Inclusive Design

Inclusive Design is an approach to teaching which acknowledges that students have diverse learning styles, abilities, backgrounds and experiences. It aims to create a learning environment that is adaptable to the specific needs of students.  

Here are four guiding principles


All learners, not just adult learners, appreciate choice. When you offer students choice, you trust them to make good decisions about their learning. You can give your students choice by providing multiple ways to:

1. Gain and demonstrate knowledge

Students have specific needs which may vary greatly. Students appreciate choice on how they engage with your course. For example, if students are interested in different aspects of your field, you might consider providing optional resources tailored to each aspect. One way to poll students about this is by holding an introductory Discussion or Survey at the beginning of your course. 


You might also consider giving students a choice between assignments depending on what they wish to gain from your course. This can mean, for example, a choice of writing a term paper, drafting a final report, or creating a multimedia project. Even if the assignment is low stakes, try to offer students some choice of assessment type. 

2. Interact with your course and each other

Students learn in different ways, so it's crucial to make your course content available in a variety of formats. This means using a mix of media – e.g. text, audio, video, images, graphics etc. – when presenting course materials.

You might also consider designing assessments that give students a choice of collaborators. An easy way to do this is through a discussion board. But you might also consider allowing students to create their own project groups based on their interests, goals, learning styles, and abilities. 


As educators, we should be as clear and transparent as possible with our students about our goals, intentions, and expectations. These should be articulated not only in your syllabus, but interwoven throughout your whole course.

One way to do this is by creating a clear modular structure that explains the instructional purpose of all material and activities, and how they align with your learning outcomes. This is what we mean by pairing content with context.

Inclusive design also means using plain language, simple sentence structures, bulleted lists, and brief summary paragraphs to help students understand and identify key information. We've tried to do this in all of our pages, especially our Weekly Overviews.



Students should feel that they are valued as unique individuals and that their experiences enrich your course. An inclusive course demonstrates sensitivity to the diverse cultural backgrounds of students and provides them with meaningful ways to incorporate and draw connections from their personal experiences. Try to offer students ways to submit assignments (e.g. discussions) that allow them not only to draw on relevant personal experience, but also reflect on the value of doing so. 

Sensitivity should also extend to student privacy. For example, some students may not feel comfortable sharing certain personal information. The following discussion is a good example of sensitive, inclusive design. Notice that it does not require the information, but instructs students to share only as much as they "feel comfortable with:" 

Inclusive Bio Discussion

Additionally, FERPA privacy law protects students' email addresses, and students may wish to keep this information private. This is why we require you to instruct students to use the Canvas Inbox if they prefer not to disclose their email.

Finally, you should be sensitive to students' varying comfort level with technology. Some students may need some additional support or instructional scaffolding to succeed in the course. One way to do this is to anticipate any potential technical obstacles, such as uploading an assignment file or taking a quiz. For the assignment, you might consider allowing for text entry submission and/or providing screenshot instructions. And for lower stakes quizzes, you might wish to give students multiple attempts and no time limit for completion. 


Inclusive design overlaps significantly with accessibility. In Canvas, there are certain things you can do to make your course content accessible to all students. This includes students with special physical, sensory, or cognitive requirements, while accounting for the different ways that students learn.

  1. Caption your videos. All recorded lectures or videos should have captions. If you create your videos with Panopto, you can import automatic captions and edit these yourself.
  2. Add alternative tags to your embedded images. Screen readers cannot read images, but they can read alternative text provided about that image. Here are instructions on how to add alternative text to your images in Canvas.
  3. Avoid uploading scanned PDFs. PDFs are not accessible if you cannot highlight the text. PDFs should be tagged and formatted so they can be read by screen readers
  4. Avoid using tables to organize information. Tables are confusing for screen readers and don't always resize correctly for various screen sizes. Instead, use bulleted lists.
  5. Attach embedded links to descriptions. When embedding a link, it is not good practice to simply paste in the URL into the page. Instead, attach the link to words that describe the link destination Doing this will help everyone – with or without a screen reader – understand where the link will take them. Context is important!

For a more comprehensive set of guidelines, please consult Canvas's General Accessibility Design Guidelines



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