Educational equity encompasses the inclusivity of teaching techniques to ensure that diverse learners can access and demonstrate advanced-level knowledge. Higher education students have become are more racially, ethnically, and ability diverse (Espinosa, Turk, Taylor, & Chessman, 2019). It is imperative, therefore, that higher education institutions are aware of student needs and have both a plan and guiding framework to ensure all students receive adequate support to achieve the learning institutions’ high standards. To encourage diverse students towards success, a supportive framework must be adopted. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2021), full-time undergraduate students who had enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year degree-granting institution identify as: Black (23%) , Hispanics (30%), White (32%), Asians (36%), Pacific Islanders (34%) , American Indians/Alaska Natives (27%), and multiracial (25%). In 2020, the employment rate of persons with disability who had a bachelor’s degree or higher was 25.7% in the United States while only 7.6% of people with less than a high school diploma and who had a disability were employed (The Statista Research Department, 2021). The gaps in achievement and issues with retention exemplify that the current higher education systems are not supportive of students and educators in realizing their potential (Hogan & Rose, 2018).
Higher education students, specifically those utilizing online modalities for learning, are increasingly diverse in terms of disabilities, languages, and cultural barriers, and have substantial skill deficiencies. However, higher education instruction has not changed significantly (Lee, 2017) to meet the needs of incoming learners. Inclusive teaching systems must be investigated and systematically implemented to support these learners.
In addition to the shift in student demographics, the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures to mitigate its spread have caused changes within higher education institutions. The rapid conversion of many traditional courses to online delivery was unprecedented and conceptualized as emergency online teaching or remote teaching (Hodges et al., 2020). This switch from face-to-face teaching to virtual formats demonstrated the urgent need for flexibility and supportive learning modalities for students and academic staff who may be unfamiliar with these learning formats. As discussed by Hodges et al. (2020), many of the online learning experiences that instructors offer their students will not be fully featured or necessarily well planned, and there is a high probability of suboptimal implementation.
Some students and staff can readily embrace this shift to virtual learning, whereas others require additional support to adapt coursework or to meet the needs of the heterogeneous higher education student population. Walters (2020) highlighted the pressing need to focus on Internet access and investment in the technology needed to close the digital divide in online learning for all students. Rogers-Shaw et al. (2018) argued that, despite the possibilities presented by online education and new technologies, students with disabilities, language barriers, and low socioeconomic status are often less successful in school than students from the dominant culture. Consequently, higher education institutions must understand how to best support online learners in a virtual educational environment.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides learning opportunities for all students. Dalton et al. (2019) discussed the core principles of UDL as the creation of varied, accessible, and engaging educational experiences for all students. As stated by Hodges et al. (2020), “…UDL should be part of all discussions around teaching and learning. UDL principles focus on the design of learning environments that are flexible, inclusive, and student-centered to ensure that all students can access and learn from the course materials, activities, and assignments” (p. 7).
The needs of all students should be considered, including students with various learning styles, linguistically diverse students, students who are neurodiverse, and students who benefit from diverse learning strategies. By appealing to the heterogeneous diversity in our higher education student populations, the framework of UDL strives to remove discriminatory practices, as the learning needs of most students are considered when instruction is designed. Therefore, it results in the removal of one-size-fits-all teaching practices (Dalton et al., 2019). At the heart of UDL are its three core principles for instructional design: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression (Rose & Meyer, 2002).
In the 1990s, CAST, Inc. developed the UDL framework for instructional design to guide the inclusive instructional design process, and UDL guidelines to support continued checks for design efficacy. UDL has been increasingly influential in educational systems and policies in the USA, including the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2016 (CAST, 2018). Nelson (2013) mentioned that UDL involves providing deliberately chosen and researched opportunities to all students so they can ultimately understand how to direct their own learning. Creating lifelong learners is the desired outcome.
Although the effectiveness of UDL practices has been discussed, the inclusion of those with learning variabilities has been inconsistent in K-12 settings (De Cesarei, 2015). King-Sears (2014) states that UDL is featured in federal legislation for post-secondary education (Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008). However, a recent review of UDL research at the post-secondary level yielded scant results. Bracken and Novak (2019) affirm the benefit of integrating a research-based design that establishes a framework ensuring access, engagement, and learning outcomes for all students in higher education institutions. This involves the universal design of post-secondary environments that can meet learning requirements, and the support of students in realizing their learning potentials in "wider worlds of social well-being, creativity, and employment" (Bracken & Novak, 2019, p. 3).
Current retention and graduation rates for adult learners demonstrate a need for techniques that support diverse learners. According to Rogers-Shaw et al. (2018), adult educators who follow the well-established but seldom utilized principles of UDL can reimagine how learning occurs and is assessed in the online classroom. It is necessary, therefore, to develop the knowledge of higher education staff in the design of coursework, assessments, and strategies to support diverse learners at higher education institutions.
Post-secondary institutions can support and contribute to one another's learning knowledge by sharing practices and experiences of using UDL (CAST, 2018). This research seeks to support higher education students by investigating student experiences and perceptions of UDL compliance, as well as the impact of UDL-specific techniques on various virtual learning modalities, and by highlighting in which virtual learning modality students feel the most successful.