Creating Equitable Access in the Classroom


In the context of education, equity can be defined as ensuring each student “receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential (National Equity Project, 2022).”

Access… is tied to the social organization of participation, even to belonging. Access not only needs to be sought out and fought for, legally secured, physically measured, and politically protected, it also needs to be understood – as a complex form of perception that organizes socio-political relations between people in social space (Titchkosky 2011, 3; emphasis added)


How can we create learning environments in which we avoid putting unequal burdens on some students, especially those who might already be disadvantaged in accessing those environments due to any number of overlapping and intersecting social identities, life experiences, or circumstances? Furthermore, how can we work to identify and address barriers to equitable access for our students in a meaningful and practical way? Oftentimes, equity and access in the context of course design are presented to the instructor as abstract theory they must divine practical applications from, or as checklists to follow. Instead, we suggest a grounded approach to understanding what an equitable and accessible course design looks like as well as ideas on practically applying these concepts to one’s own course. 

The purpose of this resource is 1) to help instructors engage in an informed and practical consideration of barriers to equitable access in the design of their courses and 2) to include those considerations when designing learning activities, selecting and sharing course content, and in approaching the classroom itself.


Typically, approaches to creating inclusive, equitable, and accessible learning environments for students fall into one of two categories through which instructors attempt to provide equitable access by pursuing a particular form(s) of an intervention. This section briefly describes the two dominant approaches to creating equitable access for students, before introducing a third, middle-ground approach. Note: while the contextualization of the grounded approach we advocate taking has its origins in Disability Studies theory, this sheet is intended to help instructors think and work through questions of equitable access for all students (see: Jenks, 2022).  

Click on the names of the three approaches below to learn more.

Individual Approach (1)

In higher education, access is most commonly equated with accommodations for students with disabilities. Accommodations (or reasonable accommodations) are part of the larger legal framework which protects the rights of people with disabilities in the United States. Accommodations are based upon individual need, and students can receive those accommodations  at their educational institution after they seek out and undergo a medical exam where a physician verifies their disability status. That verification is then brought to a university-wide disability services office (DSS at UD) where a specialist works with the student to determine an appropriate set of reasonable accommodations in line with that student’s needs. Documentation for those accommodations is submitted by DSS to the instructor of each course that a student is enrolled in. Finally, the instructor needs to ensure accommodations are met, often by re-tooling some aspect of their course design to fit the needs of students who need accommodations OR by creating individualized course materials and learning activities for those students. 

This process typifies the individual (1) approach to the creation of equitable access, where barriers to access are understood and addressed on an individual level. The location of barriers for students in accessing a learning experience, course content, or a classroom under this approach are perceived to exist at the individual level and thus must be addressed at the individual level. This takes a great deal of time and effort on the part of the instructor and if or when barriers present themselves during the course of the semester, instructors often have to come up with solutions that they have not anticipated or been able to plan appropriately for.

Learning Environment (2) (Universal Design) Approach

The second approach focuses on the learning environment (2). Also known as a “universal design” approach, in which barriers to access are anticipated during course design to address these barriers, typically prior to the beginning of the semester. The goal of this increasingly commonly used approach is to locate and eliminate barriers to equitable access within the learning environment, as opposed to within the individual learner. When using this approach, instructors work to create more universally accessible learning environments, experiences, and ways to engage their students. Generally speaking, this is done through the adoption of some form of universal design for learning framework like UDL.

The most popular learning environment framework, the Center for Applied Special Technology’s (CAST) Universal Design for Learning (UDL) tool, seeks to support students to become “expert learners”. It is rooted in educational psychology with origins in special education K-12 research. UDL can be applied during course design to reduce barriers and maximize learning according to specific learning goals. This is accomplished at a very basic level by creating many variations of certain aspects of a course (content, learning activities, ways to submit assignments). You can learn more about UDL on our resource page at this link. Importantly, this approach can create a belief that if a course is designed using principles of UDL, it is accessible to all through design and ex ante planning alone. However, adoption of just some principles of UDL can end up not accurately addressing the needs of learners, and the notion that barriers to equitable access reside in the learning environment alone is something that even those who have developed the tool recognize as a shortcoming (Dolmage, 2017).  

Interactions & Relationships (3) Approach

We recommend a third way, a middle-ground we term an interactions and relationships (3) approach. This approach understands barriers to equitable access for students (and ways to address those barriers) as being co-constructed, rather than located within the individual or the learning environment alone. Access, and barriers to it, are thus a bit more difficult to identify. We borrow from literature in Disability Studies in defining access. 

Access… is tied to the social organization of participation, even to belonging. Access not only needs to be sought out and fought for, legally secured, physically measured, and politically protected, it also needs to be understood – as a complex form of perception that organizes socio-political relations between people in social space (Titchkosky 2011, 3; emphasis added)

This interactions and relationships approach has yet to be well defined and named as such in the literature on equitable access in course design. However, we at CTAL have successfully presented this approach in support materials developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which can translate to all teaching contexts. For application of these principles, see Jenks (2022) and the examples section below. 


Table 1: Typology of Approaches to Equitable Access

The table below lays out the perceived location of barriers in the learning environments we design for our students in each of these three approaches as well as other characteristics of the three approaches. 

Approach: Individual (1) Interactions & Relationships (3) Learning Environment (2)
Understands barriers as located… Within the individual Within the interaction between the individual and the learning environment Within the learning environment
Addresses barriers… After the fact (Ad hoc) Regularly and throughout the semester Prior to the beginning of the semester (ex ante)
Understands barriers as… Mostly static Fluid and context-dependent Mostly static
Addresses barriers by… Case by case solutions Both anticipating, and adapting to, barriers Universal solutions



To apply the interactions and relationships (3) framework outlined above, instructors are encouraged to engage, either formally or informally, in locating barriers to access and considering how to address them. When locating barriers within the interaction between the individual and the learning environment you understand barriers as fluid and context dependent and you address them as such by both anticipating and adapting to those barriers throughout the course of the semester.

Instructional Contexts:

The application of an interaction and relationships approach to creating equitable access in the classroom applies to all instructional contexts.However, there are distinct considerations you will need to make based upon a number of factors, including, but not limited to:

  • Course modality (e.g. asynchronous? in-person?)
  • Class size
  • Student grade level (first-year versus graduate students)
  • Department, program, or university-wide mandates and/or requirements to include:
    • The purchase of, or subscription to, a particular program or statistical software package
    • Required modality of student work (xxxx number of total words submitted)
    • Preparation for a non-UD exam taken after completion of a degree program

Disciplinary contexts:

This approach is applicable to all disciplinary contexts.

Things to consider:

The most important things to consider when aiming to create equitable access in your courses is how much modification you can make to a course once it has begun if students (or you) have difficulty with a particular course element. 

  • Do you have time to create primers for those who do not have sufficient background knowledge in a particular area? 
  • Do you have the ability to anticipate particular barriers students may perceive and include explicit instructions about communication with you as the instructor in your syllabus? 
  • Do you include UD resources available to all students via campus support units like the Office of Academic Enrichment, Professional and Continuing Studies, UD Library, Museums, and Press, and IT-Academic Technology Services? 
  • Can you choose a lower-tech, more universally accessible way for students to collaborate with one another during class time?

Creating equitable access should not feel like a burden on you as an instructor. Ultimately, equitable access in teaching and learning is attained through iteration, negotiation, and patience. Most importantly, the concepts presented here are meant to help you more intentionally design your courses to meet the needs of your students and you as the instructor.


This is a list of some barriers to access which present themselves in the classroom and considerations you should make. 

Examples of Barriers to Equitable Access What you should consider
Cost of Technology & Course Materials
  • Big, “obvious” items like students owning a computer, being able to purchase an expensive textbook or special clothing, or being able to travel reliably to an off-campus course location.
  • Small, less “obvious” items like students having a Netflix subscription, access to cellular data in the field, or access to a computer with a traditional operating system with access to many complex applications (e.g., not an iPad or a Chromebook).
Divergent Beliefs

Assumptions you may have of your students:

  • Can attend all class sessions.
  • Have the ability to complete assignments and meet due dates that work for you as the instructor.
  • Are able to do class work or attend meetings during your working hours.
  • Will reach out to you individually when they have a problem or are unsure about something.
  • Will engage with and incorporate feedback you give them on assignments.

Assumptions your students may have of you:

  • You do/do not want students to ask questions.
  • You are/are not empathetic to students’ lives outside of courses.
  • You do/do not want students to come to you unless they have a “big” issue in class.
  • You do/do not care if students get a bad mark in your course.
Comprehension/Feedback Loop

You may have difficulty because you:

  • Cannot always gain useful feedback from students during or between class sessions.
  • Have not created formal opportunities for students to provide feedback to you about the course or its content.

Students may have difficulty because they:

  • May not have a low stakes way to ask questions when they are unsure or confused.
  • Are not sure about how to approach you or ask questions.
  • Do not feel comfortable approaching you via certain modalities if they have to communicate an individual or group issue.
  • Have little practice in giving meaningful feedback when prompted.
Technological Literacy & Proficiency

You may assume:

  • Students are familiar with and able to quickly navigate various university-sponsored technologies like:
    • Library course reserves
    • Canvas
    • Perusall
    • Campus–wide support services (tutoring, counseling, writing center, advising, DSS)
    • In-class polling software (PollEverywhere, iClickers, Kahoot)
    • Google suite products (including Docs, Sheets, Jamboards)
  • Students know how to freely access news and scholarly sources behind paywalls.
  • Students know how to record audio/visual content, create multimedia presentations, etc.

Your students may assume:

  • You do/do not use a particular organizational scheme for your Canvas course or other online materials.
  • You do/do not use particular formats for meeting with students or responding to their inquiries.
Background Knowledge
  • Have all students taken any pre-requisite courses for your course?
  • Is this an introductory course even if it’s technically a higher level course?
  • Can you provide primers for students who have no background in a particular subject?
Private & Stable Workspace
  • Do students have access to a quiet space to have meetings or record video/audio of themselves delivering a presentation?
  • Do students with a mix of in-person and online classes have time to get to/from a quiet and stable workspace in 15 minutes?
Hearing, Seeing, Understanding, Processing, Physically Accessing*
  • Video captioning.
  • Pictures or graphics without captions should be explained using alt-text or a detailed description.
  • Modifications to the physical classroom space or assigned seats.
  • Accessibility features in various formats of digital materials (OCR’d .pdfs, system headings in Word documents)
Mental Health and Anxiety
  • Do students have access to and take advantage of tools and services that support their mental health during times of high stress?
  • Have students developed appropriate and useful strategies to maintain healthy habits that will allow them to be successful in college, broadly speaking?
  • Are students able to recognize signs of anxiety within themselves and others that might precipitate a crisis?

*Notice that only a small portion of the barriers to access identified were related to disability, which, again, typically dominates discussions around equitable access in the university setting. Many of these barriers to access fall within the context of a particular course, and are relational in nature. Importantly, course content posted online is never simply accessible or inaccessible, or 80% accessible, as the Canvas learning management system’s accessibility checker might lead you to believe. 


Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education (p. 244). University of Michigan Press.

Jenks, A. B. (2022). Access is Love: Equity-Minded Pandemic Pedagogy. In Pandemic Pedagogy (pp. 141-155). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 

National Equity Project. (2022). Frameworks. 

Rose, D., Ralabate, P., & Meo, G. (2014). The five phases of the UDL implementation process: Tools to guide your journey. Implementing Universal Design for Learning. 

Titchkosky, T. (2011). The question of access: Disability, space, meaning. University of Toronto Press.