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DEIxis: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Empowering Context-Rich Learning

Students learn best then they feel represented in the material they’re studying and a sense of belonging in the environment in which they’re studying. Higher education must prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion to foster learning that takes context into account.

Those that oppose redesigning curriculum to include diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) principles would have us believe it creates bland, boring and abstract courses. We rather believe that creating such courses can be more specific, more context-rich and provide more ways for students to enjoy new subjects.

Imagine a classroom where every student feels seen, heard and valued. Creating such a scenario might be a prerequisite to “gaining the attention of the students,” or of moving through any other of Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction.

Again, imagine a classroom or course where diverse perspectives are explored and celebrated, and where all students can learn about the world around them, explore it, see themselves within it and as its creators. Classrooms have always reflected someone’s idea of the world or, to paraphrase Democritus, they’ve always been a kind of little cosmos. But we’re only just starting to question that reflection. What little worlds are we creating? Who are we creating them for? Is this classroom free of bias? Is this material accessible? Where have we left something out? Have we created barriers to learning, or have we created a way into the material for someone new to the subject?

We cannot yet invent the perfect classroom or course, but we can aspire to build them, nurture them and iterate upon them. We already have the tools to construct positive and powerful classroom experiences. We call this DEIxis: the intersection where diversity, equity and inclusion meet context-rich learning. The term “deixis” comes from the Greek and refers to words or phrases that depend on the context in which they are used to be properly understood.

To us, DEI isn’t just an acronym du jour. Both authors of this article have been subject to instruction that was not designed for them. One of us migrated to the states years ago, but he sees that much the online instruction offered today comes with a default worldview of someone born and raised in America or the United Kingdom. The other author notes that, as a learner with ADHD and dyslexia, courses that, for example, required him to correctly spell the names of minor characters from Homer’s Odyssey without looking them up were designed such that he and other folks with neurodivergent brains would fail. Does knowing that Nausicaa is spelled with a double a help you understand Homer, literature, the story’s world or our own?

A crucial aspect of creating a successful and welcoming classroom is showing every student respect, no matter who they are or where they come from. That means having a curriculum that represents a wide range of perspectives and experiences and creating a culture that promotes belonging and inclusivity, while knocking down biases and barriers that can hold students back. While we’re focusing on the instructional side most often here, these ideas also apply to how one should go about assessing students work.

Classrooms and courses today have context designed into them, if not consciously then by default. Computer Science classrooms decorated with stereotypical tech bro science fiction memorabilia, RTFM hacker ethos and energy drinks send a signal that is welcoming to some and off-putting to others, as noted in a recent Scientific American. Loving Star Trek, wearing a hoodie and being overcaffeinated has little relationship to how well one can learn to program a computer. But it might have a lot of correlation with the individual currently programing them.

Case studies, simulations, games and apprenticeships are all examples of context-rich learning that utilize episodic memory, increase student motivation and create conditions conducive to learning transfer. These types of learning environments are particularly beneficial for students with dyslexia and other neurodivergent brains, as they provide the necessary context often lacking in traditional education. By answering the question, “Why do we need to learn this?” context-rich learning helps students understand the relevance and importance of the material they are learning.  

Educators like us want to build courses that are inclusive and welcoming for all students and that promote diversity, equity and inclusion. We want to build courses that allow students to explore a variety of perspectives and experiences and that encourage students to think critically and creatively about the material they’re studying. Ultimately, an educator’s specific goals will depend on their students’ specific context and, as well as the course’s objectives. Additionally, we want to build courses that are responsive to our students’ needs and interests and that foster a sense of belonging and engagement.

In the end, it is not about the courses or little worlds we build, but about those worlds waiting to be hatched by our students.

Please note that the comments made herein are the authors’ own and not necessarily a reflection/an opinion/stance of Western Governors University.

Author Perspective: