What Inclusion Looks Like in Digital Learning Experiences

April 10, 2024

We’ve distilled optimal digital learner engagement into five key ingredients for High Engagement at Scale in digital learning experiences. We’ll share these ingredients over a series of posts. Our third ingredient to explore with you is unbounded inclusion.

Have you ever been in a class where you felt you didn’t belong? Maybe you couldn’t relate to your teacher or classmates, or the other students were moving at a different pace. In a digital learning environment, a feeling of exclusion often gets amplified for people with disabilities or for ethnic, racial, or gender minorities. 

This is problematic because multiple studies have shown that if learners don’t have a sense of belonging and inclusion, they won’t be as engaged. They’re then less successful in learning.

Overcoming barriers to inclusion in digital learning is essential to learners having meaningful outcomes. 

When you’re in an online classroom, the concept of inclusion goes beyond seeing an instructor who looks like you on screen. Although that element is indeed important, having it isn’t helpful if you have trouble hearing and none of the videos have captions. A truly inclusive experience must do more.

At Studion, we create digital learning experiences focused on unbounded inclusion by looking at all aspects of inclusion, from building a welcoming environment to tackling issues of digital accessibility. By doing this, we give learners that crucial sense of belonging they need to feel comfortable actively participating with people they’ve never met face to face. 

Balancing a wide range of peoples' needs in a digital learning experience is challenging. In making decisions about what perspectives to center and how, we must acknowledge that we each have blind spots. We cannot only use our own frames of reference to define and identify a diverse learner group. Organizations need to know their learners and understand their range of lived experiences, as well as what level of learning they’ve already reached in a subject. That knowledge is key to getting this aspect of inclusion right. 

Inclusion at Scale

Our third ingredient for High Engagement at Scale, unbounded inclusion, helps us authentically welcome in the largest possible group of learners to each digital learning experience we design. This kind of intentional inclusion keeps learner retention high, contributing to learners’ motivation to stay engaged, involved, and away from issues that make digital learning harder. We do this through:

  1. presenting access to each digital learning experience without barriers to engagement.

  2. providing an environment where each learner is safe being themselves. 

  3. including and celebrating diverse viewpoints.

Access without barriers

Barriers in digital learning aren’t always obvious. This is why standards exist: to increase access for everyone. 

  • Follow best practices in web accessibility standards, and leverage universal design. Don’t make your learners work overtime to have a smooth interaction with your learning experience. Inclusion won’t be possible if they are visually impaired and a screen reader isn’t available, if they’re hearing impaired or in a noisy environment and video captions aren’t provided, or if they’re colorblind and the text is organized in a color-coded hierarchy. In addition to following WCAG standards, universal design principles are key. These principles help with learning experience design because their whole goal is to create something that anyone of any ability level is comfortable using. 

  • Provide onboarding support. Starting a new digital learning experience typically involves a few hurdles: signing up, paying, figuring out how the course will work, and connecting to more than one digital platform. To engage learners smoothly, make sure that sign-up, payment, and onboarding all flow smoothly. When we worked with the University of Notre Dame on their online master’s degree in data science, one way we provided this support is by using one-step authentication for logins. Learners only had to sign in once to access all the tools they needed, avoiding the common stumbling point of multiple logins. Other helpful options include FAQs and providing learner support through contact information or chatbots. Don’t forget, once sign-up is finalized, to also orient learners and tell them how your platform works and what comes next. 

The chance to be authentic

Most people want to be authentically themselves online, and they should feel comfortable and welcome doing so in their digital learning experiences. 

  • Represent learners across the presented content. Pay careful attention to selecting case studies and examples that feature people of a variety of races and backgrounds in a variety of roles. Make sure that subject matter experts and instructors are also diverse so that, no matter what a learner’s identities are, they will see them positively reflected somewhere in the learning experience. IDEO U’s learning platform is successful at this. Because it reaches learners across the globe, the design teams needed to cover a wide range of lived experiences. So while each course has only one or two main instructors, the lessons also have “mentor moments” in which other instructors teach. Plus, all included case studies represent a variety of company sizes, challenges, industries, and geographies. IDEO U also has a teaching team with dozens of experts worldwide who give feedback and facilitate weekly virtual community conversations. Together, these elements create an inclusive experience. 

  • Incorporate supports to give learners a feeling of safety and belonging. Such supports can be as simple as allowing learners to have flexible deadlines. For example, Education Design Lab and Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana worked together to support single mothers successfully completing their degrees. Their program, called Ivy Parents Achieve Success with Support (I.PASS), includes dedicated wraparound support services such as offering learners the option to choose between digital or in-classroom learning, online community-building experiences such as discussion boards and family friendly workshops, and flexible deadlines or different methods of completing assignments.  

Multiple available viewpoints

Having different views represented in a learning experience is crucial for learners. It deepens their learning by providing disparate ideas—as long as productive dialogue between viewpoints is supported.

  • Provide opportunities for learners to engage with diverse insights on a topic. People grow and learn best when they interact with multiple viewpoints. Cultural mindsets can change and expand from these types of interactions, so it’s important to encourage them and offer options for such engagement. When we helped Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research (APPR) scale their in-person learning model to a larger online community, we needed to create a platform that allowed busy justice system professionals from across the country to collaborate. We accomplished this through a setup that encourages asking questions and starting conversations. Now they can trade knowledge more easily, whether they’re a judge, an attorney, a sheriff, a formerly incarcerated individual, or a person affected by crime–widening the expertise each person is exposed to.

  • Present a variety of viewpoints in all content. Case studies and examples throughout a learning experience need to feature not just participants but also authorities of different races and backgrounds. Subject matter experts and instructors should represent the diversity of the field. Our learning experience for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) does this through videos that feature both new alumni and seasoned professionals offering their insights on the same topic.

  • Support thoughtful conversations that aim to grow learners’ awareness of diverse viewpoints. Inclusive language and attitudes should be modeled by instructors and by the learning experience itself through the ways in which content is organized and structured. Ground rules for interactions among learners and visible community norms should be established and reinforced so that everyone feels safe and comfortable participating in activities and lessons. 

Accessible Learning for All

Learners need to be included in an experience no matter what their abilities, lived experiences, and financial or technological circumstances are. At Studion, we’re experts in designing approaches to welcome learners into digital learning spaces because we value individuals’ different views and how those views reflect their lived experiences. We design for everyone because we believe our differences enrich discussion, raising everyone’s level of critical thinking and their growth. That’s why unbounded inclusion is a crucial aspect of helping learners make meaningful progress towards their goals. 

Does your learning experience meet High Engagement at Scale benchmarks?

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