I love design. I love to think about it. I love to do it. I find joy in a big blank piece of white paper where I can sketch and doodle designs for things, for songs, for presentations, for story characters…you name it.

I get nerdy about good designs—from well-designed gadgets to well-designed concert posters. I’ll gasp at a well-designed building or garden. I’ll eagerly consume a well-designed comedy sketch (see Nanette) or relax in a well-designed room. And of course, I LOVE well-designed courses and learning experiences.

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Amy, wait, enough already (you should be saying) What does that even mean? What does a “well-design learning experience” even mean? I mean, it could mean a beautiful learning experience, with lovely graphics and visual layout. Perhaps it’s a learning experience built using only the bestest of best practices in learning design. Or, maybe it’s well-designed because students like it? But which students, and why do they like it?

You’re right--the “well-designed” monicker should invite us to immediately ask for whom is this well-designed? And the follow-on question, for whom is this not well-designed?

These are central questions of inclusive design. In education, inclusive design asks us to explore and recognize how designs might exclude (or even marginalize) and how we might embrace design processes that bring benefit to as many learners as possible. Not just the privileged ones. Not just the ones we understand. Not just the ones we like or who remind us of ourselves. Kevin Gannon writes that inclusive design in education is “a realization that traditional pedagogical methods — traditionally applied — have not served all of our students well. It’s a commitment to put actual substance behind our cheerful declarations that all students deserve access to higher education…” Gannon goes on to describe that the benefit of inclusive design is that it works to the benefit of many students, not just those who have been disenfranchised. “The beauty of inclusive pedagogy is that, rather than making special accommodations that would decrease inequity, it actually benefits all students, not just those at whose needs it was originally aimed.”

What does it look like to embrace inclusive design? I want to first say that inclusive design is not a checkbox—something you do, check the box, and yay you’re inclusive! It’s iterative. Once you embrace inclusive design as an ethos, you’ll constantly be re-evaluating the design choices you make, recognizing how each choice can open up new forms of exclusion, new barriers for learners. Inclusive design means listening and being willing to learn sometimes hard, painful lessons. And it means being ready and willing to change your designs based on what you hear and learn from students.

I would like to share a few inclusive design strategies that I’ve been thinking about lately. I will also weave in some principles and ideas from a related movement called design justice. These approaches/strategies I’m sharing are not exhaustive. In fact, they are what we (my group at Middlebury) call “small moves” toward inclusion. “Small moves” help us to not become overwhelmed by all of the things that we might need to change, but instead to pick a few strategies that we can employ and assess, again in an iterative way (I also love Plymouth State’s Rule of Twos for this purpose).

Here are some strategies to consider:

Recognize exclusionary and marginalizing designs

In Mismatch, Kat Holmes writes that “design shapes our ability to access, participate in, and contribute to the world.” Think about that in the context of a city environment.

The ledge in front of a store window is covered in metal spikes intended to keep homeless people from sitting or sleeping there.
The ledge in front of a store window is covered in metal spikes intended to keep homeless people from sitting or sleeping there. Kent Williams (CC BY 2.0)

Image: Kent Williams (CC BY 2.0) Description: The ledge in front of a store window is covered in metal spikes intended to keep homeless people from sitting or sleeping there.

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to recognize how design is intended to exclude (spikes on windows!?! Yowza!) or prevent some folks from being able to access or participate in parts of that world. But some exclusionary designs are harder to spot, like Robert Moses designing bridges leading to white affluent areas to be too short for public buses to pass under. Now think exclusionary designs in educational settings. There are some pretty obvious examples, like student information systems that require students to identify as either male or female (D.E. Wittkower calls these dysaffordances, or designs that require people to misidentify themselves to participate). But consider also exclusions in hidden curriculum, or in requiring students to join synchronous class meetings, or even in the diversity of authors of readings we assign. Part of the work of inclusion is being attentive to where designs in education actually marginalize students (and, of course, taking steps to counteract those exclusions).

Center student voices and input, use participatory design

A key tenet of both inclusive design and design justice is the centering of voices, experiences, and input of people for whom you’re designing. In design justice circles, this means intentionally centering the voices of people who are typically marginalized by design. I really love the model provided by the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition when they created DiscoTechs. DiscoTechs, short for Discovering Technology, are events that help marginalized communities discover technology together and work toward solutions to the issues those technologies create in their communities. Check out their zine to learn more about the ways they centered the input of members of their community. This model inspired us at Middlebury to create a series of Cryptoparties for faculty and students, designed and hosted in collaboration with student groups across our institution. While this may seem pretty straightforward, though not always easy to do, outside of the formal curriculum, what does this look like in a class? How do you design a course that centers student input and/or that uses participatory design?

Reject (and fight!) exploitative tools/approaches

It is beyond time for all of us to recognize how educational technologies perpetuate and exacerbate inequity. While digital learning can be a site of liberatory pedagogical practices, the tools and approaches we use are often antithetical to our liberatory goals. This is particularly true of learning technologies fueled by students’ data (i.e., in which students’ data are extracted and used/sold for profit). It’s challenging to think about rejecting exploitative tools, considering how pervasive they are in and around our institutions. I love the work Autumm Caines and Erin Glass have done on encouraging students to critically evaluate tools used in their own classes from the very start of class--by including syllabus language to that effect. sava saheli singh’s Screening Surveillance are fantastic films to teach students about how these exploitations harm them. This is also a space where we should be thinking about collective action with and on behalf of our students’ data. I am inspired by this Feminist Data Manifest-no, for example, and I would love to see more educators joining in such initiatives.

Amy Collier (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

I hope this post gives you some ideas and challenges to consider toward a more inclusive approach to your courses and institutions. I want to end with a little story I often tell about intent versus impact. The image above is of the Pont des Arts in Paris. Lovers from around the world placed locks on the bridge, often inscribed with their names, to signal the eternal nature of their love. It’s a romantic gesture…full of hope and dreams…once you lock your love onto the bridge and throw away the key (I imagine a myriad of keys at the bottom of the Seine river), your love will last forever. I visited this bridge when I was in Paris with my family and I became fascinated by the stories these locks told. Some locks were decorated, extravagant; some were simple and humble. Some had dates, wishes written on them. Some were nameless.

But as much as I love the stories that can be told about the locks, there is a darker side to the locks on the Pont des Arts. As more and more people began participating in this ritual, the bridge began to wear out under the weight of the locks. As the organization No Love Locks says: “Our bridges can no longer withstand your gestures of love. Set them free by declaring your love with #lovewithoutlocks.” Eventually, parts of the bridge collapsed into the river. When the Parisian authorities finally removed the locks, they removed somewhere between 45 tons – 65 tons of locks from the bridge. The intent of signaling one’s love story is all well and good, but the impact of that gesture is quite damaging.

Why do I think of this story when I think of inclusive design and design justice? Because of this quote from Sasha Costanza-Chock in their book, Design Justice (p.40): “Most designers today do not intend to systematically exclude marginalized groups of people. However, power inequalities as instantiated in the affordances and disaffordances of sociotechnical systems may be intentional or unintentional, and consequences may be relatively small, or they may be quite significant.” I think about this quote a lot. Every day we design for and/or interact with our students we have the option of focusing on the intention of what we’re trying to do in our classes/schools, or focusing on the impact of those designs on the lives of our students. I hope that this event and this post will help keep our hearts and our attention on the latter.

Inspiration and resources



Challenging Design

Design affects each part of our day, our activities, the way we eat and entertain ourselves, even how we sleep. For this activity, leave the computer behind and venture out around your house. Reflect on the design of your space. How have you set it up, and why? How does the architecture of the space change or affect how you use it? Where have you "broken rules"? Also: How does the design of your space, but also of the objects within it, assume certain things about their user? If your situation (health, ability, etc.) changed, how would your space adapt or be adaptable? How would it be an impediment?

Your Thoughts and Reflections

In partnership with the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, Digital Pedagogy Lab wants to hear your voice! Visit the podcast's Speakpipe site and record 1-3 short voice messages reflecting on the following questions:

  • “What’s making you hopeful in your teaching?”
  • “What’s a concern/challenge/fear you’re experiencing in your teaching?”
  • “What advice do you have for others desperately trying to navigate the impact of COVID in their teaching?”

After DPL 2020 closes, Bonni Stachowiak, creator of the podcast, will work up a episode featuring your reflections.


  • In our first discussion today, reflect on the "challenging design" activity above. What did you discover? Feel free to share photos or images, if that will help you relate your findings.
  • In our second thread, share what you think will be your hardest design challenge as Fall approaches. For many of us, teaching and planning this Fall means planning two or three versions of the same course, coming to grips with the idea that we may need to "pivot" again. Others of us will want to challenge how the LMS supports only specific pedagogies. And all of us should be considering ways to make our work this Fall anti-racist, accessible, and equitable.

~ Read next post in Critical Digital Pedagogy ~

Thursday: Critical Edtech

Posted by Jesse Stommel

4 min read