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Three Principles for Inclusive Learning Design


Tue Dec 29 2020

Three Principles for Inclusive Learning Design

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Ongoing concerns about social justice combined with COVID-19 disruptions have heightened both awareness of and action toward diversity and inclusion across organizations. As companies seek to foster inclusive, diverse work environments, corporate learning will be a critical component in delivering sustainable cultural change.

Social justice has rightfully led societal conversations, but as work has become more distributed and remote, gaps in inclusion have only become more apparent. We also need to consider the realities of people’s life experiences as they try to juggle work with other priorities in the work-from-home environment, unequal access to technology, and the diverse cultures (and time zones) that make up today’s global organizations.


Subsequently, awareness of diversity and inclusion (D&I) is becoming much more prominent––not just in D&I initiatives, but across the entire organization. D&I must become an integral component of an organization’s culture, supported by learning experiences that are created with D&I in mind. Learning experiences must connect with a company’s purpose and culture, and they must support the needs of diverse learners. To do so, here are three design principles that L&D teams can leverage create more diverse and inclusive learning experiences.

Principle 1. Understand Your Learners and Organizational Culture

Before you design and launch new training initiatives, develop a deep understanding of your learners and your organization’s culture. To get to know your audience better, adopt a learner-centric approach to design by answering the following questions:

  • Who are your learners?

  • What is their experience with workplace learning?

  • What knowledge and skills do they already have?

  • How, when, and where do they access learning programs?

  • What initiatives, tools, and approaches have been successful in the past?

At an organizational level, reflect on the organizational context where learning will occur. What kind of cultural change is your company looking for? Are there specific values your company wants to promote? As we continue to navigate through uncertainty, it is especially valuable for employees to hear their companies’ visions of the future.

Principle 2. Design Authentically

Authentic learning experiences with D&I at the core can address real-world problems while aligning with an organization’s values and culture. Start by thoughtfully considering the resources and assessments you can include in the program.

When it comes to content, think about whether pre-made, off-the-shelf resources will meet your learners’ needs and support your organization’s goals. It could be more effective to make the most of internal resources and leaders, who can communicate messages with more impact than actors. When you’re designing or selecting content, be conscious of the situations, faces, and cultures depicted throughout your learning experience. Use images that portray diverse people in authentic work environments, and incorporate names from a variety of cultures––but be careful not to associate diverse names with negative behaviors and traditionally white, American names with positive behaviors. Careless portrayal of diverse populations can be more harmful than not using their names or images to begin with.


Next, design authentic assessments. This means creating learning opportunities in the context of real work. To promote sustainable changes in mindset and behavior, the learning experience should allow for practice and application, where learners can engage with material in both the learning setting and their work environment. For example, reflections or role plays can help learners connect the material they’ve learned to their job, allowing them to apply new knowledge in the context of the organization.

Lastly, determine whether your learners need differentiated experiences, or if one size can fit all. The right solution is contingent upon your audience and your goals. Learners may benefit from affinity groups as an opportunity to connect with peers, and you may need to introduce coaches or mentors to support your learners and reinforce your organization’s key messages.

Principle 3. Leverage Technology

Technology has kept us connected when working from home. But, at the same time, we have witnessed challenges around finding the right tools for various activities, achieving engagement, creating psychologically safe spaces, and accommodating the technical and life stressors inherent to working from home. The same challenges are just as present, if not more pronounced, when developing inclusive learning programs.

Although video conferencing can be an easy way to gather groups of people, be conscious about your usage. Prolonged video conferencing can fatigue learners and prevent engagement, and inevitable technical glitches can disrupt the flow of learning. To create a genuinely inclusive learning experience, learners must feel both seen and heard, without the disruptions of background noise and shifting camera focus, awkward pauses, or poor connections. While there’s certainly a time and place for Zoom, it’s important to know when additional technology is (and isn’t) necessary to augment the learning experience.

Inclusive learning experiences should facilitate connections between learners and the organization. The program must feel collaborative and engaging––however, this requirement does not depend on a simultaneous video conference or an in-person experience. Asynchronous learning can provide flexible learning experiences that are accessible regardless of time or location, and can promote reflection and engagement, all without the pressure of a live event.


Advancing Toward D&I

As companies work to create more inclusive cultures that amplify and celebrate diverse voices, L&D will play an essential role in supporting lasting change. Understanding learners’ needs and your organizational culture, designing learning for authenticity, and effectively using technology will enable L&D to develop meaningful, inclusive learning experiences that will prompt changes in mindsets and behaviors, ultimately driving lasting cultural change.

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