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Inclusive Design & Design Justice

A call to action for university faculty.

headshot of Amy CollierThe University of Utah will welcome Amy Collier for a virtual plenary talk on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, at 4 p.m.

As the associate provost for digital learning at Middlebury College, Collier provides strategic vision and leadership for Middlebury to create and sustain a global learning community through the effective use of digital pedagogies and technologies. Prior to her current role, Collier was the senior director for inspiration and outreach in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning at Stanford University. She oversaw online and blended course design and teaching initiatives and conducted research to inform effective practices across the university. Before Stanford, Collier was the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Texas Wesleyan University where her team implemented nationally recognized faculty development programs for online learning and learning space redesign.

“Dr. Collier is a leader in researching and designing inclusive, equitable and transformative learning experiences in higher education,” said Deborah Keyek-Franssen, associate vice president and dean of University Connected Learning (UCL). “We are honored that she is speaking to a campus-wide audience as a way to entice, advance and deepen anyone’s devotion to more inclusive teaching.”

Collier's talk with the U, titled "Inclusive Design & Design Justice: A Call to Action for University Faculty," is sponsored by UCL, the School for Cultural and Social Transformation, the S.J. Quinney College of Law and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences.

Register here.

Q&A with Amy Collier

Your work has long centered around open online learning and faculty development. What initially brought you to this field of inquiry?  

As a graduate student, I worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for a fully online program in our department. I began to learn about digital pedagogy, and I explored the deep and expanding field focused on the intersections of technology and education. After defending my dissertation, I became the director of a faculty development center in Texas at an institution focused on growing its online programs and digital learning. That was nearly 15 years ago, but throughout my career (and across several institutions), I have focused on how technology can both be a source of opportunity and of peril in education. In the last five years or so, I have been particularly interested in the perils—the ways in which digital technologies in education present risks to our students. Technologies are not neutral—they encode biases, extract and exploit data, and expose students to increased scrutiny and harassment. I support approaching technology in education with a great deal of intentionality, care, and a willingness to refuse and resist technology when it harms our students.

How do you define inclusive design and design justice? 

 Before I was introduced to inclusive design and design justice, I was introduced to the reasons why we need those approaches. My colleague Chris Gilliard taught me about digital redlining—the ways in which particular groups, such as BIPOC folks or LGBTQIA folks, are marginalized and disenfranchised by technologies, much in the way Black folks were disenfranchised by redlining, or discriminatory banking and housing policies. I had not yet considered the ways in which our designs in education—including and especially designs that used technology—could harm our students. As I read more about discriminatory designs across architecture, technology, policy, and more, I yearned for frameworks and approaches that could help us center inclusion and justice, rather than exclusion and disenfranchisement.

Inclusive design and design justice are two frameworks that do that. They center inclusion and justice in designs and, in particular, they center the voices and experiences of folks who have typically been marginalized by design. I first became aware of inclusive design through a superstar colleague, Jess Mitchell, who works at the Inclusive Design Research Centre. I learned about design justice through a book—called Design Justice—written by Sasha Costanza-Chock. Both Jess and Sasha are luminaries who have inspired and challenged me to think about inclusive design and design justice within the context of courses and curriculum and, more broadly, in higher education institutional contexts.

According to the Inclusive Design Research Centre, inclusive design is “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference.” Design justice is defined by Sasha Constanza-Chock as a “framework for analysis and a growing community of practice looking to understand and more equitably distribute design’s benefits and burdens.” I think of both frameworks as providing strategies and mindsets that help us approach design intentionally and with a focus on inclusion and justice. In education, this means centering the perspectives of students who might be disenfranchised, harmed, or excluded by our designs. When we center the perspectives of marginalized students, rather than designing for (often by default) the students who are at the center of the wheel of power and privilege, we extend benefits to many students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted gaps in accessibility to learning. How can universities be part of the solution to eliminating those inequities? 

My dear friends and colleagues Martha Burtis and Jesse Stommel noted the educational design problems that were impacting education well before the pandemic: (1) instructional design models rooted in a history of military training and now intricately tied to exploitative forms capitalism; (2) precarity in students’ lives, including a lack of support for basic needs, and (3) a lack of faculty support and pedagogical training. The pandemic not only exacerbated these issues, they argued, we regressed on these issues—moved in the wrong direction. Change will require a rethinking of all three areas—how we design courses, how we support our students, how we support our faculty (including re-evaluating reward systems that de-prioritize teaching and student support).

Inclusive design and design justice can help, especially in the design of courses and curriculum, but institutional change to realign priorities and change “the way we do things” will be very hard. At the very least, institutions need better mechanisms to identify and address inequities—very few institutions have in place mechanisms that help them notice and address inequities. Beyond noticing exclusion and inequities, we need to begin to transform our work—from the smallest moves in how we teach to the biggest moves involving changing the world around us.