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

Maximizing Learning and Creativity Cross-Institutionally via UDL

University of Illinois-Springfield invited me to visit their campus’ Teaching and Technology Day to present on UDL and to work with their faculty and staff on integrating some of the finer points of accessibility and good design. It was a fantastic experience as I got to present to some incredible faculty and staff both in person and virtually. Feel free to watch the presentation!

Maximizing Learning, Creativity, Innovation for All

It was a wonderful experience to keynote alongside some other talented professionals and visionaries, especially on such a beautiful campus. In having some great conversations with people like Ray Schroeder, we discovered that we are all striving to the same goal: creating experiences that keep students interested, engaged, and persistent. Great to talk through some of these topics with like-minded individuals!

keynote flyer for UIS technology day

Pillars, sidewalks, buildings on the UIS campus


I would love to make it back there soon and will certainly continue to collaborate with these great people!

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 (

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.

Learning more about Accessibility

ODEE recently had a great post on web accessibility (find it here) and it addressed many of the key points that are integral to developing courses with all learners in mind. Although a very important topic, it generally does not seem to be the first thing people think about when it comes to course design. However, if we try making accessibility a priority instead of an afterthought, you’ll save yourself time and aggravation by planning ahead.

There are a few places you can go for help. First off, reach out to your friendly folks in the Web Accessibility Center. You can find them here. They also have a wonderful resource wiki that covers a myriad of topics. Here’s the link:

There is a lot of constantly evolving information in the wiki listed above, so I’d like to point out a few key concepts from it that should help you take some small steps towards incorporating accessibility into everyday content creation.

Please consider the quality of the source material. Badly or improperly scanned documents often cannot be read by screen reading technology. Quite often, the library may have the same article in a higher quality format, so if you have your doubts about the quality of the scan, it would behoove you to look for a better one.

Try to use the PDF format for your documents. Myriad types of software can read them, and Microsoft Word and PowerPoint can natively export PDF files. The Web Accessibility Center has some great information on creating PDF’s on their wiki, which can be found here:

If you decide you want to start to incorporate video into your courses, that’s great! However, in order to accommodate all learners, we’ll need to make sure we have captions. YouTube can actually automatically caption videos for you, but good audio is a must. Concise and clear speech help this process. The good thing is that you can fix the captions afterwards, but just like anything else, it’s best to start with a solid foundation. If you want some help and more information on the best practices of captions, check out this link.

In the end, please know that you are not on this journey alone, and that there are staff out there that would love to help you make your materials and courses more accessible.