During the month of July, we observe Disability Pride Month, honoring and celebrating people of all abilities, the contributions they make to our society, the unique funds of knowledge they bring to their jobs, and the strength they exhibit as people who exist in a world that is largely not designed for them. Such national observances are a valuable reminder that there is still much work to be done in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Part of that work is making it our responsibility to invest in DEI and DEI practices in our workplaces - and a great way to do that is making DEI practices a priority in our training program.
When we consider how to optimize our courses, we talk a lot about tactics like analytics and course authoring tools, but one of the most critical components to every course we create here at Vector Solutions is diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). Too often, DE&I is an afterthought, layered onto existing material, when, in reality, these are critical components in making your content effective. In the words of our Director of Content Design, Laureen Ranz, without considering diversity, equity and inclusion in your course authoring, “You can’t get the full picture without considering and incorporating different perspectives and insights. That’s what diversity is.”
We spoke with Laureen to learn her top tips for improving your course content by ensuring it’s authentically diverse, inclusive and equitable.
When it comes to incorporating diversity and inclusive and equitable representation and ideas into course authoring, Laureen and her team leave no stone unturned. Here are some of the top areas to look at when improving your courses.
For Laureen’s team, creating a great course starts with a Rich Media Brainstorming Session at the start of every new course assignment. “When I first started in content development, we had an assembly line approach - you completed your portion of the process, the project got passed along, and you didn’t see it again until it was live. That just doesn’t produce the best results. So, we moved to a much more collaborative model, which includes getting together and brainstorming all aspects of the course concept in an open, safe, inclusive environment, early in the process. Diverse representation is a big part of that conversation. Those brainstorming sessions are magic - the ideas and considerations deepen much more meaningfully after they’re workshopped by all the voices in the room - writers, instructional designers, graphic and motion designers, and our AV crew. Accepting and encouraging all of those perspectives is, in itself—in a conceptual way—diversity in motion.”
Who are you telling the story to? Are they represented in the telling of the story? How are they represented? These are some of the critical questions Laureen asks when evaluating and creating course content. “It’s important because our users and customers —and our country as a whole—come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. The fact that our learning is now increasingly happening online means diversity considerations are even more important because we can’t see how the user is being affected. It’s so important that we reach, represent and include everyone in all of our content.”
Casting is critical in ensuring that storytelling is representative of the diverse learners you’ll be speaking to. Diversity has long been focused on ethnicity and race, which continue to be important, but it’s so much more than that— including religion, culture, language, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, physical and mental abilities, socioeconomic status, looks and body type and lifestyle. “Proper representation needs to be there from the beginning, so finding the right talent for our courses is something we take very seriously. This means identifying a diverse set of “everyday-looking” actors or presenters who look like your neighbor, your coworker, your teacher, your boss—people our learners will relate to and see themselves in. But even more importantly, it also means seeing people in our courses who are different from ourselves, people we want and need to understand better. My entire team ensures our courses have the right balance of sexes, ages, races, ethnicities, abilities and body types (among other considerations) represented - and that they are portrayed appropriately.”
There may be a temptation to have a beautiful, sterile, location for your shoot, but Laureen cautions against choosing an unrealistic location to help learners visualize and engage with the material. “For our video shoots, we prefer to show a location that is the reality for most of our learners, so we look for diverse locations, such as urban schools - real field locations that our users can identify with in their own lives - not a pretend, lofty set. We want our learners to be able to see themselves there - or be able to better understand those that are.”
Similarly to casting, Laureen’s team incorporates their philosophy in photography and illustration. “We are fortunate to have really talented designers on our team who ensure diversity in all of our graphics and imagery. We aren’t interested in featuring happy, beautiful, ‘perfect’ people smiling into the camera. We’ll even take photos during our video shoots to make sure we’re portraying relatable, authentic people of all backgrounds in our courses. We also use creative graphic design techniques to fulfill diversity gaps or gender/race-neutral representations where needed."
Your narration literally tells the story of your course, so it’s an important place to consider diversity, equity and inclusion when course authoring. “If you don’t have a presenter, you have to ensure you have a great voiceover, and it’s important that you’re thinking of diversity representation there as well. We look for voiceover talent with different tones and inflections that represent a variety of diverse voices. Some course topics may call for use of a specific voice. For example, a course on diversity awareness should use a diverse narrator, not a mainstream, flat narration. We also try to shift positions of power stereotypes by, for example, using a female on an executive management or engineering course. We make it a priority to diversify voices wherever possible.”
Including interviews in your courses can help you connect with learners by providing a truly authentic voice and story. “No story is better than a real story, especially if you have an especially good story to tell. We often conduct real interviews to tell these stories–for example, with students from a variety of backgrounds who have been bullied. These interviews are so powerful because they are real—retold by the person who lived it, but often it’s an experience shared by so many others. These diverse stories help the learner understand how connected we all really are and, often, help the learner understand a new perspective they haven’t experienced or considered in their own lives.”
Consider your script from all angles and, when you see that you might not be showing an accurate or diverse representation, make a conscious effort to seek out those opportunities to improve. “We always review each other’s work, looking for areas to improve. For example, in one of our training courses on sexual harassment, we received feedback that the range of experience could be expanded. Rather than show just the most common scenarios, we collaborated and updated our content by representing female-to-male and same-sex sexual harassment situations, as well as more nuanced but still inappropriate interactions. By showing a diversity of experiences, our learners are able to relate and feel seen and understood - and also identify sexual harassment they’d possibly ignored before. Until implicit and explicit biases are gone, we have to do our part to help force them away.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback and have hard conversations. Some of the tactics Laureen and her team use are brainstorming and workshopping sessions, surveying learners and utilizing focus groups. “To be creative, you have to be brave. We’re willing to have tough conversations and trust in each other’s skills and unique perspectives. Respecting and incorporating all of those diverse insights, in turn, helps us develop more diverse, inclusive course content.”
The pandemic has had a negative impact on our lives in many ways, but, in the world of course authoring, Laureen sees it as an opportunity. “The greater shift to online learning during the pandemic has, in some ways, made diversity in education more accessible and more equitable. As hybrid learning becomes a bigger part of the educational approach, we have an opportunity to shape what that looks like and deliver a truly diverse, equitable, inclusive experience. This could have a really powerful effect on our users’ lives—to be presented with positive, empowering representations of diversity—especially in our current times. Vector Solutions is providing a truly needed service right now, and it’s our duty to do so responsibly and to make a difference in our learners’ lives and how we see and treat one another.”
Although Disability Pride Month is an excellent time for us to review our DEI practices and how they are reflected in our eLearning courses, this work of self-reflection and evaluation should be done all year round. Our country, workplaces, and schools increasingly comprise various cultural, racial, and ethnic groups, making it essential that our courses accurately reflect the diversity of our audience. The images we see in the media profoundly shape our perceptions of others. As business leaders, it is our responsibility to avoid stereotypes and champion equitable representation in all of our products. And, with a little practice and effort, we can all learn to make diversity, equity, and inclusion a normal, indispensable part of the work that we do every single day.
*This article was originally published in 2020 and has been updated for 2023
Laureen Palmisano Ranz is Director of Content Design for Vector Solutions and has been a writer, editor, and project manager for education solutions throughout her career.