A couple of weeks ago, I taught a 3-day course on Inclusive Design at the Digital Pedagogy Lab event in Toronto, ON. I’ve taught for Digital Pedagogy Lab for years, but this was my first experience teaching on the topic of Inclusive Design (and I’ve only recently begun to learn more about it). To say I was suffering from imposter syndrome would be an understatement. Thankfully, I am lucky enough to have a wonderful colleague, Sarah Lohnes Watulak, who runs our Inclusive Design Studio; she guided me and provided helpful feedback as I prepared the track.
With Sarah’s help, and with lots of inspiration from colleagues like Jess Mitchell and Sasha Costanza-Chock who are doing amazing research and work on inclusive design, I pulled together a plan for the three days, which we mostly followed. I’d like to share my outline and slides with you, in case it’s helpful, and I’ll end the post with some brief reflections on what I learned from the experience of teaching this track.
Theme: What is inclusive design and why does it matter?
On day 1, I wanted us to explore two foundational frameworks for our track, the Inclusive Design principles from the Inclusive Design Research Center and the Design Justice principles from the Design Justice Network. I also wanted for us to explore the why of inclusive design. It’s not a nice-to-have, or a buzzword-y fad, or about doing something that makes us feel good. Inclusive design requires us to recognize the ways in which designs harm people, whether intended to or not. It requires us to more critically examine our assumptions about students and about teaching and learning. Approaching education with an inclusive design ethos could mean the difference between learning experiences that devalue and minimize students’ diverse voices and experiences, and learning experiences that account for and work with those voices and experiences.
After we reviewed foundational principles of inclusive design, we discussed examples of hostile or unpleasant design and how hostile design shows up at our institutions.
We ended the morning with one of my favorite activities—a free writing exercise. I began using this exercise at the week-long DPL last year and really valued what it did for the track. The free writing exercise comes from Undoing the Silence by Louise Dunlap. That morning, we did two free writing exercises (both with prompts) and talked about how free writing and voice intersect and how, through free writing, we can find voice to address challenging social problems like inclusion and exclusion in education.
In the afternoon, we compared two commonly-used design approaches (backwards design and human-centered design) to the two frameworks we looked at in the morning. We tried to find commonalities and differences in the frameworks. The conversation led to some interesting insights about how to partner with faculty or other colleagues on inclusive design, and how difficult those conversations can be.
This conversation led us to developing our own design principles that we could use in our work, in concert with design frameworks or approaches. I shared how these principles could lead to concrete design decisions, using an activity shared by the Design Justice Network. We ended the day looking at other concrete approaches we can use to improve inclusion in our designs.
Oh, as part of the introductions section at the start of the day, we worked through two recommended practices from the Inclusive Design Research Center:
Collaborative art warm-up
Facilitating inclusively (this was a bit harder given space constraints, but we tried)
Theme: Hidden (or not-so-hidden) exclusions in higher education
On day 2, I wanted to dive deeper into some of the things we use in education that have exclusionary histories. This activity came out of the work of Middlebury’s Inclusive Design Studio—I adapted it for DPL, and now they’re adapting activity again for events on April 23rd and 25th, called Made for Whom? Critically Examining the Design Logic of Everyday Items.
We split up into 5 groups and each group examined the exclusionary history of a particular object or place. The things they examined were:
For each group, I had assembled some resources to get them started, many of which came from an excellent book called The Politics of Design. The groups had all morning to explore and discuss how those things/places exclude, how they are used in education, and how to make more people aware about their exclusionary histories. I really loved this activity and was impressed by what each of the groups did with their explorations and presentations.
You can see an example of what the bathroom group did here: bit.ly/dpltoilet As part of their “presentation” of their research to others, they put sticky notes in the very inaccessible bathroom at the venue, asking people to reflect on what parts of the bathroom were exclusionary.
In the afternoon, we talked briefly about problems of inclusion we face in a surveillance-based and data-sucking digital world. I shared a concept that I recently learned about—weaponized design—which is “a process that allows for harm of users within the defined bounds of a designed system – is facilitated by designers who are oblivious to the politics of digital infrastructure or consider their design practice output to be apolitical.”
We then discussed three stories of surveillance, AI/automation, and data-based exclusion: Safiya Noble’s work on algorithmic discrimination, Chris Gilliard’s work on digital redlining, and Sasha Costanza-Chock’s work on A.I. and the Matrix of Domination. I also shared the work that Middlebury has been doing on this—everything from explorations of Digital Sanctuary, to the annual Digital Detox, to a new series of events called Defense Against the Digital Dark Arts.
We spent the rest of the afternoon with Dave Cormier’s open education track, thinking through how open education and inclusion might often be at odds, or how openness often leads to exclusion. Read Dave’s excellent blog post for more: http://davecormier.com/edblog/2019/03/24/open-pedagogy-a-three-day-seminar-at-digital-pedagogy-lab/
Theme: How do we take this back to our institutions?
On the last day, the original plan was to hold a design jam, modeled after the IDRC’s Create-a-thon in which participants would collaboratively design a resource for their campus or something that would help them engage in conversations about inclusive design on their campuses. As the morning started, and we began debriefing about the week (keynotes, track sessions, and more), it became clear that many people in the room wanted to dig into hard conversations about inclusion. So we did. This was a challenging moment for me as a facilitator—do I step in and move ahead with the plan, or do I make space for what some people in the room wanted to do, even if not everyone was onboard? I’m never 100% sure if I made the right decision in moments like these—I certainly received feedback from people in the room who did not like the direction we went and some who really did. But I think those who wanted to push into a difficult conversation about inclusion (around how we ask hard questions or have hard conversations about inclusion with ourselves and others) found it to be needed, even if at times uncomfortable. This is all very vague, so I’ll give a concrete example. Jess Mitchell challenged the group to ask hard questions about inclusion and one participant chimed in and said that she was really struggling with the “indigenizing the curriculum” initiatives at Canadian universities. She wanted to ask if those initiatives were really serving the purpose intended, or if they were a nod to inclusion without real inclusion. We had a really good (and sometimes difficult) discussion from there. I guess this leads to some reflections….
1. Holy goodness, teaching about inclusion is hard. I mean, it’s not because it’s so meaningful, but it is. All week, I second-guessed what I was doing. Was I modeling inclusion? How do I address the clearly not-inclusive elements of this track, this venue, this event? Am I making enough space for all voices? Are my materials inclusive (yeah, in retrospect, they were mostly not inclusive)?
2. I needed to make more time for collaboratively building resources and ideas. Looking back on the Padlet we started to build during the track, I realize that I did not intentionally make space for collaborative note-taking and resource sharing. It was an afterthought, a nice-to-have, rather than something I intentionally made time for. In a future iteration, I would make more time for that kind of work.
3. Inclusive design is so worth it. It’s challenging and vulnerable to engage with inclusive design because, once you do, you can’t un-see the inequities, you can’t shy away from the critical lens (well, I guess you *can* but you’d at least be confronted with your intentions). If you engage with inclusive design with an open heart, with curiosity and care for the experiences of other humans, it is a truly transformative experience. The Inclusive Design track at DPL was that for me and I hope it was for others who participated.
One last resource…my slides from the week: