What Designers Say about Creating Educational Materials

Blog Post
July 12, 2022

In spring 2022, New America convened a group of developers and designers of educational materials to better understand how their work connects to digital equity, culturally responsive education (CRE), and open education resources (OER) in preK-12 settings. This roundtable is part of a series with stakeholders to better understand CRE and OER in the context of educational systems, media, and technologies.

Takeaways from New America’s research report on social group representation in educational materials prompted the need to convene developers and designers of instructional materials in order to gather insights about how they consider CRE, digital equity, and the potential of OER in their work. Roundtable participants included a diverse group of experts, executive leadership, and content managers of digital materials from a range of industries and institutions. Having a diverse group helped generate a broad understanding of issues, concerns, and promising practices for designing inclusive materials. Participants discussed New America’s research brief on social group representation and several questions related to cultural responsiveness and digital equity to learn their perspectives and insight on these topics. In addition to the roundtable, one-on-one interviews were conducted with those who were unable to attend.

Cultural Responsiveness

When discussing the connection between cultural responsiveness and educational material design, common points emerged include: defining culturally responsive practices, addressing content challenges and resistance, implementing inclusive development and design practices, and referencing social media for design ideas.

Defining culturally responsive practices

Participants remarked on the ambiguity of the term culturally responsive, and using other terms such as “inclusive” do not clarify the meaning. The ambiguity provokes questions, such as who are we being responsive to, what is the reason, and how does it happen. There is a need to expand beyond diversity and gender and include dual language and English language learners and different body shapes and sizes.

Another focal point of culturally responsive practices in design is students. Participants explained the definition of students’ identity varies by how it is viewed. Identity is multi-layered, and isn’t always related to certain categories like race and language. With identity, there needs to be consideration to students’ experiences (and the specifics of those experiences), cultural stories and history, and geography. Culturally responsive materials also offer choice for students to have their experiences reflected, giving them agency.

Conversations about culturally responsiveness also included references to context. Context influences the application of cultural responsiveness to products. For instance, there is a difference between rural and urban-centric language and vocabulary. The participants mentioned the importance of developers and designers understanding these distinctions when creating responsive materials. In addition to context, other components to consider are food, family structure, abilities, socio-economic status, and values.

Addressing Content Challenges and Resistance

Participants remarked on a variety of challenges that emerge in the development of content, such as appeal, stereotypes, language, bias against a certain group (e.g., English Language Learners) and appropriateness. In the industry, a White-European centric content is presented as appealing to everyone, and developing materials with White characters is the default. Whereas content that represents BIPOC communities is not perceived as offering the same appeal. Participants expressed a need to shift this approach and design with a global market in mind. This means creating characters and diverse storylines that accurately reflect all children and youth’s environment, identities, and lives.

Even when there are cases that recognize the need for stories that do not reinforce stereotypes, adhering to content standards and the conflation of culturally responsive education with critical race theory have created additional barriers. To help remedy challenges, particularly those that resist the development of culturally responsive materials, developers and designers have helped publishers reconsider their guidelines that allow them to push beyond their current practices.

Participants exchanged dialogue about a similar challenge of creating content that was authentic to the daily experiences and culture of students or a particular community and at the same time inappropriate to another, such as the practice of killing animals in indigenous cultures or resources that address school shootings. They questioned who gets to determine whose “sensitivities” and cultures are centered when deciding which materials are made. In some instances, these materials that are inappropriate are considered offensive or removed from sites due to the company’s guidelines. People’s “sensitivities” to certain language and content prevent or make it harder for materials to be designed for the global community. They emphasized the inequity that is embedded within this approach, even though some materials that are part of the literary canon contain content that is not appropriate, like smoking.

Refining Development and Design Practices

The role of executives and other leadership staff who are decision makers in content development was highlighted throughout the roundtable. For example, when leadership who may predominantly represent one racial/ethinic group decides what content will be made, it can pose a problem. There may be a disconnect between creator and decisionmaker due to experiences and identity. Thus, having more people who represent different social groups and can provide diverse perspectives can help reduce this challenge. This includes supporting smaller production studios and companies who are already doing inclusive practices well. Participants also suggested using research, like New America’s research report on social group representation, as evidence to support the need to make culturally responsive materials.

In addition to leadership, integrating inclusive practices which account for culture, student identity, people's experiences, and context of product’s use in design processes was essential. These practices tend to focus on the design team and the design process. For example, participants suggested defining expertise beyond those with doctoral degrees to valuing lived experiences when identifying expert collaborators. They also recommended hiring team members who represent diverse cultural identities, perspectives, and lived experiences, and reflect the materials’ audience.

Participants emphasized the importance of the product’s audience and getting to know them rather than making assumptions regarding representation. In the context of the design process, participants discussed testing products with the audience during development. Co-designing between developers and communities was also mentioned as design practice, in which developers and members of the community and/or youth work together in each step of the product’s design. While this approach takes time and can be a slower process due to input, it is a way to involve culturally authentic people and voices in the design process. Participants also mentioned that reviewing social media tools that children and youth already use, like TikTok, can inform design choices about user-engagement.

Digital Equity

When expanding the conversation to digital equity, participants discussed access to technology and digital content, increasing students’ and educators’ knowledge and skills, and the challenges of open educational resources (OER).

Having Access to Tech and Content

Participants noted the importance of understanding the tools students and their families can access at home and educational settings, families’ perceptions of technology, and user experience and response to tools. Designers and developers may have assumptions about students. Instead of designing from assumptions, they can get to know what students bring with them before they engage with the product, such as social-emotional skills, prior knowledge, socioeconomic status, and bias of parents or guardians.

Additionally, the type of technology and broadband impacts the content that is available. For instance, simulations and animations may be available with access to high speed internet, but not with slower speed. Participants suggested developers design with the awareness of technology and broadband disparity, and offer different ways to engage with content, such as text paragraphs accompanied with a simulation.

Participants also referred to access in terms of content. They shared how designing content that is comprehensible to families, caregivers, and facilitators equips them to be supportive to children. Distribution of materials also plays a role in making content accessible. Educational gatekeepers and decision makers are instrumental in identifying and permitting the use of materials, and may not want students to access certain materials. Developers and designers may address the challenge of permitting the use of these materials by explaining history is multifaceted and multilayered to gatekeepers and decision makers, and providing different options, perspectives, and stories. In addition to gatekeepers, the lack of marketing can lead to product invisibility and inequity.

Increasing Students’ and Educators’ Knowledge and Skills

Participants also addressed building educators’ and students’ digital literacy. Students need opportunities to be digital creators, storytellers, and producers, not only consumers. Yet, educators may not have the skills or knowledge needed to develop students’ digital literacy. To support students, educators need to enhance their knowledge and skills with digital tools and digital literacy. Participants noted the need for teacher educator programs to build educators' digital and design knowledge and skills. Digital literacy for educators and students includes expressing, demonstrating and communicating what they know using technology, and applying critical thinking.

Participants also recognized the need for educators to become knowledgeable about implementing culturally responsive teaching practices. Participants recognized that educators need better support, relevant professional development, and guidance in building on students’ experiences.

Challenges of OER

While participants noted the potential of open educational resources (OER), they indicated funding and quality can be challenges. Even though OERs are free to use, they are not free to create, code, and maintain nor does free indicate the material will be of quality. Funding needs to be available in order to develop quality materials and maintain it over time.

Additional Suggestions for Practice

As the participants identified opportunities and challenges of cultural responsiveness and digital equity, they offered additional recommendations designers and developers’ could apply when creating educational materials.

  • Formulate design guidelines that can be used when developing materials. These guidelines would help designers understand cultural responsiveness and how they can integrate it in their work.
  • Create a rubric or vetting system for cultural responsiveness and digital equity when developing materials. This rubric or vetting system would be used by the developers as an evaluation tool when designing materials.
  • Share examples of design teams and developers who are doing culturally responsive and digital equity well. Some places that could be referenced are Raising Readers, the Sparkler app, and finalists of Prix Jeunesse International.
  • Encourage productive dialogue among people of different regions and viewpoints about shifting towards a multicultural majority in the U.S.

The conversation generated by the convening indicates that without consideration to culturally responsive practices and digital equity, materials can continue to reproduce limited stories, narratives, cultures, and perspectives as well as limited educational experiences for those who do not have newer technologies. By identifying the past, current, and potential opportunities and challenges with the development of educational materials, participants offered practical solutions that can be applied to different stages of product design along with suggestions for education stakeholders when preparing and supporting preservice and in-service educators and integrating materials in learning environments, and what needs to shift to make materials more inclusive for all students.

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