How to Build Meaningful Relationships in Online Classrooms with Universal Design for Learning
By Robert LeGary Jr. Director, Master of Education Program, Assistant Professor, Senior Teaching Fellow
As the availability of online education continues to grow, there remains skepticism about the value of learning online vs. the in-classroom experience. In my experience, online learning spaces can be fertile ground for cultivating genuine, supportive, and formative relationships among students, as well as between students and faculty. This is exactly what happens in the joint degree M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership program at Goodwin University and University of Bridgeport.
This past spring, I presented virtually on this topic at the Pedagogicon Relationship-Rich 2022 Conference sponsored by East Kentucky University. My presentation, titled Applying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles for Building Intentional Student-Faculty Relationships in an Online M.Ed. Program, focused on the overlap and alignment between the Universal Design for Learning (UDL; CAST, 2018) Engagement Guidelines and Chickering and Reisser’s (1993) Seven Principles of Good Practice in Higher Education, which remains a touchstone of modern education theory and practice.
My presentation examined how those relationship-building practices that have been so effective with student success in the classroom can be transferred to an online learning environment. The approach centers on a combination of synchronous and asynchronous sessions through the application of UDL Engagement Guidelines, including student voice and autonomy, collaboration and community building, and support with coping strategies and self-assessment.
The design and format of the M.Ed. program lends itself naturally to promoting student and faculty relationships through a variety of engagement opportunities. A cohort model with a flipped learning approach, the M.Ed. program, over five consecutive semesters, fosters positive rapport among students and faculty. The synchronous, live class sessions are collaborative spaces, held via Zoom, which encourage active learning, critical reflection, and peer review activities. This style of open communication and collaboration helps students hone their learning and teaching practice and apply it to their own classroom or work setting. Small group activities like “pair-share” and “jigsaw” provide students with opportunities to discuss and reflect on course content, offer recommendations for each other’s teaching strategies, and build a community of practice that extends beyond class sessions and throughout their matriculation.
During the presentation, I shared student testimonials that aligned with the UDL Engagement guidelines and the Seven Principles of Good Practice in Higher Education, highlighting the relationship-rich learning experiences of the M.Ed. program. One participant valued how the cohort has “an incredibly strong bond…where it feels as though I can be myself, ask questions without hesitation, and learn in an environment that everyone wants to help each other be successful.” Another student highlighted her appreciation for personalized feedback and a sense of belonging, saying, “I love the video feedback from [instructor]. It is encouraging and helpful with corrective feedback. I appreciate all your [cohort] support, and I feel like I belong to this program.” Noting challenges with time management and personal demands, a student expressed that she was “most grateful for all the support throughout the chaos of this year” and “for meeting and collaborating with everyone.”
These students’ voices are powerful and validate how those on-ground practices of facilitating relationships, cultivating collaboration, and engaging student-faculty feedback exchanges can be effectively applied to synchronous online learning environments through UDL engagement strategies. Throughout the presentation, conference participants were encouraged to reflect on their current online courses and imagine UDL Engagement strategies that can be implemented to support relationship building among students and faculty.
Many participants acknowledged how UDL strategies, proactively and intentionally implemented, can support student engagement in online learning. Furthermore, as Margaret Wheatley (2002) cogently says, “Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in a relationship to everything else.” In our case, relationships drive the learning, and the more we can cultivate these relationships in all available learning environments, the more our students can succeed.
Goodwin University adopted Universal Design for Learning as a framework for learning and teaching in 2016. Since then, the University has graduated seven cohorts of Teaching fellows and one cohort of Senior Teaching fellows through the Advanced UDL Institute. As experts in implementing UDL strategies at post-secondary institutions, Goodwin faculty have brought UDL to the University of St. Joseph and University of Bridgeport.
To learn more about UDL visit:
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Chickering, A. W., & Reisser, L. (1993). Education and identity (2nd Ed.). Jossey Bass.
Wheatley, M. J. (2009). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. Berrett- Koehler.
Dr. Robert LeGary is an established educational leader in K-12 special education. He has served and partnered with children, adolescents, and their families in their pursuit of equitable educational opportunities. Having worked with students with complex learning profiles, LeGary brings a level of empathy, compassion, and optimism to his teaching practice while removing barriers for all students to realize their academic and career potential. As an experienced higher education instructor, LeGary is passionate about UDL and inclusive teaching practices. He believes that learning is a collaborative, equitable, and visible process that is mutually beneficial and transformative for both students and the teacher. LeGary enjoys sharing his teaching and leadership experiences in the classroom as the program director for the Master of Education degree in Teacher Leadership at Goodwin University and University of Bridgeport