by Betheny Gross, Director of Research, WGU Labs & Jess Stokes, Director of Product, WGU Labs
Broadly speaking, traditional education systems aren’t designed for the diversity of America’s learners, particularly for those with disabilities and from low-income, Black, Latinx, military-affiliated, and rural communities. So when Labs takes on new research, market-development, or learning-design projects, we ask ourselves: how will this project get us closer to a learning system that meets all students where they are and takes them where they want to go?
We like to think of this approach as “designing at the margins,” such that those who are situated farthest from opportunity are included in the design. In order to develop systems that are universally accessible, it’s imperative that diverse voices are invited to the table early on, and engaged in the process throughout.
An Imperfect Model For Being Inclusive
We’ve found that to design products and projects that are universally accessible, applying an equity lens can’t be an afterthought. Instead, inclusivity needs to be at the core of our research, design, communications, investment thesis, and organizational culture. While there’s always room for improvement, Labs strives to integrate inclusivity into each of these core functions:
1 – Research
When conducting research on behalf of Western Governors University, the College Innovation Network, or external clients, we always start by grounding ourselves in the perspective of the learner and do our best to capture the full range of voices that exist. Then when unpacking the data, we pay attention to the margins. Even if survey results show 90% of learners responded positively to an intervention, we acknowledge and work to understand the 10% for whom the intervention was ineffective. It’s important we challenge ourselves and the product developers we work with to understand who benefits and who doesn’t benefit from any solutions we study and why.
2 – Design
In our work partnering with organizations on various learning design initiatives, step one is ensuring the learners we’re designing for reflect the populations we hope to serve. Building a deep sense of empathy is critical as we conduct user-centered research. We do this by working to gain a holistic understanding of our user-audiences and their needs through interviews, surveys, and user testing. While we also work alongside subject matter experts, we ultimately take cues from learners on what solutions to design and how to design them. Mid-product evaluation points enable us to step back and assess our work from an equity lens to ensure we’re on track with reaching the students we most want to serve.
3 – Communications
Using inclusive language isn’t about being perceived as politically correct. It’s a way to show respect and let individuals express who they are. When designing surveys, for instance, capturing respondents’ full range of identities, in all of their complexity, drives key insights that we’d miss if we failed to be thoughtful and deliberate in the language we use. It’s one reason we developed an Inclusive Language Guide—a living document that offers guidance on standard vocabulary when referring to various communities.
4 – Investment Thesis
Unfortunately, EdTech funding typically goes towards solutions that match the interests and needs of the largest number of students and the most well-resourced institutions, such that the most promising solutions are often built for the most privileged students and institutions. This is the kind of cycle we and others are trying to break. The Accelerator at WGU Labs, for instance, uses an Evaluation Framework for Social Impact to ensure prospective partners have designed their products with equity in mind. By flipping the incentives so inclusivity is rewarded, we hope to see more innovations geared towards the learners who need them most.
5 – Organizational Culture
Practicing inclusion must ultimately stem from an organization’s culture. At Labs we’ve worked to build a team with diverse perspectives and lived experiences, and demonstrated knowledge or interest into universal design and accessibility. Ultimately we want to create an environment where all team members and partners feel safe surfacing their ideas, perspectives, and concerns, even if they lead to uncomfortable conversations.
It’s important to acknowledge that inclusivity is a journey not a destination; try as we and others might, there’s always room for improvement. Still, we remain encouraged by the many organizations and individuals who are facing this challenge head on, and motivated by the opportunity to create a universally accessible education system that enriches individuals economically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. It’s not going to be easy, but by shifting the paradigm of how solutions are designed and for whom, we believe we can fundamentally change education in this country.
Do you want to understand and change the systems that lead to inequity? WGU Labs will engage with your data, students, faculty, and staff to surface actionable recommendations that ensure more equitable outcomes for your learners. Interested in learning more about our Equity Audits? Book a Call.