Designing and creating inclusive eLearning for diverse learner populations entails creating accessible content, of course—but that is only one small part of the solution. Technological or infrastructure barriers can make even the most UDL-friendly content inaccessible to huge populations of learners.

Barriers to inclusion that instructional designers should consider are:

  • Infrastructure—Even in the United States, not everyone can connect easily and affordably to reliable high-speed internet service. In many parts of the world, even where internet connections are available, they are slow and cannot handle streaming video or downloads of large files. Highly visual pages may be very slow to load.
  • Technology—Instructional designers cannot assume that all learners around the world will have access to the latest technology. Hardware might be older; learners might not have tablets, laptops, or recent-model smartphones. Their operating systems might not support apps or plug-ins needed to access some content.
  • Content—Is the content accessible on older technology or to learners with slow internet connections? Does it adhere to UDL (Universal Design for Learning) principles and avoid cultural biases and assumptions that could hinder some learners? Does it comply with WCAG 2.0 guidelines for accessibility?

Design to overcome technology and infrastructure barriers

The good news is that thoughtful instructional design can overcome many of these barriers.

In their book Culturally Inclusive Instructional Design, authors Charlotte Nirmalani Gunawardena, Casey Frechette, and Ludmila Layne describe “low-bandwidth” options for creating eLearning content that can overcome infrastructure, technology, and even some cultural barriers

A low-bandwidth course design would include:

  • Plain text versions of all content—This means creating text files with graphics removed and writing text that can replace complex tables and videos. These files should use simple formatting and include an outline of the eLearning course. To further enhance inclusivity, the text should be written with non-native speakers of the language in mind, using clear language and avoiding idioms and cultural references.
  • Transcripts—Any eLearning that includes video should also include closed captioning and accurate transcripts of the video material for learners who cannot see the video, and for learners whose technology limitations prevent streaming or downloading video files. Ideally, transcripts would include descriptions of any essential visual information.
  • Audio—Creating podcasts and other audio content is a way to offer low-bandwidth learners a choice of learning modalities. Again, transcripts should be offered for any audio content.
  • Microlearning—Break content into small chunks and make these available to low-bandwidth learners as separate, small, downloadable files.

Finally, to ensure that learners can access and use the content, don’t require an always-on internet connection. Create content that learners can download over a slow connection and consume offline. Offer them easy ways to submit projects and assessments, such as emailing a file they’ve created offline, rather than relying on online forms and quizzes.

A little creative thinking can go a long way. If learners lack reliable high-speed internet access but have smartphones, consider moving chats and discussions to an app like WhatsApp, used by 1.5 billion people each month in 60 languages.

Addressing barriers created by cultural assumptions

Surmounting technology challenges is an essential element of inclusive instructional design, but if learners are then held back by cultural assumptions baked into the eLearning, that low-bandwidth, accessible content may still be problematic. These assumptions can reflect cultural beliefs about how people process information, or think about and apply learning.

Instructional approaches that guide learners toward a single correct answer can clash with cultures that favor broader thinking that generates many possibilities, for example. And instructional design can inadvertently favor or promote certain perspectives or reference points, usually reflecting the cultural values of the course creators.

“In the old days, models didn’t account for culture at all, so they just took on whatever cultural values the model creators had and unconsciously put into the models,” said author Casey Frechette. Though some instructional design models strive for culture-neutral content, Frechette said that newer approaches favor inclusivity—actively accounting for culture.

While following the principles of UDL gives learners choices that can accommodate some cultural differences, Frechette urges instructional designers to design for inclusivity by also:

  • Reflecting on their own biases and perspectives and encouraging learners to do so as well;
  • Favoring approaches that result in multiple solutions or outcomes;
  • Letting differences stand rather than attempting to reconcile them; and
  • Encouraging learners to push themselves outside of their comfort zones

“It’s not just about accommodating to somebody’s culture or trying to deliver something that meets their cultural ideas or ideals. Sometimes that’s useful. Sometimes it’s helpful to push people beyond their comfort zones and to purposely give them something that they may be unfamiliar with,” he said.

Inclusive instructional design reduces barriers to learning

Inclusive instructional design addresses both cultural differences and access issues. Offering learners choices and control over their learning and cultivating an awareness of cultural differences among learners can lead instructional designers to create inclusive eLearning appropriate for their diverse learner populations.

“Put simply, our cultural imprints lead to particular ways of seeing the world and learning within it. Some cultures prioritize hard data—black and white facts—while others focus on relationships between concepts. Some celebrate finding the right answer among many; some prioritize generating as many ideas as quickly as possible,” Culturally Inclusive Instructional Design states. Truly global eLearning enables members of all of these cultures to successfully learn and work together.