Module 3: Creating an Inclusive Community of Learners: Trust and Context

a decorative rainbow line

Figure 1: Module 3: Creating an Inclusive Community of Learners
Click here for a version with ASL
Click here for a version with LSQ (coming soon!)

Story

Objective: To foster inclusive learning communities of diverse collaborative members. While diversity is our greatest asset, inclusion is our most important challenge. The academic mission of advancing learning and discovery, while doing no harm, is best served by an orchestration of diverse perspectives. Current academic processes pit students against students, faculty against faculty, and faculty against students, create monocultures, and exclusionary hierarchies filled with bias. The academic journey is often a lonely one, especially during the pandemic. Learning communities are not inherently inclusive — we have to deliberately create them to be and work to maintain this inclusion. How do we create a cohesive learning community out of dissonant and divergent perspectives, deal with conflict, listen to quieter underrepresented voices, give and receive constructive critique, and share knowledge generously for collective benefit?

At this point in our workshop series, we had created a community. We were in the perfect place to question and reflect upon our own practices. We asked: Who in our community is getting comfortable with these weekly meetings? Who still thinks they shouldn’t be there? Are we building trust? In essence, what was being done well and what needed to be better?

We used the liberating structure TRIZ to list all the worst possible results, because sometimes it’s easier to reflect on what we shouldn’t do. Then we asked, “Is there anything on this list that resembles what we’re currently doing?”

Administratively Supporting a Humanized Learning Community

(Having been in the role of student, instructor, and administrator, and having attempted culture change in each of these roles, I wish to share the insights I have gained and the lessons I have learned from failure, mistakes, and unexpected progress. This culture change isn’t easy. Some of these recommendations may be obvious and rudimentary to most administrators. These recommendations are mine alone and have not been processed by the team, as I was recovering from brain surgery during the co-design sessions. — Jutta)

Layers of dark purple-orange rock.
Figure 2: Photo by Omer Salom on Unsplash

Administration is part of the larger community. Education is a complex adaptive system. Learning and teaching is nested in layers of administration and oversight. Any culture change must take into account these layers and each of the nested layers must change as well. At any point, where change does not permeate the layers, there will be a friction point that can undermine the culture change. The individuals at the boundary between change and stasis will feel the friction the most.

Humanizing the Administrative Experience

To humanize the administrative experience, ask the humans that have the greatest difficulty or feel the greatest impact to help reshape the process. The coin model of privilege speaks to how those above the coin hold the power for change, yet those below the coin hold the experience of what needs to change (Nixon 2019). In terms of who should give input, this could be the individuals that experience time famine the most because of other demands; those who have the greatest difficulty navigating through the process because of a variety of language, cultural, or other barriers; or those who feel the greatest anxiety about administration and authority because of past experiences. The people who are unlike the conception of the typical student or instructor, for whom the process is a misfit can provide great insight. Rather than separate fragmented domains of administrative responsibility, look at the overall experience for the student and the instructor. If you reshape the experience to address these outlying needs, the process will be more humane for everyone in the interaction.

Cost Benefit Analysis

For each administrative step that is required, ask, Why is this necessary? Is the effort required by the applicant, student, or instructor worth the administrative benefit derived? Is there another way to derive this benefit that doesn’t put the same demands on the student/instructor? Is the same information already gathered by someone else in the administration? Can collaborative information sharing reduce the effort overall? Is the rationale for the effort clear to those expending the effort? Does the timing of the effort take into account the other demands put upon those that must expend the effort? Are the instructions clear enough not to add to the cognitive load and anxiety of those that must expend the effort? Are the instructions written from the perspective of those who must expend the effort? Are they clear to the individuals who are unlike the typical profile? Is it clear where help can be found to clarify what is demanded?

Communication That Respects and Expects Humanized Exchanges

There is often a tendency to speak down to students or to use punitive or threatening language when administrative steps are not followed. This is more likely to elicit a defensive response, and communicates an expectation of wrong-doing or non-compliance.  It also sets up a power imbalance that places the student in a passive role and discourages a sense of mutual responsibility or allegiance to the collective effort.

Alternatively, students are treated as customers to be appeased and served. This also results in the abdication of responsibility and discourages allegiance to the collective effort. Higher education is far more than selling a service.

Setting up a respectful adult-to-adult conversation that encourages reciprocal understanding of both positions is more likely to achieve the desired response. After all, education is a collective responsibility, not a luxury that a society can forego.

Beware of Delegating Decisions and Processes to “Smart” Machines

With the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) — the promise of efficient, accurate decisions and the ability to detect patterns far better than humans — academia has resorted to the use of AI to speed up administrative processes and make or assist with administrative decisions. AI is being used in academic admissions, grading, to detect students who are not keeping up or not doing the work, to proctor exams during the pandemic, and to provide personalized instructional support to students who are struggling.

It is crucially important to acknowledge that there is bias pervasive and inherent in AI. AI decisions are based on data analytics that optimizes using data about past successes. This favours the average or majority and is biased against outliers and small minorities. The data regarding these students is often not present or is overwhelmed by the data of the majority. This means that they are far less likely to be chosen for admission, will be graded less fairly, will be identified as non-conformant, will be falsely accused of cheating, and will find that the “personalized” instruction is not a good fit.

The same applies to AI tools used to make hiring or promotion decisions. Current AI systems will amplify, automate, and accelerate discrimination of the past, discouraging diversity and leading to monocultures.

When using AI it is important to understand the limits of the intelligence and to understand who and what the AI systems are ignorant of and biased against. Anomalous decisions, exceptions, and scenarios that are not usual are better addressed by human judgment. There should always be a human guiding the process. AI is a power tool that can do great harm if used irresponsibly.

The Many Guises of and Excuses for Surveillance

A sense of mutual trust is a precarious and precious thing. It is essential to creating an inclusive learning community. Respecting privacy is a powerful way to communicate trust. That respect for privacy is eroded and breached with the pernicious employment of surveillance systems. Learning management systems embed surveillance systems that monitor instructors and students under the guise of identifying struggling students and assisting instructors. These do not communicate trust, but they do motivate actions to fool the system.

Winners and Losers

Challenging and rewarding excellence through academic awards is a powerful motivator. When singular standards such as grades are used to judge excellence, it can also be a means of winnowing diversity and setting up competition that fragments a community. Diversification, novel excellence, and personal advances should also be encouraged and recognized.

Arbiters of Certification

Academia is not impervious to the disparity that has led to polarization and strife in the larger context. Meritocracies and our systems of academic merit may be contributing to new class divides. With academic institutions redefining their purpose as the certification of learning in the context of globally available educational resources, we can help to recognize a diversity of achievements. We can play a role in reducing hierarchies, class divides, and disparities, bringing dignity to the variety of essential work that our society’s survival depends upon.

Session Topic Introduction: Creating an Inclusive Community of Learners

Figure 3: Module 3: Plenary Creating an Inclusive Community of Learners
Click here for a version with ASL
Click here for a version with LSQ (coming soon!)

@Terry: Instead of easing our way into the third module and building on the work that had been done already, we came in like a wrecking ball (thank you, Miley) with an act of creative destruction. In the previous two modules, we had set the precedent of using a Liberating Structure (What? So What? Now What?) as the overarching way to proceed. Investigating just WHAT we are talking about, analyzing what is important to note about it (SO WHAT), and creating a list of actions to take in light of that analysis (NOW WHAT).

As we imagined what might be a good way to not only introduce the topic of creating an inclusive community, but also continue to create an inclusive community of learners (so meta!), we thought a switch of Liberating Structure might be just the right amount of destructive yet constructive fun to do just that.

Enter the TRIZ Liberating Structure. If we had kept to the script and continued on with the original liberating structure, we would have begun with an analysis of an inclusive learning community. What makes a brave space? What are its defining features and characteristics? What rules do they follow? What makes them inclusive? I am positive we would have come up with a fantastic list of key features and ways to foster brave, inclusive spaces.

But with TRIZ, we took a roundabout approach. We spent the first week of module 3 trading off ideas of how to do just the opposite. How could we make an unbrave space? How could a space be as exclusive as possible? In other words, how to reach the exact opposite goal than the one we are working towards. And this may just be the most liberating of Liberating Structures. You are now free to identify all the things you’re afraid of happening. Bringing them out into the open for all to see; to call out as undesirable. And the community grows as we together come up with more and more (bad) ideas that we know we will be together in fighting to remove from the spaces that we work in.

And, likely before we even get to the next step of the structure, we see ways to counteract the things we have identified; to fight them. And as we continue through the TRIZ structure, we look at that list honestly to see what we recognize as things that do exist in our environments (much like the SO WHAT step). And finally, we create a list of actions to take to remove or flip the things on the original list (Much like the NOW WHAT step). If you think about it, the two Liberating Structures are kind of the same thing, with different twists.

The keywords for Module 3: Co-Creating Inclusive Communities were trust and context. We hoped that by taking this “destructive” approach for module 3, we were leveraging the context that had been built in the first two modules and that we showed our trust in the community by mixing things up.

Week 5: Co-Creating Inclusive Communities — What? So What?

Keywords: trust and context

This week we’re going to shift to using a different “liberating structure.” We’re going to spend Thursday breaking things down so that we can build them back up together. It’s called Making Space with TRIZ and it’s a flip. Instead of solutioning or fixing, we start by breaking!

Non-trigger, trigger warning: this week we’ll be focusing on the negative things we can do to break communities. How can you do a terrible job of creating a community of practice? Remember: be brave, not unsafe. And if you need anything in particular from us for that to happen, let us know!

Questions we will consider:

  • How can we make a community as exclusive, uninviting, and unwelcoming as possible?
  • How can we make it difficult to participate in the community?
  • What level of structure would make this an absolutely awful community?
  • How can we make sure others feel othered inside and outside of our community?
  • How can we make sure that trust is nowhere to be seen in this community? How can distrust take centre stage?
  • How can we make sure people outside our community do not trust it?
  • How can we set the worst possible context for our ongoing community practices and participation in the community?
  • How can we encourage people to leave the community early and often?
  • How can we make sure no one understands what the community is for or about? Or who is it for?
  • How can we make sure people think “no” when considering “Is this community for me”?

After the session:

Laura Killam

Week 6: Co-Creating Inclusive Communities — Now What? 

After the session:

Findings from Week 1

Ways to Create Unbrave Spaces

  • Tell everyone their ideas won’t work. This can look like “not thinking big” or “not holding space for hope.”
  • Correct people’s sharing of their own experiences.
  • Assume everyone learns the same way.
  • Make everyone show up on camera and speak.
  • Change fees for access.
  • Put a time limit on sharing.
  • Put people down and tell them they’re wrong.
  • Presume privilege does not exist.
  • Shut down other people if they disagree with you.
  • Model something different than what you expect.

Findings from Week 2

How can we construct what we deconstructed last week?

Deconstruct

Do We Do This

Construct

  • Tell everyone their ideas won’t work.
  • Correct people’s sharing of their own experiences.
  • Assume everyone learns the same way.
  • Make everyone show up on camera and speak.
  • Charge fees for access.
  • Put a time limit on sharing.
  • Put people down and tell them they’re wrong.
  • Presume privilege does not exist.
  • Shut down other people if they disagree with you.
  • Model something different than what you expect.

[Space to reflect as a group]

The Construction Phase

Genuinely Listening to Ideas from All
  • What not to do: Tell everyone their ideas won’t work. This can look like “not thinking big” or “not holding space for hope.”
  • What to do: We need to recognize that big problems are going to require big solutions, and at the start of any process it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. Just because we don’t know how to get somewhere doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to figure out a way. This ties back to one of the central themes, which is the value and importance of diversity. We know that diverse groups approach solving problems in different ways and come up with diverse solutions. In order to ensure we save space for these diverse solutions, we need to ensure we don’t dismiss ideas at the outset.
Valuing Personal Experiences and Narratives
  • What not to do: Correct people’s sharing of their own experiences.
  • What to do: A diverse group will have diverse experiences and perspectives, and all of these need to be valued. Studies have shown that experiences and perspectives from underrepresented groups are more likely to be dismissed or ignored from the dominant group. In order to be inclusive we need to ensure that value is attached to personal stories and narratives. We signal this value through respect and meaningful listening.
Acknowledge and Respect Individual Differences
  • What not to do: Assume everyone learns the same way.
  • What to do: At the core of inclusive communities is an appreciation of diversity. Within this appreciation we need to acknowledge differences in engaging with material. People will come with different motivations, different degrees of engagement, and different background exposure and preparation. We need to acknowledge this difference and ensure supports are in place to welcome and foster learning for all.

A brown moth on a leaf
Figure 4: Photo by Erik Karits on Unsplash

Flexibility and Inclusion for Meaningful Participation
  • What not to do: Make everyone show up on camera and speak.
  • What to do: Ensure there are multiple pathways for people to participate and feel included. Universal design for learning along with accessibility principles highlight the need to multi-modal learning environments. This might take the form of encouraging learners to choose between participating in the chat versus turning on their camera and speaking.
Consider Equity through Access
  • What not to do: Charge fees for access.
  • What to do: Ensure all components of the course are open access and do not require a fee for entry/access. Some education tech tools might start out on a free trial but turn to a fee for service in the middle of the course. We need to be aware of this and actively select tools that are truly open access for all learners.
Respect a Slow Share
  • What not to do: Put a time limit on sharing.
  • What to do: Recognize that important exchanges can’t be rushed and highlight the importance of a “slow share.” Teaching and learning is relational work, and this cannot happen meaningfully when consistently rushed. It also cannot happen meaningfully if over-scheduled, wherein there are only minimal opportunities for perspective sharing in-between pure content exchange.
Lift Others Up
  • What not to do: Put people down or tell them they’re wrong.
  • What to do: By respecting and valuing others’ perspectives and positionality, we can lift them up and validate their experiences. By moving away from the “right vs. wrong” dichotomy, we can hold space for diverse ideas and thoughts. This also emphasizes the “practice makes progress” narrative from module 2, where we highlight that we are all works in progress, with things to learn and flaws that can be celebrated.
Acknowledge the Existence of Privilege and Power
  • What not to do: Presume privilege and power don’t exist.
  • What to do: We can acknowledge that privilege and power exist in teaching and learning contexts. Importantly, we need to move beyond simple acknowledgement to dismantling hierarchies that reinforce this power and privilege. By giving students more control and ownership over their learning process, we can help them to find agency and make decisions about their own learning journeys. Sometimes the best thing we can do as instructors is give up our space at the front of the room — this can help to remove power hierarchies inherent in classroom structures.
Value Points of Disagreement and Departure
  • What not to do: Shut down other people if they disagree with you.
  • What to do: We can find value in points of disagreement and departure and actively acknowledging or even celebrating how this strengthens our learning experience. By highlighting difference, disagreement, and departure, we can use the friction of these moments to teach about patience, perspective-taking, “norms of correctness,” and meaning-making.
Start as You Plan to Continue
  • What not to do: Model something different than what you expect.
  • What to do: We can act in a way that aligns with our plan to continue, meaning that if we are aiming to cultivate an inclusive community, then every act that we do in building that community needs to be inclusive. This can be reflected in the words we choose to use, the people we bring in to our community, how we share space for leading, and how we reflect on what we can improve.

A Note about Othering

Any inclusive community, no matter how inclusive it is, will inherently exclude others. There will be people “in” and people “out.” Group-based differences will emerge between those “in the group” and “outside of the group.” By highlighting the value of diversity and naming it, aren’t we also creating “otherness?” These are very important questions that need to be openly interrogated along the lifespan of an inclusive community. We need to ensure that these things are transparently discussed and reflected upon and are re-discussed to keep them at the fore. There isn’t an easy answer to these questions, but by being open and acknowledging that this tension exists, we can continually reflect on it and strive to hold on to it so as not to forget the tenuous balance between inclusion and exclusion.

Link to Session Materials

Humanizing Deck


Slide 2: Co-Creating Inclusive Communities
And talking about them in the abstract makes it hard to see how anything will really, noticeably, substantially change.

Slide 3: Trust and Context
So, how do we understand building trust and being a part of our surrounding context?

Slide 4: Trust and Context
If someone joined us today as a first time participant, what would you tell them about how we do things? About what we do? And about why we do them that way? Also, what about the who of it? Who is in charge here?

Slide 10: Last Week, This Week
Last week we broke out into groups and began listing all the things you can do to get the worst possible result when forming a community. Our conversations were guided by nine questions:

  1. How can we make it difficult to participate in the community?
  2. What level of structure would make this an absolutely awful community?
  3. How can we make sure others feel othered inside and outside of our community?
  4. How can we make sure that trust is nowhere to be seen in this community? How can distrust take centre stage?
  5. How can we make sure people outside our community do not trust it?
  6. How can we set the worst possible context for our ongoing community practices and participation in the community?
  7. How can we encourage people to leave the community early and often?
  8. How can we make sure no one understands what the community is for or about? Or who is it for?
  9. How can we make sure that when people consider “Is this community for me?” their answer is a resounding “no”?

Slide 11: Which Community? Whose Community?
Take a moment to reflect on the experience last week. We broke away from the format we started with in our first two weeks. We did that for a few reasons: we want to be reflective and consider how it feels to be new to this community, to miss one session and come in for another, to join late, to feel like you’re late even when you’re on time.

Belonging: Who here is feeling comfy and who here is not? What do you say when you introduce yourself?

We often bias toward the positive — vulnerability and failure, succeeding and solutioning, trust and context … What is a community?

In a community how do you grow, adapt, change, and welcome:

  1. How do you handle us vs. them?
  2. How do you protect against othering within the community?

What are some of the challenges in creating an inclusive community.

Us/Them: When we create a community of “us” we automatically create a group of “others.”

Additional Materials

Link to Twitter Conversations

The team created a hashtag that was used to continue conversations on Twitter: #OnHumanLearn

https://twitter.com/search?q=%23OnHumanLearn&src=typed_query

Works Cited

Bring in resources that are especially relevant to the topic.

Brown, Dr. LaKimbre. “The Importance of Trust.” Teach For All, 28 Feb. 2014, https://teachforall.org/news/importance-trust.

Corieri, Megan. “Covid-19 Reflections from a Community College Student.” California Virtual Campus Online Network of Educators, 30 Jul. 2020, https://onlinenetworkofeducators.org/2020/07/30/covid-19-reflections-from-a-community-college-student/.

Cormier, Dave. Making the Community the Curriculum, Pressbooks, https://davecormier.pressbooks.com/.

Humanizing Learning. https://www.zotero.org/groups/3361442/humanizing_learning.

Lipmanowicz, Henri, and Keith McCandless. “User Experience Fishbowl.Liberating Structures, https://www.liberatingstructures.com/18-users-experience-fishbowl/.

Maher, Pat, and Emily Root. “Learning to Learn: Creating Community Before Cramming in Content.” Proceedings of the Atlantic Universities’ Teaching Showcase, 2014, https://ojs.library.dal.ca/auts/article/view/6715.

Pyrko, Igor, et al. “Thinking Together: What Makes Communities of Practice Work?” Human Relations, vol. 70, no. 4, Apr. 2017, pp. 389–409, doi:10.1177/0018726716661040.

Western University. “Building Community.” Centre for Teaching and Learning, 2022, https://teaching.uwo.ca/teaching/engaging/building-community.html.

License

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Learning to be Human Together by Co-designed by Students, Faculty and Staff at OCAD University, Mohawk College, Brock University, Trent University, Nipissing University, University of Windsor, University of Toronto-Mississauga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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