Moving a Taxonomy of Inclusive Design from Theory to Practice

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Educators can use a number of practical strategies to incorporate accessibility and inclusion into their teaching and learning practices. This is the second post in a series that explores concepts, practices, and organizational shifts that are central to inclusive pedagogy in higher education.

multiple cubes of various sizes labelled 'Theory'. one red sphere labelled 'Practice'.
Credit: iQoncept / © 2019

In our November 15 Transforming Higher Ed blog post, we consulted the collective intelligence of EDUCAUSE Review readers by asking you to share how you define inclusion.1 Your responses did not disappoint. We learned that in education, inclusion is both a set of practices and an intended outcome of course design, regardless of the structures used to deliver instruction.

Using this conceptual framework to inform our discussion around inclusive design, a logical next step is to consider how we might put disclosure, accessibility, and inclusion into practice. Fortunately, many conversations are happening in our community of practice around "good" teaching, particularly in an age of digitally enhanced and online/blended teaching and learning. These conversations include the following research-based and practitioner-endorsed practices (in addition to online/blended quality assurance efforts):

"Good" Teaching Practices

  • Releasing the syllabus before the start of the term so that students can make preparations2
  • Stating learning objectives and aligning content and assessments to them3
  • "Humanizing" the online experience with video, voice, and empathetic interaction4
  • Enacting a quick turnaround for reviewing assignments so that students receive timely feedback on their work5

All of these actions (and many more) are important elements of "good" teaching. However, even an instructor who does all of these things might still overlook certain intersecting, invisible barriers that their students are experiencing. In their seminal work Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research, Linda B. Nilson and Ludwika A. Goodson begin from a point of principle, stating that "excellent teaching is excellent teaching—and, conversely, ineffective teaching is ineffective teaching—whether the environment is classroom-based, online, or hybrid." They go on to identify an abundant research base for best practices in teaching, as well as important ways that mediated environments present challenges for both students and instructors. Their book also contains a wealth of useful ideas for delivering effective online/digitally mediated instruction.6

Through our examination of inclusive design theory and habits of mind for inclusive practice, we have learned that good teaching is good teaching—yes—and that inclusive pedagogies are always "good teaching" but "good teaching" is not always inclusive.

With this post, we aim to reveal ways of thinking about course design and instruction to bridge theories of inclusion with deliberate practice. For example, consider the following techniques and their connection to inclusion:

  • Proper formatting styles to create readable documents
  • Correct name pronunciation for acknowledging students' identities
  • Student-centered language for demystifying expectations
  • Alternative formats for media and files to increase usability

To reveal habits of mind for deliberate practice, we have added the following inclusive design considerations to the "good" teaching practices listed at the beginning of this post, plus a few more. Under each "good" teaching practice are three inclusive design considerations that are framed as guiding questions. Design considerations are listed in the following order: accessibility, student-centered design, and disclosure considerations.

"Good" Teaching Plus Accessibility and Student-Centered Design

  • Releasing the syllabus before the start of the term so that students can make preparations
    • Does the syllabus incorporate proper text formatting, list styles, and unique hyperlinks?
    • How is the syllabus made available to students (or where is it located)? How are required updates made and communicated to students?
    • Are links and references to important class and campus policies (e.g., disability statement, late work policy, or community ground rules) included?
  • Using a learning management system (LMS) to house course materials and communicate with students
    • Is the text properly formatted, do graphics contain meaningful alt-text, and does embedded media include captions or transcripts?
    • Whether the course itself is online, blended, or face-to-face, is the site easily navigable, and are materials organized in a way that makes sense for students?
    • Is the site optimized for multiple types of devices and operating systems (e.g., mobile, desktop, PC, Mac), or are students advised how best to access the site?
  • Stating learning objectives and aligning content and assessments to them
    • Does the course content reflect multiple points of view?
    • Are there multiple opportunities for representation, expression, and engagement (universal design for learning)?
    • Are objectives written in such a way that students will understand what they are expected to know and be able to do as a result of the course or lesson?
  • "Humanizing" the online experience with video, voice, and empathetic interaction
    • Are captions or transcripts available for media?
    • Does the instructor pronounce students' names correctly in voice or video feedback?
    • Are there opportunities to make personal connections with individual students?
  • Providing a quick turnaround for assignments so that students receive timely feedback on their work
    • Are scoring guides or rubrics used to attempt an unbiased evaluation of student work?
    • Are students acknowledged by name, and are their names spelled and pronounced correctly?
    • Is feedback tailored to students' specific stage of development in the course, and is feedback designed to help them grow?
  • Seeking mid-term (and end-of-term) course feedback from students as an opportunity to hear what parts of the course are going well and what elements could use some attention
    • Are students provided options for how feedback is shared (e.g., on paper, online, or in person)?
    • Is feedback collected on multiple aspects of the course (e.g., specific readings, learning activities, and assignments)?
    • Are students provided an opportunity or invitation to disclose circumstances that could impact their learning?
  • Facilitating group work or experiential learning opportunities
    • Are options provided to meet the needs of diverse learners?
    • Are students provided with class time or access to and training with specific tools required for remote/online collaboration?
    • Are group norms established to clarify roles and expectations for the learning experience?

The list above is not exhaustive; however, we hope that it demonstrates seemingly small, tacit ways of thinking about course design and instruction that can make an important impact on the student experience. 

To demonstrate what some of these instructional considerations look like in practice, we offer two examples of instructions for an assignment that asks students to conduct research and apply their learning from the course into their submission. Assignment Example #1 shows how an assignment on hot topics for research, analysis, and policy solutions was drafted in the LMS and communicated to students. The instructions are straightforward, and the expectations for the product are generally clear. However, as written, these instructions miss an opportunity for inclusion. The assignment would be more inclusive if it incorporated student-centered language and accessible formatting. We adapted Mary-Ann Winkelmes's Transparent Assignment Template and applied some of the inclusive design considerations described above to create Assignment Example #2 as a proof-of-concept. For example, the revision includes correct text formatting (e.g., headers), student-friendly language that communicates the skills and knowledge that will be used and demonstrated with the assignment, and inclusive pronouns to convey empathy and a sense of community. Admittedly, even this revision could be improved to add student choice and diverse perspectives to the assignment. Another resource for developing a pedagogy of inclusion is Peralta Community College District's Online Equity Rubric, which can function as a lens similar to our guiding questions for inclusive practice. 

The good news is that pedagogical resources are available; the challenge lies in incorporating inclusive design considerations into routine practices for course development and instruction. 

Contribute to the Conversation!

Tweet your favorite inclusive design practices and resources, and be sure to tag @TLIatCI, @a11ygal, and @lgonzalez1.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative page.


  1. Lorna Gonzalez and Kristi O'Neil, "A Taxonomy of Inclusive Design: On Disclosure, Accessibility, and Inclusion," Transforming Higher Ed (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, November 15, 2019.
  2. Flower Darby, "How to Be a Better Online Teacher," Chronicle of Higher Education, n.d., accessed September 15, 2019.
  3. Linda Nilson and Ludwika Goodson, Online Teaching at Its Best (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2017).
  4. Michelle Pacansky-Brock, "Teaching in the Era of Bots: Students Need Humans Now More Than Ever," EdSurge, April 25, 2018.
  5. Jackie Dobrovolny and Jill Coddington, "Provide Formative Feedback for Student Success in Interactive Assessment," Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository (Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning, 2015).
  6. Nilson and Goodson, Online Teaching at Its Best.

Lorna Gonzalez is an Instructional Designer for Teaching and Learning Innovations and a Lecturer at California State University Channel Islands.

Kristi O'Neil is the Instructional Technologist-Accessibility Lead for Teaching and Learning Innovations at California State University Channel Islands.

© 2019 Lorna Gonzalez and Kristi O'Neil. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.