New challenges for online learning in 2020

We’re excited to announce that we’re working on a new project funded by Innovate UK which aims to address inequalities in inclusivity and access in learning design that have been brought to the forefront as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The year 2020 has seen a sudden and dramatic global increase in remote working and learning practices. The LearnJam team has been involved in developing digital educational resources since 2013, and we’ve never seen (or imagined!) such rapid changes across so many organisations, industries and countries.

So we’ve spent a lot of time this year helping organisations and learners in crisis move online – and fast.

The trouble with making such huge changes at such an unprecedented pace and scale is that decisions and resources need to be made very quickly that would normally take a great deal more time and consideration.

And in our experience, many of these decisions and ‘solutions’ won’t be revisited and improved later, despite everyone’s best intentions and wishes. There are many demands on the time and capacity of learners and learning providers, and unfortunately, careful reevaluation of what’s already in place rarely seems to be prioritised.

All of this risks perpetuating an unequal status quo and widening inequality gaps, because when forced by circumstances to make hyperfast decisions, most people will unwittingly base these on their existing knowledge, preferences and biases. This is likely to exacerbate existing systemic problems with equal access and representation, and risks partially or entirely excluding some learners who were already potentially marginalised.

What does it mean to be excluded from learning?

Even for people in relatively privileged circumstances (for example, with reliable internet access and digital infrastructure), online learning can pose as many challenges as opportunities.

But what if you can’t get online in the first place?

What if you’re sharing one computer with the rest of your family, the rest of whom are also now working or studying from home?

What if your home environment poses particular demands and stressors due to traditional gender roles or cultural practices, leaving you little time, energy or headspace for learning?

In such cases, exclusion from learning opportunities – as well as the communities in which learning typically happens – can arise suddenly and can have a considerable impact on a person’s opportunities for personal and professional growth, on their sense of meaningful participation in society and on their mental welfare.

In short, we’ve noticed that the rush to continue working and learning by ‘just moving it all online’ is leading some things to be put into place which could have significant and lasting consequences – and this is happening without the due diligence we would typically recommend when there’s more time available to think, reflect, iterate, and so on.

From the perspective of designing more equitable and inclusive learning experiences, this situation is far from ideal.

What can be done to make learning design more inclusive?

At LearnJam, we’re experts in learning design and we’ve always believed in putting learners and their context at the centre of our decisions and designs. But we’re not experts in equality, diversity and inclusion.

For some time now, we’ve been actively working to improve our knowledge, understanding and practice in these areas. We’ve also undertaken numerous projects which have significantly increased our awareness of what it really means to create more inclusive learning experiences. For example:

By undertaking this new Innovate UK-funded project, we aim to develop a new framework and practical tools for more inclusive learning experience design (‘ILXD’). Our hope is that a better approach to ILXD can guide us – and the whole learning design community – to ensure that no one is left behind by the unprecedented and widespread move towards online learning.

Through a detailed review of the huge range of existing research and tools aimed at achieving better equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and with the help of a number of key collaborators, we’ve already begun to change not only our approach to learning design, but also our working practices in general.

What we’ve learned so far

In practical terms, we’re discovering and exploring the excellent range of frameworks and resources which already exist – such as the work done by experts in EDI like Kat Holmes, CAST and CIPD.

We’re also learning to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable! All of LearnJam’s projects involve some aspect of combining our expertise in LXD with collaborators’ expertise in other areas, such as working with refugees or learners with special educational needs.

But this new project has led us to question more critically than ever the wider systems of education, work, society and politics in which we participate and benefit, and to evaluate the extent of our influence in bringing about positive change.

Step by step, we’re learning how to be more inclusive in everything we do and to produce great learning experiences that are truly accessible to, and representative of, the wide range of people we work with in a huge range of contexts all over the world.

It’s our hard work to do, and we are committed to doing it.

Be part of the conversation

Please do get in touch with thoughts and suggestions – we always welcome feedback from a wide range of different perspectives and voices and we’d love to hear from you.

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