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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Supporting Student Success: Inclusive Design


Written by
Clare Sansom

Supporting Student Success (SSS) is CODE’s annual workshop for practitioners of open and distance learning, focusing each year on a single issue. SSS 2023 was the fifth in the series and the first to be held in person since the start of the pandemic; it took place in University of London Senate House on Thursday, 12 January 2023. It featured an interactive workshop on inclusive learning design, led by Virna Rossi of Ravensbourne University, London, titled ‘Inclusive by Design: Opportunities and challenges of designing (more) equitable learning experiences.’ Much of the content of this workshop comes from a forthcoming book by Virna Rossi: Inclusive Learning Design in Higher Education: A Practical Guide to Creating Equitable Learning Experiences (Routledge, to be published March 2023).

Virna Rossi portrait

From roots to shoots

Throughout the workshop, Rossi used the metaphor of a tree to lead delegates through a process of course design and through this to discuss how to ensure that course designs include all learners who can benefit from the course. The workshop was divided into five parts, and each part included a section where participants discussed an aspect of the design in groups, jotted down their ideas on Post-It notes of a different colour and stuck them on a section of a tree diagram (below). The concept of ‘From roots to shoots’ that underpinned the workshop was illustrated in a circular path around the tree.

roots to shoots diagram

Section 1: Values

Rossi began by asking participants to write words that they associated with the concept of ‘inclusive learning design’ on brown Post-It notes, and then presented her own definition of that concept:

‘Inclusive learning design is design that considers the full range of human diversity with its complex intersectionality.  It is designing learning environments, experiences, activities, tasks, assessment and feedback with students’ voice and choice at its heart, so that students can grow academically, culturally and socially.’

The next step was for participants to work in groups and select three to five words describing values that they would like to use to drive their own learning designs. These values form the ‘roots’ of a design (represented here by the roots of the tree). Rossi has identified nine such values that, in turn, can be represented by the acronym INCLUSIVE:

I: Intentionally equitable 
N: Nurturing 
C: Co-created 
L: Liberating 
U: User-friendly 
S: Socially responsible 
I: Integrative 
V: Values-based 
E: Ecological

The first of these, ‘Intentionally equitable’ required further unpacking, particularly when expanded to ‘intentionally equitable hospitality’. To do this, Rossi introduced her close colleague, Maha Bali, speaking by video from the American University of Cairo, Egypt. Bali explained that to be intentionally equitable is to be inclusive by deliberate design; the word ‘hospitable’ comes from the idea that the teacher is the ‘host’ of the physical and virtual spacein which education takes place, and has the responsibility of welcoming in all who wish to learn. Some aspects of this are harder when education takes place online, but some may be easier.

Maha Bali portrait

The rest of the workshop took the form of a challenge to all participants, working in groups, to produce a course design taking these ‘root’ values into account, and working around the tree diagram through the remaining sections. Each group session led to a new set of coloured Post-It notes being added to each group’s diagram and was followed by a short plenary discussion.
All groups were asked to develop a course with the same specification, described as:

‘a short online course that supports online educators to work with students synchronously’

Section 2: Context

Rossi asked participants to think first about the context of their course, analysing the situation of their potential learners through four basic questions:

  1. Who are the potential students? What are their needs, and what digital experience do they have?  What is their age range?
  2. What is the context in which they will be studying – for example, will they need to study ‘on the go’ using mobiles?
  3. How can the course be made to engage these particular students?
  4. Should the activities in the course itself be synchronous, asynchronous, or a mixture of the two?

Participants were asked to jot down ideas on yellow Post-It notes and stick them around the yellow (left-hand) branch of the tree, labelled ‘2: Context’. The short plenary discussion that followed this activity focused round the need to be aware of where (specifically, in which time zone) potential students were located, and whether they had access to fast, reliable Internet connections. A course that uses a lot of live videoconferencing, for example, will not be equitably accessible to students everywhere in the world.

Section 3: Content

Rossi then asked participants to talk through the content of their proposed course. Again, they were asked to focus their discussion on four specific questions:

  1. What, exactly, will the course be about? What is the essential learning that we should expect from a successful participant?
  2. What are the big ideas that the course should address, and what are the likely threshold concepts? (These concepts are the ‘sticky points’ that students may find difficult but that can be transformational when they are grasped. One simple example of this in a course for educators might be ‘teaching is not telling’.) These will be used to define a set of learning outcomes for the course. 
  3. Which activities will students practice during the course, and how can these be designed to be active, meaningful for the students, and inclusive?
  4. What is the notional timescale: for example, if a short course will last for two weeks (‘elapsed time’), how long will students be expected to spend interacting with the material?

Again, participants were asked to work in groups, to jot down their answers on green Post-It notes and to arrange these on the central, green branch of the tree towards the top of the diagram.

This exercise generated an extensive discussion that perhaps raised more questions than it answered, but these were very pertinent ones. The points raised included these:

  • It is important to consider the structure of a course as well as its content
  • We should avoid making assumptions about our learners; instead, we should be able to adapt course designs and lesson plans to include the learners who arrive
  • Active learning should be prioritised wherever possible
  • Synchronous online teaching needs a different approach to classroom-based teaching; taking a classroom session and moving it online ‘as is’ cannot be an effective approach
  • If a course includes both synchronous and asynchronous activities, they need to be closely integrated
  • When ‘teaching teachers’ (as in this example) it is important to model good practice, particularly in synchronous sessions

One key point that was raised several times was the importance of valuing the needs and experience of the students. If there are students who can be expected to benefit from a course but who clearly don’t want to be there, it is best to engage with them and find out what they really need. It can be very valuable to work with students during the design of a course (‘student co-creation’) and to leave a portion of a course – perhaps up to a third – without a formal design, so it can be adapted to suit the needs of a particular cohort of students. This approach is bound to be more time-consuming, but the amount of time needed will be very variable.

Section 4: Assessment

The next section of the workshop concerned student assessment, asking the broad question ‘how do we know what our students are learning?’. The participant groups were asked to consider both formative and summative assessment and to focus a discussion around four more key questions, based on the threshold concepts and key ideas that they had identified. Again, ideas were to be jotted down on Post-It notes – orange, this time – and placed round the right-hand, orange branch of the tree diagram.

  1. What opportunities will there be for student self-assessment and peer learning?
  2. When, how and by whom will students receive feedback?
  3. What are the most appropriate types of formative and summative assessment?
  4. What final output (such as an exam, report or dissertation) would support relevant and authentic learning?

Participants were reminded that the putative course examined in this workshop is designed to be used for CPD rather than assessed as part of a degree (or similar) programme. However, it will still use assessment methods; it is not necessary for an assessment to be graded. 

After a short group discussion, the groups came together for a plenary session and cited some very imaginative assessment ideas: one member of the group I was in had taught on an economics course in which one assessment had involved student groups making rap videos. The theme of student co-creation ran through the whole discussion, with ideas ranging from using learning outcomes in peer assessment to a form of ‘legacy’ assessment. This involves asking one cohort to create, as an assessment, a resource that the next cohort can use after them, as an open educational resource (OER). Although this would introduce a difference between the first cohort to take a course and subsequent ones, these will still be able to refine and extend the resources and to be assessed while doing so.

Section 5: Evaluation

The final part of any teaching experience should involve students evaluating the course and feeding their thoughts and opinions back to the staff involved.  Student questionnaires are, of course, ubiquitous but it is important to consider whether, or to what extent, the results of those questionnaires reflect the real experiences of the students involved. 

This area was discussed in the final part of the workshop, which Rossi introduced with two further questions: 

  1. How will you gather feedback from course participants?
  2. What mechanism can you put in place to check the quality of the student experience, and to feed this forward into further iterations of the course for the benefit of its future students?

Participants were asked to write their responses to these on lilac Post-It notes and place them anywhere on the lilac circle surrounding the tree on their diagram. A short discussion focused on how questionnaires could be designed to encourage student responses that were detailed, honest and useful.

Rossi concluded by emphasising that each of the ‘tree diagrams’ produced by the participant groups – covered in colourful Post-It notes, with each colour and each section of the tree representing ideas for a particular aspect of their course – represents an initial (‘big picture’) learning design using the ‘roots to shoots’ approach. She invited all groups to photograph their diagrams and upload them to a Padlet. This will remain available for any group members who want to continue discussing their course design, perhaps including some of their students as partners. CODE Director Linda Amrane-Cooper thanked Rossi for leading a stimulating workshop and all delegates for their obvious interest and for taking a constructive part in the session.

World cafe discussion

World café

The workshop led into a ‘world café’ session in which many of the current tranche of CODE projects were set out on tables, and delegates were invited to explore some of these and discuss the projects with the Fellows who are principally involved with them. These projects are set out on the CODE website in six categories: horizon scanning, innovation in learning and teaching, innovation and quality assurance in assessment, disciplinary innovation and development, CODE organisation and capacity building.