5 things that surprised us about EDI (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion)

Towards the end of 2020, we launched a new project with Innovate UK  to tackle equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) challenges in online learning. Our work so far has involved exploring what more inclusive learning experience design looks like or, as we’ve been calling it, ILXD.  

We’ve been surprised by some of the things we’ve learned so far. These range from little things, where we realise that we’ve known something all along but never had the language to describe it, to bigger things, where we realise we need to fundamentally change the way we exist in the world in order to better align our practice with our principles. We’ve also been reminded of some key insights from work we’ve done before and how they relate to this new project.

Here are just a few things that might surprise you about EDI:

1 ‘Equality’ does not mean ‘sameness’

The researchers in the RIDE Project found that across Europe the term ‘equality’ was commonly misinterpreted. They point out that in fact:

‘If everyone is treated the same, inequalities may not be addressed sufficiently. […] Therefore, instead of equality terms such as parity, equity, justice or fairness maybe better terms to be used.’

In other words, an effective approach to inclusion isn’t about getting rid of differences – it’s about recognising and valuing them. It’s about accepting that every individual is original and building a culture where this is something openly acknowledged and addressed, rather than avoided – for example, because we’re afraid of causing offense.

As one research participant in the RIDE Project said:

‘It should be about the fact that we are so engaged with each other that we can question and challenge and talk and understand and know each other well enough to challenge.’

Source for image and quotations: RIDE Project documentation: Inclusion, Diversity and Equality in Youth Work: The Principles and Approaches, p. 28

2. Self-confidence can be a huge barrier in itself.

Someone who is constantly told, whether directly or indirectly, that they don’t have what it takes to enter a certain space, is likely to begin believing that. For example, if they didn’t get a certain grade in Maths or English, so they’re not eligible for a certain job – they don’t even get to the application stage. Experiences like this over time can lead to a belief that certain spaces or opportunities aren’t intended for them, and this can eventually lead to a sort of self-exclusion or even learned helplessness.

We found this surprising because while it feels intuitively obvious, discussions about inclusion often focus on physical or social things, such as building access for wheelchair users or prejudice against certain ethnic groups. But it’s important to remember that how we see ourselves is also incredibly important.

3. Neurodiversity is normal.

The term ‘neurodiverse’ is another bit of EDI terminology that’s often misinterpreted. Our own awareness of this term developed throughout 2020 as we worked on a project related to special educational needs (SEN). We learned that neurodiversity is really just a part of everyday life – and that SEN confers no special ‘superpowers’. This popular ‘superhero’ concept may seem positive at first, but in practice it remains divisive – no better than the term ‘disability’, which separates those who ‘have ability’ from those who don’t.

As for the term ‘neurodiversity’, this simply refers to the way people communicate and think variably. It’s about recognising that we’re different, not deficient. Our brains all work in their own unique ways and to be truly inclusive in our approach we need to embrace this variety.

In practical terms, this means recognising neurodiversity in learning design as a positive in order to help learners identify and play to their strengths, rather than feel constrained by traditional methods.One way to do this in learning experience design might be to apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning, for example. (Read more about the resources that have influenced our work on this project so far.)

4. When thinking about learners, we need to think about more than just learning.

The CIPD produces an annual survey called the Good Work Index. During the past year, wellbeing has been shown to be a huge challenge, particularly for people with existing health conditions (whether physical or mental). What’s more, research by the CIPD showed that these worrying trends were in place even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

We were surprised to learn that around 6 in 10 people with conditions like anxiety or depression had reported that these were exacerbated due to COVID-19. While we’re aware that the pandemic has taken a huge toll on people’s mental welfare, the extent of this problem surprised us.

So this insight acted as an important reminder of the importance of the social and emotional aspects of learning environments which can keep learners motivated and engaged. As we point out in the first of our 3 learning design principles:

‘The whole person and the whole environment are relevant to effective learning, not merely the subject matter at hand.’

5. Beware of assumptions.

‘I don’t feel as disabled as I normally do!’

This is a quotation from a conversation we had with a university professor in the UK who uses a wheelchair. He pointed out that while many people have certainly experienced a greater degree of exclusion due to COVID-19 and the move to working and/or studying online, he’s actually found the situation beneficial in some ways.

For example, he no longer has to navigate to and around the university buildings physically in order to teach. And he laughed as he observed that many of his students who began their degrees in September 2020, long after UK university campuses had closed and tuition had moved online, have only ever known him in the online environment – so they probably don’t even know he uses a wheelchair.

This comment reveals the risk of assuming that exclusion will occur simply because somebody falls into a particular group that often experiences exclusion. It highlights the importance of including a range of voices in every project and not making assumptions about people’s needs or experiences. Individual learners themselves are the best people to tell you how best to include them in a learning experience.

We’re learning a lot through this EDI project every day. Hopefully, by sharing insights like these, the whole learning design community will benefit and we can make true progress towards more EDI-aware learning design.

This post covers just a few things that might surprise people about taking a better approach to EDI – equality (or fairness!), diversity and inclusion. Can you think of any more? Please do get in touch and share your thoughts.