Towards the end of 2020, we launched a new EDI project with Innovate UK into what more inclusive learning experience design looks like, or as we’ve been calling it, ILXD.
The first few weeks on this ILXD project have involved a huge amount of reading and research in order to ultimately develop a practical toolkit to ensure that learning design work is more equitable, diverse and inclusive.
Here are 5 resources that have been especially influential in our thinking so far:
1. Persona spectrums
Personas are a widespread and popular tool in product design because they help us imagine a realistic user – a realistic person who might use the end product of our design process.
But the strength of the persona concept is also its weakness. A persona is a sort of average representation of the characteristics and needs of a range of users (or, in our case, learners). This is useful for seeing what many learners are likely to have in common, but it doesn’t solve the problem of excluding users who fall outside this typical profile for whatever reason.
One way of addressing this exclusion risk is to keep the most useful aspect of personas – commonality – but to place them along a spectrum, revealing how different abilities are related, rather than emphasising how they differ. This way, we focus on what motivates a learner, rather than what defines them. And this reflects the importance of understanding a learner’s context – which is the first of our 3 Learning Design Principles.
Here’s a basic example of a persona spectrum from Kat Holmes’ excellent 2018 book, Mismatch:
2. CAST’s Universal Design for Learning framework
CAST have combined insights into ‘instructional goals, assessments, methods, and materials’ to produce a set of extremely comprehensive guidelines for designing educational content that is universally accessible. These guidelines consider the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of learning and provide some concrete suggestions for how to apply key learning principles in very practical ways.
For example, one sub-principle explains the importance of the language used in educational content, listing five tips for a more inclusive linguistic approach and linking to relevant research on this topic.
At LearnJam, we know first-hand that it’s very challenging to inhabit the interface between research and practice! And we’ve been impressed with how these guidelines take a huge amount of research into how learning works and distil it into a clear, practical tool that can inform better learning design.
Though targeted mainly at a North American audience, we’ve found the UDL Guidelines generally very relevant to our international learning design work, too. We also find the tool easy to navigate and to understand as the information is all clearly organised and presented in different levels of detail. This means the guidelines never feel overwhelming despite the enormous amount of information they contain.
Like LearnJam, CAST are also reevaluating their tools (including this UDL Framework) in light of the need to ‘focus specifically on addressing systemic barriers that result in inequitable learning opportunities and outcomes’ [source]. We’re very much looking forward to seeing how their work develops in this area.
3. OECD report (2020) on The Impact of COVID-19 on Education
Our EDI project was launched against the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic. The OECD published a report at the end of 2020 into the impact of widespread institutional closures and rapid adaptations of educational systems, noting that:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped at national borders. It has affected people regardless of nationality, level of education, income or gender. But the same has not been true for its consequences, which have hit the most vulnerable hardest.” (p. 4)
With this in mind, we’re particularly conscious of the need not only to ‘build back better’ but to build back fairer. The tools and approaches we are developing through our research now should not help learning design simply return to where it was pre-COVID, but should ensure that it’s done in a more equitable and inclusive way for years to come.
However, perhaps our greatest insight from this report was that it highlighted the impression many learners have gained during 2020 that online learning is a ‘poor substitute’ (p. 9) for a face-to-face experience. Through our experience in digital approaches to learning design, this is, unfortunately, a view we’ve come across often – but it’s very important to remember that the massive shift to online learning brought about by COVID-19 was not at all normal or ideal. What 2020 saw was essentially ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’, not online learning per se. Schools did not generally have the resources or training in place to support teachers and learners to adapt their systems so quickly:
‘[The] COVID-19 crisis struck at a point when most of the education systems covered by the OECD’s 2018 round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were not ready for the world of digital learning opportunities.’ (p. 16)
Remote learning and teaching can be extremely effective and engaging, but it normally takes many years and a lot of research and investment to develop a great online course. Unfortunately, the incredible speed of the past year’s changes have generally not allowed this to happen.
What’s more, while learners from more privileged backgrounds may have been able to find higher quality educational opportunities and better access to technology and connectivity – such as courses with better trained, better resourced and better supported teachers – this has served to widen the existing gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
4. The FLOE Project
The FLOE Project, led by the Inclusive Design Research Centre, focuses on the importance for inclusive design of being able ‘to transform, augment, and select alternative educational resources to fit individual needs’.
We admire this project not only for its clarity and ambition, but for its apparent ability to practise what it preaches. Navigating the resources in the Inclusive Design Guide, for example, is made easy for a variety of visitors to the site by its use of layout, font, colours and images; its contents are available in different formats (such as animations or printable cards); and the user has an option at the top of every page to change how it is displayed.
While these features might seem cosmetic at first, or perhaps not related strictly to learning, in fact, they can make all the difference between somebody being able or unable to access the content or the site and therefore learn from it. They remind us that it’s not enough to have well-researched guidelines or frameworks – we have to enact these principles in our own everyday work. Here at LearnJam, we’re revisiting our website to see how we can make it more accessible.
5. CIPD report (2017) on The Future of Technology and Learning
This report was published before anyone could imagine the existence or consequences of COVID-19, but it provides an excellent set of frameworks for interrogating the purpose and design of workplace learning programmes which are still extremely relevant now.
What we especially like about this report are the practical insights it brings to any professional context. Discussions of exclusion from education or barriers to access often focus on younger age groups, state-provided education or an emphasis on ‘isms’ (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.). While these are undoubtedly very important fields of study, this CIPD report includes issues of access and inclusion as a matter of course when discussing the general use of technology for learning, rather than taking EDI as a separate topic for discussion. For example:
Do users have the correct tools (whether that be mobile devices or traditional computers) to access learning? Do they have the time to do this?[Source: Checklist item in the Learning Technology Framework, The Future of Technology and Learning, p. 3]
‘…the expectation of out-of-hours learning is especially disadvantageous to those with commitments outside of working hours.’[Source: The Future of Technology and Learning, p. 8]
Though there’s no explicit reference to certain groups as likely to have ‘commitments outside of working hours’, cross-referencing this report with other research into EDI in education shows that such individuals are often women, for example. This serves as an important reminder when developing our EDI tools to include a range of voices and ensure they talk to each other to see where common needs emerge, so these can be addressed effectively and efficiently.
So without even needing to single out certain groups for special attention, the CIPD report gives very practical guidance, through its use of clearly explained frameworks and question prompts, that can help both learning designers and managers become more aware of potential barriers to learning and put in place solutions to overcome these.
This is just a small selection of the resources that we’ve referred to on this project so far. We hope you find them useful. We’re learning a lot and discussing our work with external subject-matter experts at every stage of the process – and we’d love to hear your insights, too. Please feel free to get in touch and share your thoughts!