Why it’s something you need to be thinking about if you’re designing learning experiences
The last year has seen an unprecedented rush to teaching, learning, and working online. This has highlighted – and also worsened – problems of access and inclusion for many learners worldwide.
The phrase “build back better” has frequently been used in reference to the global lockdown as a golden opportunity to reflect and improve on the way that various social and educational systems work. We can do better than just returning to how things were before.
But we think we should be aiming for more than just “build back better”. We want to build back fairer.
Since late 2020 we’ve been working on a project funded by Innovate UK focusing on how learning design – the way that learning experiences are designed, built and delivered – can contribute to a fairer world with more opportunity for all.
“We don’t want to just “build back better”. We want to build back fairer.”
Why we need Inclusive Learning Design (ILXD)
There are many definitions of what inclusion means but, universally, exclusion means being or feeling left out. It’s really a universal part of the human experience – most of us know how it feels to be left out. (We recommend checking out Kat Holmes’ book Mismatch for more on this.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has massively accelerated what was already a trend towards online learning. Unfortunately, this has led to an exacerbation of issues of exclusion and inequality for a wide range of reasons.
Many are not able to simply move their learning and teaching online, or they can do so but the conditions are far from ideal. That has negatively affected the learning experience.
We’ve been hearing a lot lately along the lines of ‘obviously online learning isn’t as good as in-school learning’. It hurts to hear that because, as an organisation that creates digital learning experiences, we know they can be excellent if there’s enough time to design the course, develop the content, engage with learners and train teachers. But of course, we didn’t have that luxury with COVID-19.
“A lot of people are getting their first taste of online learning in the very unusual circumstances of a sudden global pandemic, and finding it very negative. But it doesn’t have to be.”
So, a lot of people, unfortunately, are getting their first taste of online learning in these very unusual circumstances, and finding it very negative – and in many cases something that’s left them feeling excluded. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
The important thing to remember with inclusion is that the responsibility for changing the equality and inclusivity of online learning experiences lies with everybody who creates or controls the learning environment and experience.
It lies with the gatekeepers: those who provide learning experiences; those who design them; and anybody who upholds systems that are fundamentally unfair and unequal.
Inclusivity, equality and equity are different things
Consider this very powerful comparison:
Three people of different heights are trying to see over a wall, and each person has been given a box to stand on – but for some, this still isn’t enough extra height. They’ve been given equal treatment, but their different needs still aren’t adequately met.
So what if we gave each person the number of boxes that they actually need to stand on to see over the wall? This is often where we stop in terms of designing for inclusion.
Ideally, we’d have a third scenario, in which nobody needs a box to see over the wall – because there’s no high, opaque wall in the first place. We found this a very powerful visual metaphor for the fact that equality is not the same as sameness. This is one of the first things that we’ve come to understand in the inclusivity project.
“It’s so important to recognise and to embrace individual differences and not simply pretend that those differences are not there, or to offer precisely the same content and experience to everybody.”
By showing different ways that access can be achieved, this illustrates beautifully how important it is to recognise and embrace individual differences. And not simply pretend that those differences aren’t there, or to offer precisely the same content and experience to everybody. Many of us believe, and I’m sure we have the best intentions, that we’re achieving greater equality by saying: “differences don’t matter”. Instead, how about asking, “Does my approach welcome everybody, regardless of their background and circumstances?”
An even better question might be:
“Does my approach allow every learner to participate fully, because the approach is informed by their backgrounds and their circumstances?”
It’s the difference between ignoring difference and embracing difference.We’re all different and have different needs, and that’s okay – that’s just the human condition.
Inclusive design has far-reaching benefits
Through this project, we’ve also been learning about a design principle from outside the world of learning, which we think applies really well – the principle of “solve for one, extend to many”.
Let’s look at one of the most common examples used to talk about this principle: closed captioning. Adding subtitles to a video, or to something on television, was originally done so that people with hearing loss could access the content by reading what was spoken instead of hearing it.
But an unintended benefit of this is that if you’re sitting in a loud environment with a TV on, but no sound, subtitles are also helpful for you. Similarly, there are benefits for language learners developing their language skills by reading subtitles while listening.
This is just one example of the principle of designing for one context and extending to many. It shows how an inclusive starting point can benefit a lot more people. You just might not know who they are yet. Indeed, they themselves might not know who they are yet!
Here’s another example, again from outside the world of learning, but familiar to most of us. Very common in city design is the concept of a dropped kerb, originally intended for wheelchair users to navigate more easily around the urban environment. But again, there are unintended side effects which are beneficial for other populations, such as people pushing children in a pushchair or a stroller, or people pulling luggage or shopping trolleys on wheels.
It’s very important to remember that when we’re designing inclusively, we often capture the needs of a much wider population than we’d originally imagined. This is especially important in learning design because, in addition to learners who know that they have particular access needs, such as a Specific Learning Difficulty, there are also many learners who may have undiagnosed disabilities which will affect their ability to access learning content. We don’t always know what we need.
So as learning designers or educators, we can’t just wait until somebody explicitly tells us, ‘I need this’ or ‘I need that’. We should design learning content and courses to be as accessible and inclusive as possible in the first place. This will undoubtedly help a wider range of learners, just as a fortunate coincidence.
“When we’re designing inclusively, we often capture the needs of a much wider population than we’d originally imagined.”
The third thing our research has exposed is the incredible importance of a learner’s self-confidence or sense of self-efficacy – their belief in their own ability to achieve their goals.
This is one place where the link between the concept of inclusion and a learner’s attitude or motivation isn’t necessarily obvious. But if you think about it, the way someone feels about an experience can absolutely influence their level of participation, and their interest or their willingness to participate in future experiences. Someone who is told – whether directly or indirectly – that they don’t have what it takes to enter a certain space is likely to begin believing that.
Systems can act as barriers to inclusion
Sometimes there’s a mismatch between whether someone really does need something in order to belong, or whether that’s just the way the system is. As a result they may encounter barriers before they ever get the chance to participate.
Think of this in an employment context: let’s imagine somebody didn’t get a certain grade in mathematics in school, and that means they’re not eligible for a certain job. They may not even get to the application stage, let alone an interview or second interview – even if the job doesn’t require mathematical skills.So it’s really important to remember why we’re doing things the way we are: is it because that system was designed for the way the world used to be, or perhaps for a different context, and now that’s just the way we usually do things? Can it be changed? Is there a way that we can change it so that people don’t feel as though they’re excluded before they even had a chance to try?
Neurodiversity is normal
Neurodiversity is a term we hear a lot these days and it’s often mistakenly associated – or even equated with – specific neurological conditions. But in fact, the term as used by specialists is more general. It’s really just a part of everyday life.
In education, we often come across the concept of ‘special educational needs’. Sometimes (again, through the best intentions) that word ‘special’ is seized upon and celebrated; and learners may be referred to as being ‘super’ or having ‘superpowers’.
But that concept itself is, in fact, potentially damaging. While it may seem positive at first, it remains quite divisive. It’s really no better than a term like ‘disability’ or ‘non-native’, which define people by what they’re not. It defines groups in terms of of ‘have’ and ‘have not’ and so is neither constructive nor helpful in reducing discrimination.
What we were really struck by when researching and reading around this area is that the term ‘neurodiversity’ simply refers to the way people communicate and think in different ways. It’s about recognising that we’re different, not deficient, and that our brains all work in their own unique ways.
To be truly inclusive in our approach, we need to embrace this variety. So 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 feeling constrained by quite traditional teaching methods.
“Neurodiversity is about recognising that we’re different, not deficient. Our brains all work in their own unique ways.”
Beware of assumptions
It’s dangerous to make assumptions about what learners need, even if we think that we’re being empathetic, fair and inclusive.
Towards the end of 2020, as we were beginning our work on inclusive learning design, we conducted a lot of interviews with a range of people – teachers, learners, learning designers, learning providers and so on. One person we spoke to is a professor at a university in the UK who uses a wheelchair. He had many interesting reflections to share, but that comment that really stood out, in reference to the COVID lockdown was : ‘I don’t feel as disabled as I normally do’.
He was pointing out that, while many people have certainly experienced a greater degree of exclusion due to COVID-19 and moving their studies online, he’s actually found the situation surprisingly beneficial in some ways. He no longer has to navigate to and around the university buildings physically in order to teach – buildings that don’t accommodate his wheelchair very well.
He also observed that many of his students who began their degrees in September 2020 have only ever known him in the online environment. They probably don’t even know he uses a wheelchair – they just see their teacher sitting at his laptop.
His comment reveals a very real risk: that of assuming that exclusion will occur simply because somebody falls into a particular group which often experiences exclusion. It’s absolutely important to be aware of the risk. But it’s also important to have a dialogue with learners so that you understand if that risk applies to them, if it affects their experience.
This really highlights the importance of including a wide range of voices in every project, and not making assumptions about people’s needs or experiences. Individual learners themselves are ultimately the best people to tell you how to include them in a learning experience.
The other thing this suggests is that, as well as improving our educational practices to be more inclusive, it’s a good idea to work on developing a general culture in which people feel welcome and able to ask for support if they need it for any reason.
“It’s important to develop a general culture in which people feel welcome and able to ask for support if they need it.”
How we can create more inclusive learning experiences
With inclusive learning experience design (ILXD), the key is in the word ‘experience’. We’re not just looking at the syllabus content, but we’re considering so many other things: issues of digital access, the time that learners are expected to dedicate to the experience and whether they have that time, the equipment that the experience requires, any additional support they may need, or different formats that the material could be delivered in.
What affects the learning experience?
There are four broad dimensions:
- The learners themselves and what they bring to the experience.
- The learners’ environment, whether physical or digital.
- The learning content – what is it that they’re learning? The tasks and materials.
- The modes and methods used. How is the teaching happening? How is the learning happening?
Designing for the learners themselves
For learning designers, it’s important to remember the whole learner and never lose sight of the fact that people are dealing with all kinds of things that we don’t see, don’t share and don’t know about.
This means it’s very difficult to anticipate everything they might need or every feeling they might have. So we need an approach in which it’s okay for them to:
- step away for a moment to take a break;
- submit an assignment on a flexible deadline;
- talk to their teacher or maybe to send them a separate message simply to share, even if not to ask for concrete help, so that they feel that somebody understands why they might be a little distracted.
Designing for the learner’s environment
There are huge digital access and connectivity issues worldwide. COVID-19 has pushed this to the fore, as so many people have been forced to work or learn from home who normally would be able to go into a school or an institution to gain that access.
ILXD isn’t just about asking, ‘can the learner connect to a computer?’ It’s also about whether the learners feel comfortable admitting that. There are social dimensions to a lack of access as well. It’s not always simply technical. These are all reasons for generating a culture of communication and inclusivity, where learners feel able to talk – whether to their teacher or somebody else who can help them – and get the support they need to participate fully in a learning experience.
We can anticipate some problems, but we can’t anticipate everything – even if we ask learners something directly, people may not want to say. They may prefer to come to us in their own time when they’re comfortable to do so.Of course, we must remember that there are always aspects of a learner’s environment or context that are outside our control. If we simply ignore these factors because we feel unable to influence them, then we are helping to maintain systems which are unfair, inequitable and inaccessible. But what can we do when we think there’s nothing we can do?
Raising our awareness
The very first step is awareness. By being aware of how the things outside our control can affect learners, we can potentially put other things in place which will help them. For example, let’s imagine a learner who does not have long, uninterrupted periods in which to study. We can’t suddenly create the space or the quiet environment that they need, but perhaps we could change the deadlines for their assignments to a window rather than a date so that they can plan their time. Then, if they’re interrupted, or their internet cuts out, or they’re unable to meet a specific time on the clock, they have another day. We may not have control over their physical environment but we do have control over their deadline. So by being aware of an issue that we can’t control, we can try and balance it out with something else that is in our control.
Ideas for more inclusive learning: content, modes and methods
Creating materials that are fair and inclusive is very tricky. It’s perhaps even more difficult for people creating materials for a global audience than for people creating materials for their own classroom or training environment, because there are many, many more people to consider.
We need to do our best to help learners have an individual experience that is positive. Part of that is anticipating what the learners need and providing, for example, content in different media or in different forms. It may be written and spoken at the same time, for example.
When designing a course that’s going to be used by a large heterogeneous group, it can be challenging to address individual needs. But we can look at what groups have in common, address these needs, and then design the rest in a way that is flexible and adaptable, particularly including an element of choice wherever possible. It’s about allowing people to say, ‘I need to learn X but I can learn it in this way, this way or this way.’
Having this choice takes us a step closer to meeting individual needs, even when we’re not able to discuss with every individual what their particular needs are. Some examples of common considerations include:
- the images in the learning material, especially the range of human characters that are shown. What is their age? What is their race? Can the learners relate to these characters from their own lived experience?
- the contexts used to illustrate learning scenarios, especially where characters interact or represent certain roles. Who are those people? What is their relationship? What language do they use? Do these contexts represent the world of the learners?
- the use of assessment and practice tasks. For example, are they available in different formats so learners with different abilities can demonstrate their learning equally? Do they actually check the understanding they’re intended to check, or are there inherent barriers to completion, where a learner may not be able to demonstrate their knowledge because they’re not able to use the tool, method or process that the task requires?
Moving from empathy to action
Ultimately, learning designers and educators are parts in a larger system. And the changes we make for better learning design may well have a ripple effect in other realms of life and society. Everyone benefits from more inclusive practices, and we all have a responsibility to challenge and improve any system that perpetuates exclusion and unfairness. But where to begin?
Empathy is an important starting point, but action is an essential next step. There’s a real risk of getting stuck in the phase of learning, reflecting, hoping – but ultimately, we have to do something about injustice and unfairness if we’re going to make learning more inclusive and accessible.
“Empathy is an important starting point, but action is an essential next step.“
This is why we’re working hard right now, not only on tools and methods for inclusive learning design, but on all the systems and processes that make up our team and our daily work.
- Summary of the work we’re doing on inclusive learning experience design, with links to various articles and resources. We’re constantly updating this page.