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A Call for Collaboration: To Design Equitable Learning Experiences, We Must Work Together

As much progress as there has been in DEI training, it’s too broad for any single institution to tackle. Sharing resources and learnings among higher ed allows schools to learn from and grow with each other to better serve students.
As much progress as there has been in DEI training, it’s too broad for any single institution to tackle. Sharing resources and learnings among higher ed allows schools to learn from and grow with each other to better serve students.

Furthering the work of diversity, equity and inclusion is a national imperative, but no institution can solve the pervasive challenges involved on their own. Instead, institutions should collaborate, share what they’ve learned and challenge one another to do better.

In that spirit, Western Governors University (WGU) just made its recently launched DE&I Assessment and Learning Framework available to other institutions under a CC BY-NC-SA Creative Commons license [i]. In sharing this tool, WGU hopes to make learning and assessment products—in and out of its own ecosystem—more accessible and equitable.

In higher education, we see that while significant progress has been made to meet the needs of America’s diversity of learners, but we still have a lot of work to do. Despite years of reforms and promising innovations designed to make learning more accessible and equitable, attainment gaps persist. Consider this data: At public colleges in the U.S., white students graduate at a rate two and half times that of their Black peers; at four-year institutions, white, non-Hispanic students are 12% likelier to graduate than Hispanic students. Just 41% of college students with a disability ultimately graduate compared to 59% of students not disclosing a disability; and low-income students, as indicated by receipt of a Pell Grant, have an 18% lower graduation rate than non-Pell grantees.

With disparities like these in mind, one of the key results we strive for at WGU is to close access and attainment gaps for underestimated and underserved groups. This work involves reimagining virtually every component of our business model, from recruitment, enrollment and financial aid to the technology, coursework and learning experiences we offer. We know, for instance, that many courses and learning materials have historically failed to fully represent the experiences and identities of college students. For example, just 11% of top business school case studies feature a female protagonist. In reviewing our own course content, we have uncovered and corrected stereotype perpetuation, cases in which we missed opportunities to use inclusive language, and charged language and ideas presented in historical documents and literature without contemporary contextualization.

Understandably, such content leaves many students not feeling seen, heard or valued—potentially resulting in disengagement, underperformance and reduced retention rates. Our DE&I Assessment and Learning Framework is one of five projects we established to remedy this by examining and improving our courses across their lifecycle, from design and development to launch and continuous improvement. Developed over the course of 18 months, and with the help of an all-star team of internal and external stakeholders, the framework outlines guiding principles for course design and implementation, best practices and measures to assess any impact on students. It asserts that course and assessment content should make students of all backgrounds feel accepted, include voices and images that represent them and demonstrate diversity, remove barriers to success, personalize their needs and provide opportunities to promote equity.

With the recognition that our best work would come from collaboration—not siloes—our team drew on research from adjacent fields such as human resources and technology product development. We also reviewed the framework’s guiding principles extensively with stakeholders across the university such as members of our Employee Resource Groups and external experts in diversity, equity and inclusion. Ultimately, the seven principles included in the framework are:

  • Welcome Me
  • Integrate Diverse Perspectives and Experiences
  • Make it Matter
  • Remove Barriers
  • Personalize to My Needs
  • Prioritize Value
  • Strengthen My Opportunities for Impact

In the framework, each principle is accompanied by representative practices that forward the framework as well as metrics we will track to help us ensure that we are living up to the principles both in our actions and results.

At WGU, we recognize that the DE&I Assessment and Learning Framework is just a starting point. We also recognize that best practices are constantly evolving. That is why we will be offering training to our teams to help them grow in confidence and competence in this area. It is also why we are treating the framework as a living document that will be revised as the university receives feedback from students, faculty members, developers and other stakeholders.

Additionally, by launching the framework under a Creative Commons license, we hope it will inform other institutions’ efforts to improve learning content and assessments. Since context matters, we hope others will adopt and tailor it to fit the needs of their institutions and learners—and in the spirit of collaboration, we’d love to see those adaptations. We are sure that ideas from other institutions will spark conversation and feedback that will develop and grow our own efforts.

This framework is just one example of the kind of collaborative and innovative culture we are building at WGU. WGU Labs, for instance, recently published an Inclusive Language Guide it hopes others will find useful and adapt for their own needs. While it was originally conceived to address a specific challenge for the organization’s researchers, the research and development hub similarly recognized there was more value in sharing the resource publicly, regularly collecting feedback and updating it.

The challenges facing higher education are too many and too deep for any single institution to tackle. Encouraged by our peers’ great work and inspired by our students, we are proud to be part of a growing community of practice focused on creating learning opportunities for everyone. If you, too, are working on improving the equity of learning and assessment content, we’d love to hear and learn from you.

[i] As describes it: “This license lets others remix, adapt, and build upon this work non-commercially, as long as they credit the original creator and license their new creations under the identical terms.”

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