ATD Blog

How to Create More Equitable Learning Environments

Monday, October 12, 2020

With the urgent need for racial equity, instructional designers play important roles. As creators of educational experiences and environments, you can ensure that all learners have the tools they need to achieve desired outcomes.

To make your work equitable, it is important to address the perspectives of learners of color—perspectives that are shaped by diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds that likely vary from those of white learners. Otherwise, you may create barriers to learning.

Wondering how you can perform an equity check on your work? Here are some tips.

Define the Role of Equity in the Design Process

In the context of instructional design, racial equity refers to addressing the needs of historically marginalized learners. ( Racial equality, on the other hand, refers to the equal treatment of all learners, regardless of race.)

Racial equity should be foundational to an instructional design project. For it to be successful, consider making it a priority in the early stages of planning. At every step of the project, ask yourself if you’re providing equitable opportunities for success.

While equity is always a worthwhile goal, it’s especially relevant to leadership training or any situation where you’re developing people’s soft skills. For example, if your training focuses on how to provide performance feedback to employees or creating a team culture, consider how your content and activities will be viewed by a diverse audience.

Reflect on Your Own Assumptions About Learners

Consider your attitudes about people of color. It’s important to be aware of any personal bias that could affect your work. Even if you support equity in theory, research suggests that implicit bias or unconscious prejudices might influence you in ways that aren’t obvious. Self-reflection can help you identify obstacles you may be creating for learners as a result of your bias.


Adopt a Partnership Approach to Instruction

Aim to build a partnership with learners that allows them to feel valued and validated. Unlike a one-way instructor-learner dynamic, partnerships build a community that recognizes the richness and relevance of individuals’ experiences. Collaboration activities can work well when taking this approach. For example, ask learners to share how what they are learning relates to their professional experiences and practices.

Avoid “Color-Blindness” With SMEs

While subject matter experts are trusted authorities in their field, their expertise may not account for issues of equity and inclusion. This can be problematic. Ignoring race (or being color-blind) invalidates the experiences of people of color and can undermine the effectiveness of instructional design.

In your collaboration with SMEs, invite them to view their work through an equity lens. Ask them to consider their positionality in terms of their race, class, gender, sexuality, ability status, and privilege as experts relative to all learners, particularly those from ethnically marginalized backgrounds. Engaging in this process with SMEs will help ensure that the content of your training is equity-minded.

Seek Input From an Ethnically Diverse Group of Advisors

If you work within an organization, propose the formation of an ethnically diverse group of advisors consisting of individuals committed to advancing equity. They can be an important resource as you engage in design and development. Before you launch a project, invite them to review your content and activities for the following potential problem areas:

  • Instances of implicit bias
  • Racial blind spots
  • Triggering language
  • Lack of diversity of individuals represented in images and videos


Be Mindful of Trust Levels Among Learners

Trust is a critical tool to building equity within an organization as well as in the context of training. If employees distrust each other, it’s challenging for them to have potentially difficult conversations about issues such as race, privilege, and positionality.

There is no exact science to gauging trust levels. If you’re an in-house instructional designer, you can use your personal observations and interrogate your organization’s values as they relate to equity. If you’re a contractor, talk to your contacts at the company or possibly human resources.

If you determine that trust is low, consider starting your training with individual activities. Ask participants to reflect on their feelings about equity and its role in the workplace. As the training progresses, introduce more collaborative activities in which they may feel comfortable discussing the successes and challenges related to equity.

Get Equity- and Inclusion-Oriented Learner Feedback

Below are some examples of equity-specific questions you can ask learners. They probe for more than whether the training was successful in supporting the development of knowledge and skills. These prompts highlight critical socio-emotional outcomes of the training or development experience:

  • Did any parts of training make you feel uncomfortable or marginalized?
  • Did you feel you were part of a positive learning environment?
  • Were you able to have honest conversations and build positive relationships during training?
  • Do you feel that your input was valued?

Consider Obtaining Anonymous Feedback

When training is complete, you can choose to obtain anonymous feedback or ask for identifiers. However, anonymous feedback helps instill trust among learners. Participants shouldn’t have to fear judgement or retribution in the event that their feedback is seen by others in their organization.

If you’re working with a large group of learners, consider disaggregating learner responses based on race and ethnicity. Segmenting your data allows you to see how employees from historically marginalized backgrounds versus white employees experienced training and can help you evaluate your equity efforts.

However, there’s an important caveat. Disaggregate the data only if learners’ identities can still be protected. For example, even in a large organization, if there is only one black or African-American individual who identifies as female on a team, their responses will no longer be anonymous.

About the Author

Helena Seli, PhD, is a professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, where she oversees the Learning Design and Technology (online) program. She holds a doctorate in educational psychology, and teaches courses that guide students in implementing learning and motivation theory and principles to solve problems of practice.

Her research interests include effective implementation of educational technology, enhancing motivation of learners in different learning environments and promoting self-regulation to optimize learning and performance outcomes.

Along with Myron H. Dembo, PhD, she is the author of Motivation and Learning Strategies for College Success: A Focus on Self-Regulated Learning, 6th edition (Taylor and Francis, 2019).

1 Comment
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Amazing article! Thanks for sharing these important ideas in a very practical way.
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