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.

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