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.