representing content and engaging students are more possible than ever. Designing for multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement are keystones to Universal Design for Learning and result in a more positive learning experience for all (CAST, 2013).

Research conducted using a course in the Harvard Graduate School of Education demonstrated application of Universal Design for Learning in discussion design (Rose, et al, 2006). Taking their findings into account, many strategies and examples transfer easily to the online classroom setting. The following represent strategies from the Harvard study by Rose et al. (2006) as they may be applied to an online classroom setting.


Provide multiple discussion groups.

In a physical classroom discussions around content will vary and likely fall anywhere on the spectrum from beginner to advanced. What does this look like? You might have students circling up before class and sharing some of their questions and areas of confusion. You might have a group of students who shares an article they read related to the content. You might have a group of students who want to get together to work collaboratively on a big project coming up. Students will likely move fluidly between these groups depending on their changing needs.

In an online classroom, these groups can still exist and be available depending on what the student needs most. In an online class you might set up several different forums that are open to all students to interact with and to move in and out of “virtually”. Below are some ideas for forums you might create in a single week.

Review Forum

Use this forum space to allow students to ask and answer each others’ questions. It could be highly valuable for the professor to be involved in this forum but is not necessarily required for it to be successful. Often allowing students the chance to share their insight, their perspectives, and “teach” each other results in a deeper grasp of the material. In any case, this space should feel open and welcoming for students to express concerns and confusion and engage with others who may have the same lack of clarity or those who have the insight needed to help.

Advanced Forum

Some students will have easily grasped aspects of the material that week and may want to extend the conversation at a higher level (don’t be surprised to see some students from the “review” group here as well). This group should have discussions around the content that extend learning to a deeper level or that makes meaningful connections to society, the world, their lives, or the profession. The professor may be involved in this forum to help share articles, insight, and professional experience that is meaningful to these deep discussions.

Collaborative Forum

Some students flock toward collaborative work or love to share ideas and get feedback as they work toward goals or assignments. With respect to the skills employers are looking for, these soft skills should be encouraged and a space should be created for students to work together as they would in a physical classroom. While this space may range in level of structure, the professor’s presence could be valuable to help students move forward with their projects and to maximize the “teachable moments”. While not all students will take part in this forum, for those that like the opportunity to brainstorm and talk through ideas together, this will be a valuable space.

Provide options for interaction.

No two students are alike in how they prefer to interact. Some may find it challenging to express their thoughts clearly in writing, while others may find that writing out their thoughts gives them that added opportunity to think things through. To maximize discussion and interaction opportunities, multiple means of expressing their thoughts should be provided.

In the discussion forums this could take shape as a link to a YouTube video, an audio recording, an image collage, text with links or images, or simple text. Students should be encouraged to use the method that works best for them and therefore makes the discussion more interesting and engaging.

Some software programs like VoiceThread allow for a unique experience that provides for many of these interaction options.


Coming soon…Creating Universally Designed Media and Materials


CAST. (2013). About UDL. Retrieved from

Quality Matters (

Rose, D., Harbour, W. Johnston, C.S., Daley, S., Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal Design for Learning In Post Secondary Education: Reflections on Principles and Their Application. National Center on Universal Design for Learning.

Creating Universally Designed Lectures

Lectures are commonly used in higher education as a crucial part of the course foundation and delivery of course content. In-person lectures have an ability to “stress what is significant and important, to clarify tone and intent, to situate and conceptualize meaning, and to provide emotional background” (Rose, Harbour, Johnston, Daley, & Abarbanell, 2006, p. 13). Much of this cannot be interpreted from text alone and a written lecture may miss the mark in stimulating a student’s interest and motivation to learn.

On the other hand, in-person lectures can be cognitively demanding for students and result in gaps in transfer and comprehension as attention is lost or disrupted.

When designing lectures to be placed online, a unique opportunity emerges. In an online setting, multiple means of representing content and engaging students are more possible than ever. Designing for multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement are keystones to Universal Design for Learning and result in a more positive learning experience for all.

Research conducted using a course in the Harvard Graduate School of Education demonstrated application of Universal Design for Learning in lecture design and delivery (Rose, et al, 2006). Taking their findings into account, many strategies and examples transfer easily to the online classroom setting. The following represent strategies from the Harvard study by Rose et al. (2006) as they may be applied to an online classroom setting.


Provide multiple means of representing lecture content.


In a physical classroom lectures are primarily given in person. In the online environment lectures may be given a number of ways. Revisiting the purpose of a lecture (adding context, connecting content to the profession or society, highlighting key points, etc.) may be helpful before beginning to design and plan for a lecture. When you determine your purpose for the lecture you can begin to see multiple opportunities and methods to represent and address the crucial messages and to tell your story. Those methods may include a combination of video, audio, image, interactive learning object, graphic, etc. Additionally, video requires synchronous captions, audio requires a transcript, and images require descriptions to ensure that all students can explore and benefit from any of these options.


Break lecture content into smaller chunks.


A 45-minute lecture, for example, puts a tremendous amount of cognitive load on the brain. For most people, attention span runs out at about five to seven minutes at the maximum. In fact, the average length of time watched of a single internet video is 2.7 minutes (National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2014). Additionally, when content in a single lecture is complex and consists of multiple topics and concepts, this can become even more cognitively burdensome.

In an online environment, we have a unique opportunity to break lectures into smaller bite-size chunks that allow students to see a larger concept broken into meaningful pieces. It also allows students to revisit sections that they either missed, didn’t understand immediately, or found most profound. For students with English as a Second Language or students with disabilities this can be particularly valuable.

One added bonus to chunking content is that if updates are needed to lecture content in the future, it can often be edited more easily in smaller pieces.


Highlight and repeat key points.


While context, examples, and connections are an important part of a lecture, it is also important that students can easily identify the key points of the content. These key points should be highlighted and repeated in lecture content through a variety of means. Key points can be highlighted using PowerPoint slides for emphasis and the lecturer can stress these key aspects in the narrative or audio. Additionally, these key points should be repeated and even used to create the structure of the lecture. These key points may even help in determining how to best chunk a lecture into smaller pieces.

As pieces of the lecture are chunked and key points identified, the lecture should reinforce what’s been covered so far through ongoing and brief recaps of how the key points connect and where the student is currently within the sequence.


Use PowerPoint slides to provide structure.


PowerPoint often gets a bad rap due to either overuse or improper use. The truth is that PowerPoint can be valuable when used correctly. PowerPoint slides can be used to accompany a video lecture (often side-by-side video recording is available) when used to highlight key points or to provide structure to the lecture. In the Harvard study, PowerPoint is primarily used to introduce new topics in the lecture and to summarize previous sections (Rose et al., 2006). As the study mentions, PowerPoint should provide “the structure but not the substance of the presentation” (Rose et al., 2006).


Describe visuals with text and audio.


A visual graphic or image that reinforces the concepts and represents relationships can be quite valuable to include in lecture content. For visual learners or those who are new to the content this can provide added support through multiple means of representation. PowerPoint slides may be used for this purpose. When visuals are used in a video presentation the lecturer should describe the visual orally so that it can be captured in audio and included in the captions. Additionally, that added audio explanation can help drive home the relationship between the graphic and the content. If an interactive learning object is used, be sure to include alternate text for graphics and make sure that it can be navigated with a keyboard.


Offer opportunities for discussion, collaboration and interaction.


Chances are that a single lecture will be interpreted in as many different ways as there are students in the class. Each student has their own unique brain networks that contribute to how a student processes information, organizes and expresses ideas, and engages with the content (CAST, 2013). All of these varied interpretations, perspectives, and personal connections are a gold mine if captured and shared so that students can learn from each other.

One way to capture this potentially powerful element is to provide a shared space where students can contribute their notes taken during the lecture and can read the notes of others. In these notes students are likely to capture what they perceive as key points, bring in additional information from past courses, add their own commentary, and include lingering questions (Rose et al., 2006). In reading each other’s notes they have the opportunity to consider a concept in a new way, achieve a deeper level of understanding about the concept, and perhaps be supported if a concept was challenging to grasp.

One potential tool that allows for this type of interaction is VoiceThread. Students can share their notes/thoughts/reflections through a variety of methods, including video, audio, or text. Another option (though perhaps less flashy) is to provide a wiki space, such as CarmenWiki, where students can contribute. Finally, creating discussion threads around a lecture that act as a free space for students to discuss, share, and interact around the content is a simple and viable option.


Offer opportunities for self-checks.


In a single 45-minute lecture students are often not given the chance to reflect and touch-in to identify if they are grasping a concept before moving on to the next. This metacognitive activity of reflection is crucial to meaningful learning and transfer of knowledge. In fact, Quality Matters standards speak to the importance of allowing students multiple opportunities to check their own knowledge.

With this in mind, when lectures are chunked into smaller pieces (see strategy above), this gives students a chance to reflect and regroup before moving on to the next topic. To support students in this reflection, self-checks can be placed within the course between lecture elements. Self-checks can be a variety of activities including things like journal entries, games, discussions, or an ungraded quiz. Allowing students this opportunity to stop, digest information, and consider how it connects to what they already know allows for meaningful transfer of knowledge and helps to ensure that this new information is assimilated into the student’s current thought processes and perceptions.


Coming soon…Creating Universally Designed Discussions




CAST. (2013). About UDL. Retrieved from

National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2014). Attention Span Statistics. The Associated Press.

Rose, D., Harbour, W. Johnston, C.S., Daley, S., Abarbanell, L. (2006). Universal Design for Learning In Post Secondary Education: Reflections on Principles and Their Application. National Center on Universal Design for Learning.

Alternate Text for Images in Two Minutes or Less

Images used in documents, interactive learning objects, websites, blogs, etc. all require alternate text to ensure that all students can gain meaning from the image or graphic. For students who are blind or have visual disabilities, this alternate text is crucial so that screen readers can identify and describe the image accurately. For others, the additional text may help to ensure that the meaning of the image and its relationship to the content is clear. Accessible content is a requirement of Quality Matters and aligns with WCAG 2.0 web accessibility standards.

Depending on the type of image and its relationship to the content, the nature of the alternate text may vary.

Imagine you have an image that needs alternate text. Let’s explore the process you will take (in two minutes or less) to make the image usable for all! Try using Text Alternatives for Images: A Decision Tree to help you analyze the alternative text needs for your image.


Consider the nature of the image.


Decorative image

The image is purely decorative in that it does not convey any information or is being used simply as a visually pleasing element or spacer.

Informative Image

The image conveys new information of varying levels of complexity including a link, short snippet, or an image conveying a significant amount of information. Images that repeat information should be treated the same as a decorative image.


Construct the correct alternate text.


Decorative Image

Create a null attribute indicating to a screen reader to ignore the image. To set the alternate text, go to the image properties and enter alt=”” in to the space for alternate text. If using coding, enter the null attribute into the coding <img src=”image.gif”alt=””>.

Image Conveying a Link

Include in the alternate text the label for the link (just as you would any hyperlink in your document) as: alt=”label for link”. This should be descriptive and not the URL itself.

Image Conveying a Snippet of Information

Include in the alternate text a very brief description that can be used as a supplement to the caption, if a caption is provided, as alt=”short text alternative”. The alternate text should not be identical to the caption but should be presented in a way that makes sense when read along with the caption.

Image Conveying a Significant Amount of Information

Often graphs, charts, or tables convey complex information that requires a long description. In most cases, this is best done by explaining the graph in text form elsewhere on the page or on a separate hyperlinked page altogether. This can be done by including a hyperlink below the image that says “text version of [insert label]”. In either case, alternate text is still needed to tell the learner where the alternate text can be found. For a long text description included elsewhere on the page include alternate text as alt=”[Image label] – text version below”. For a long description included on a separate web page include alternate text as longdesc=”[Image label]-text.html”.


Set the alternate text.


Provide the alternative text, as described above, by either accessing the image’s properties or by altering the HTML code. When you hover over the image or test accessing it using a screen reader the alternate text should provide a description and relationship to the surrounding content.


The above information is simplified for ease of use but for more information explore:

4Syllables (

WAC’s Guidelines for Describing Graphics (

Closing the Achievement Gap by Design

A recent study examined adjusting classroom design from that of lecture-focused to a design that allows for materials to be read outside of class so that classroom design is used for discussion and group projects, as is the typical model of the flipped classroom. The study focused, in particular, on the impact of a flipped classroom model on the success of sub-populations of students.

The study reveals:

  • Some classroom activities are more beneficial to certain cultures than others. White students seemed to benefit from the opportunity to talk through a problem in a group while Asian American students had greater success when able to think through a problem silently.
  • Black students benefited even more from a flipped classroom than white students, diminishing the achievement gap by half.
  • First-generation students who often come from working-class homes and may not be familiar with the college environment showed increased success in a flipped classroom environment.
  • All students reported higher value on homework and usefulness of skills learned in the course, though Black students reported a more significant increase in their perception of the usefulness of skills learned.
  • Black students were less likely to speak up in class in a lecture-based classroom environment but participated equally to white students in the flipped classroom.

Design Implications for Flipped or Online Courses

“One size fits all” doesn’t work for a variety of reasons, cultural differences being one. However, a course that is universally designed so to meet the needs of all students is a different story. By creating multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement we can allow students to be active learners in a rich and dynamic environment.

Here are just a few ways to address cultural needs in design:

  • Allow students to make choices about how they will learn about a concept. To do this provide several avenues students can choose from to interact with the content; including, a lecture video, an article, a podcast, an infographic, an interactive object or simulation, a story, or perhaps conduct a live conversation (virtual or in person).
  • Design for students to have opportunities to work independently and in a community of learners. Provide discussion groups or workgroups that vary from highly structured to low structure, integrating the instructor into the discussion in meaningful ways.
  • Design activities that hone skills needed in the field. For instance, instead of prompting students to write a paper you may instead give them an option to create a conference proposal on a topic or develop a presentation to a Board of Directors.
  • Create a community of learners by designing activities where students can provide each other feedback in positive and meaningful ways. Develop a checklist or guide to peer feedback that helps teach students how to effectively provide feedback and to coach a colleague.


Let’s continue the conversation around cultural considerations in design. What do you do to ensure your course is culturally sensitive for all?


Eddy, S.L., & Hogan, K. A. (2014). Getting under the hood: How and for whom does increasing course structure work? CBE Life Sciences Education 13(3).

Cultivating Academic Mindsets in the Online Classroom

In a recent article, “Beyond Knowing Facts, How Do We Get to a Deeper Level of Learning?”, Katrina Schwartz, journalist at MindShift, discusses the growing emphasis on depth of learning over breadth of learning. Rather than memorizing facts, the focus is shifting toward a rich learning experience that encourages students to dig deeply into the concepts.

One necessary element for deep learning is to have an academic mindset. This is perhaps one of the larger challenges educators face – getting a student who isn’t motivated to learn on a deep level. In a physical classroom this manifests with an indifferent facial expression, slouching, distraction, or lack of attendance. In the online classroom this can be harder to spot but could appear as work that just meets the requirements, lack of critical thought, minimal engagement in group work or virtual discussions, etc. At the end of the day, students must have an inner-drive in order to learn and educators must be the ones to inspire that drive. This boils down to cultivating an academic mindset.

Schwartz mentions four key beliefs students must hold to learn on a deep level. When I initially read these, I was shocked at their simplicity and saddened that some students may be lacking in these beliefs.

I can change my intelligence and abilities through effort.

When considering this, it occurs to me that many students in higher ed today grew up in the age of the “standardized test”. I can recall taking the California Achievement Test when I was in elementary school and reviewing my results, which measured me against my peers across the nation. What is the potential outcome of children raised in this era? Perhaps instead of taking ownership and believing that they can impact their destiny, they may instead become helpless victims and begin to accept that they aren’t meant to be shining stars in this world.

What can we do to support students believing that they can change their intelligence and abilities through effort?

  • Offer opportunities in the curriculum for students to reflect and acknowledge their progress throughout the course.
  • Provide learning activities that help scaffold and prepare students for assessments so that they feel supported in their growth.
  • Let your students know that you believe in them through personal messages and concrete feedback that lends itself to highlighting positives and areas for growth.

I can succeed.

Imagine being a student entering a class and knowing that, like all of the courses that came before, the chances of being successful are minimal. Students don’t enter Kindergarten believing that they cannot succeed. They learn this through experience.

What can we do to encourage students to believe that they can, in fact, succeed?

  • Give students multiple means of expressing what they have learned. Some students are strong writers while others may be strong in oral communication. Give students options so that they can choose the modality that best suits their strengths.
  • Provide multiple ways for students to interact with the content in the course. While some students may learn best through reading, others may prefer to watch a video or manipulate an object. Providing multiple opportunities can allow students to interact in a way that best suits their learning needs.
  • Give students the chance to support each other through peer review or coaching, thereby giving every student the chance to help each other and to partake in “teachable moments”.

I belong in this learning community.

As educators in a physical classroom, there is always a student or two who sit in the back and do not participate. In an online classroom this occurs in different ways. In an online classroom, students who don’t think they belong are probably coming in with the ghosts of past failures holding them back. They may not have participated in a positive learning environment in the past where they felt free to express their thoughts on a personal level or to connect meaningfully with their classmates.

What can we do to encourage students to believe they belong?

  • Provide ample opportunities for students to connect with each other in meaningful ways around the content or around the experience of being a student in general. This could take shape in a discussion forum or a wiki space.
  • Highlight students who have done great work by encouraging other students to visit their discussion post or by making a class announcement that emphasizes the good work of those in the class.

Provide opportunities for group projects that have defined roles established, allowing each student to contribute in his or her unique way.

This work has value and purpose for me.

Perhaps one of the challenges of higher education today is to shift from memorization and information overload to helping students see how what they are learning is professionally relevant. In the past, many took the stance of “you will learn this because it’s in the textbook” or “because I say this is important”. In the world we live in today, that is not enough. Students have to be able to see the value of what they are learning to engage on a deep level.

What can we do to help students see the value and purpose of the course?

  • Find professionally relevant ways for students to express what they have learned. This may mean stepping back from the standard written paper and exploring other more relevant avenues like a business proposal, a video presentation, an article, a blog site, etc.
  • Integrate context into assignments that illustrates the connection between the assignment, the course outcomes, and the profession as a whole. Be transparent.
  • Use case studies that give students an opportunity to consider a real life scenario and take it apart using the new knowledge presented in the course.

As we help to encourage these academic mindsets we aren’t just engaging students with one course, we are changing the way they view themselves as learners and empowering them to have ownership of their progress and to see that engaging the mind is like working a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it will become.


Schwartz, K. (2014, February 28). Beyond knowing facts, how do we get to a deeper level of learning? MindShift. Retrieved from

Are we unintentionally inhibiting creativity?

Two dancers moving fluidly to music.In many professions the ability to think “outside of the box” and be innovative is desirable, if not crucial for success. Yet, we may be unintentionally inhibiting creativity in the way we design learning activities. In his book, “Effective Innovation”, John Adair lists several actions that creative and innovative individuals should do. Several among the list include:

  • Recognize assumptions and challenge them
  • Suspend judgment
  • Get comfortable living with doubt and uncertainty
  • Consider “invisible frameworks that surround problems/situations
  • Develop ideas drawn together from multiple sources


In addition, obstacles to creativity can include such things as over-application of logic and conforming to rules/regulations.

Now knowing this, how might we be inhibiting creativity in our classrooms? Let’s look at an example of a possible assignment.

Based on what you have learned about the topic of cognitive bias this week, find an image that represents an example of cognitive bias in society. In a one to two page paper describe how the image is representative of cognitive bias.

This activity is engaging and will likely be fun for students as they find evidence of cognitive bias in the world around them. So how is this activity inhibiting creativity?

The answer is one word—“image”. By framing the activity to require an image we are unintentionally limiting students’ creativity. Immediately students with visual impairment are excluded from the activity and students who may prefer to think outside of the box will find themselves limited. Let’s think outside of the box for a moment and consider if there might be a way to allow for creativity while still meeting the desired objectives for the assignment.

What else might students find as representation of cognitive bias in society? Sound bites? Podcast? Newspaper article? Blog? Facebook feed? There could be dozens of possibilities so let’s allow students the chance to think outside of the box and find a representation of cognitive bias that is most meaningful to them. How can we do that? Simple. Change the word “image” to “artifact”. One small change makes the possibilities limitless and accessible for all students.


“When all think alike, then no one is thinking.” – Walter Lippman, writer and political commentator


Goyette, B. (2007). Greg Sample and Jennita Russo of Deyo Dances performing in the modern ballet Brasileiro [Photograph]. Retrieved November 7, 2014 from Wikimedia Commons.