Imagine you’re taking a course online. When the first video module begins, you see that the course is taught by an instructor from a historically marginalized group. 

What would be your first thought when you saw the instructor?

  1. This must be a great course; this instructor will provide a valuable perspective.
  2. Why is this instructor teaching the course? They must have an agenda.
  3. The choice of instructor represents the learning institution’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 
  4. Let’s not overthink this. What does it matter who’s teaching the course?

Various audiences will interpret this situation differently. Understanding that interpretations are subjective is a critical first step to anyone committed to designing inclusive educational content.

Lessons Learned: Inclusive Educational Content

In a recent Competency-Based Education (CBE) engagement for a public, historically Black university, we learned that to create inclusive educational content, we must consider: 

  • The underlying messages embedded in our work, whether or not they are intentional 
  • How different learners will receive or interpret our content
  • How we are including and defining diversity and representation in our work  
  • If learners can see themselves positively represented in our content

Ultimately, we learned that creating inclusive educational content requires designers to engage in meaningful reflection at each stage of the design process. Here are five reflection questions we considered as we worked to design inclusive learning content for the university. 

  1. “What underlying messages are embedded in my content? What am I not seeing?” Inclusion requires understanding the underlying societal narratives, biases, and stereotypes unfairly associated with various topics for different groups — and striving not to recreate or perpetuate these narratives in our content. Learning about these narratives, their impact, and how different audiences may receive these messages can help us create more inclusive content. If you’re not sure what these narratives are, engaging in user testing with students and asking coworkers to review your work from their own backgrounds and perspectives can help you identify understanding gaps within the content. Be sure to give reviewers the opportunity to opt out — it is not their responsibility to educate you.

  1. “What does this detail add to the learning experience?” Inclusion goes much deeper than a mention or image of someone from a historically marginalized group. Instead, designers must ask themselves: When adding demographic information about a character in a learning scenario, what type of critical thinking or cultural awareness am I asking the learner to demonstrate? How can I provide scaffolding in the learning task to help learners consider the different angles and demographic variables introduced to the situation, and how might those angles impact the character’s specific experience? How can I help the learner see the individual and not the stereotype based on demographics? 

  1. “How might this activity unintentionally lead students to make biased or stereotypical conclusions?” Any time we ask learners to guess what someone else is thinking, doing, or saying, we open the door to stereotyping, misinterpretation, and misrepresentation. What appears as an attempt to walk in someone else’s shoes could cause larger issues. Instead, present learners with a fully developed scenario and ask them to respond to the facts presented or identify and challenge assumptions and biases in the content, rather than pretend to be someone else. 

  1.  “Am I designing this activity for learners similar to myself, or am I considering a broader audience?” Let’s say you review a learning activity that asks the question, “How can you address the needs of diverse patients?” How would you interpret that question if you come from a group that’s historically considered “diverse.” As a Black woman, I might give a generic answer, or answer from the perspective of being Black, but then I wouldn’t see beyond my experience to think critically about the needs other groups may have. Instead, the designer should look for opportunities to broaden their language so that all students can apply the learning to their personal experiences. For example, changing the question to: “How can you address the needs of patients from backgrounds different from your own?” 

  1. “Am I considering inclusion in the ways students interact with the activity or submit their work?” Diversity and representation extend beyond race and ethnicity. Consider questions like: How can I make this activity more accessible for learners with mobility issues, who are blind or low vision, deaf or hard of hearing, or for those with learning disabilities? How can I consider socioeconomic status and increase access to online content or downloads for those without reliable internet? Asking questions like these is foundational to creating more accessible course content for all learners. 

Ultimately, we learned that self-reflection, learning, and soliciting feedback and other viewpoints on our work must accompany all efforts to create inclusive educational content. Taking a step back to consider who is represented, why, and how is essential to helping learners see themselves and their experiences positively reflected and respectfully acknowledged in our content.