Making instruction more inclusive

Neil LaChapelle recently mentioned on LinkedIn that he is "trying to design a new, more inclusive online class structure". With my recent reading of books addressing issues like employee engagement, tribal mindsets, social capital, and crowdsourced contributions, my head is full of ideas for inclusive structure.

I know from experience that an instructional design will appear exclusive and disinterested in the learners when it's "covering the material". The premise of working at content to deliver or expertise to transfer sets up a closed system. Opening it up for any kind of involvement will slow down the pace, drop out some of the material or give the wrong impression by drifting "off message". Formal content and recognized expertise are presumed to already be right, finalized and authoritative. It appears senseless to make the content wrong, incomplete or questionable when considering "how to cover the material".

Inclusion makes all the sense in the world when we start from a different premise. Here's an array of different premises and how each leads to more inclusive structures:
  • What if the content is a "beta release / work in progress" getting refined or finalized by incorporating varied user experiences. The design needs to be open to learners inputs that can further the progress, refine the upgrades or redirect an unresponsive approach.
  • What if comprehending the material cannot be done heroically, in isolation or by independent study. The design needs to allow for the comprehension to emerge from the complexity of varied voices, viewpoints and frames of reference among the social network included in the design.
  • What if the structure is an experiment that uses the learners subjects to study the effects of the content on their mood, motivation, initiative, creativity or other responses. The structure then needs to include the subjects as the real subject matter in order to experiment with different versions of the content to realize the best effects.
  • What if the tutoring of individual learners outside of the scheduled times is too time consuming to be feasible. The design needs to scale the tutoring by arranging for peers to help each other with requests for additional examples, restatements of the original idea, clarifications, feedback on trial formulations, working through sample test questions, etc.
  • What if the content is known to produce confusion in the minds of most learners. The design needs their input to explain their confusion, tryout alternative clarifications and get feedback on the degree of success with each attempt at alleviating the confusion.
  • What if the content is inherently useless until learners take the initiative to apply it in a personal context. The structure needs to be open to contexts provided by the learners where uses can be made of the content, questions about adapting the abstract principles/skills in pragmatic ways and practice thinking through the content in realistic scenarios.
  • What if the content is a solution to the learners' particular problem that will get perceived by them as valuable, easy to remember and worth doing well. The structure needs to include the learners as the customers who will takeaway the value, put the ideas to work and test their viability as solutions to problems they face right now.
  • What if the content can be learned, but it cannot be taught. The design needs to tell stories, play games and and solve mysteries to see if the learners "get it" without being told something abstract that "isn't really it".

Of course this is only a partial list in beta release that's known to generate lots of confusion when crammed with heroic efforts. :-)


  1. This is a nice list - all goals I endorse - but the pressures I am designing against are quantitative, not qualitative: i.e. no time.

    - What if learners have to time to add their user experiences to a work in progress?

    - What if students have no time to contemplate the complexity of varied voices?

    - What if students have no time to reflect on their own responses to the material?

    - What if students have no time and cannot coordinate peer tutoring?

    - What if learners have no time to apply most of the content?

    - What if the students have no time to pull their learning directly into the solution of a problem, because the pace at which they must churn out their solutions is too fast?

    - What if students have no time to tell stories, play games and and solve mysteries?

    What if, despite all of these constraints, they still want to learn, and the task is to design learning experiences to serve them?

    I'm facilitating a fairly open blended learning program in a corporate environment. For the online community component of the program, I stare at the 90-9-1 rule in the face every day: lots of lurkers (90%), some contributors (9%), and a very small core of very active participants (1%). The lurkers have the best of intentions. Many of them do produce results at assignment times. (They actually prefer a small number of heroic individual efforts to dense collaboration, because the coordination effort is smaller - it's easier to take a whole Saturday, send the kids off with a spouse, and do a single self-contained assignment, instead of logging into discussion forums all the time.) The material is very directly tied into their own development and performance appraisal goals at work, and it addresses pain points they really feel. The program is useful for them. They just don't have time to participate in the kind of rich learning community your suggestions describe.

    I want to serve them better anyway, and that won't happen if I try to wish away the 90-9-1 rule. So I am trying to design a "three orbits" learning environment that offers a rich set of very brief, fleeting learning experiences to learners in the outer orbit - the 90% who lurk. In other words, I am trying to provide enriched opportunities for legitimate peripheral participation, as well as supporting a lively learning conversation with the two inner orbits of the class.

    The program I am teaching is entirely elective. There is no designation to be gained by taking it, or anything like that. So the idea that I would set the bar that judges if students pass the course or not is really irrelevant. The pressure is entirely the other way around - what can I do for them. So if most people are going to be too busy or otherwise uninclined to participate, that is *my* problem, not theirs. My task is to serve them anyhow - to maximize their learning even when they are trying to minimize their alotment of attention to that learning.

    Advertising design is helping me more than instructional design in this effort. How do you design small, sticky bits of information that you can push out to people, that are appealing in themselves, memorable, and yet convey a larger message? That is the kind of design thinking I am currently applying to the "outer orbit" of peripheral participators.

    I won't be able to invite these students into some kind of constructivist community of mutually supportive learning. Or rather, I invite them, and they accept, but they then find that the high-touch experience is way too time consuming. I still need to give them the most bang for their buck that I can, out their in their far orbit of the learning community.

  2. Thanks for such a comprehensive look at the constraint environment you're designing for. Besides advertising, I suspect that expertise in storytelling and game design may serve you too. Both enchant people without giving them the feeling of getting burdened. The portion of our minds that gets captivated is different from portion that handles obligations.

  3. You are right, captivation by any workable means is an important part of the strategy. I'm also interested in that part of the mind that handles obligations too. I'm interested in the mindset we get into when we sort through junk mail looking to see if anything is worth keeping, or when we sort through messages in email inboxes, performing the same sort of triage. My thought is that some people might appreciate having little learning objects pushed to them - ones they can quickly scan and delete, or click through to learn more.

    This clearly already happens online with email newsletters. I guess all I am trying to do is add the same kind of message-design reasoning to my instructional design mix. Maybe they should be called instructional campaigns? There would be this push of learning signals out to the outer orbits of the learning community (the targets of the learning campaign). If they wanted to, they could then click through to richer but still passive modes of learning, like reading articles, watching video clips or lurking on discussion boards. Then if they wanted to make a commitment to enter the inner circle, then they would get the full structured learning experience, with expert facilitation and a group of equally committed peers. Middle and outer orbit participation could be free. The higher-value, socially mediated and socially facilitated shared experience of an inner-orbit "course" would require paid admission.

    That payment is not only an enabling condition for gaining the attention of a facilitator and integration into a cohort, it would be part of the instructional service itself. The idea there is that actually paying to take part in a course is one of the ways you signal your own learning intentions to yourself, boosting your learning persistence. I took a fairly intensive wine tasting course once, and besides the structure that the program provided for my learning, the fee I paid for it was like my declaration of how important this course was for me. I was declaring myself to want to gain more than the customary amount of knowledge in this area. I think fees play a role in psychological self-contracting like that, so charging a fee as part of a structured and facilitated learning event makes sense for more than strictly utilitarian reasons.

    That is not necessarily an argument to say that people from the outer and middle orbits be categorically barred from taking part in inner-orbit discussions. The course could be open. If someone is capable of managing their attention on their own and participating deeply in learning events, the recognition of their learning in the community would follow. However, some people might prefer both more structure and more dialogue in order to help them maintain their learning contract with themselves. That attentional scaffolding service is what the charge is for.

  4. I really like this 3 tier model you're describing. It captures some of the functionality of game designs. It's my understanding that payment generates added commitment when people do not feel forced to spend the money. Your design sets them up to self-select the middle circle and then sell themselves on investing in the inner circle. Very nice!

    I first balked at your use of the advertising campaign paradigm, but then thought again. It occurred to me on second thought that in that outer ring, people may have no interest, expectations, or questions about what's being offered. They do need to be peppered with tidbits, bait and clues to spark some interest. Getting them engaged by sorting through too many pieces gets them using their selection criteria and internal value constructs, rather than making them feel obligated, pressured or imposed upon. When the next step is as easy as "clicking through" rather than phone calls, return snail mail, or formal replies, that could seem inviting, easy and worth looking into for many of them. In short, this looks to me like a great design.

    Thanks for adding these wonderful perspectives and insights here, Neil!