Discriminatory Design in Education and Educational Technology

Anti-homeless bench with armrests

Twice this week I have seen images of these benches. Public benches that have dividers or armrests. These are what Mike Caulfield called “hostile design” because they implicitly prevent homeless people from sleeping on these benches and therefore pass on a social message and enforce particular behavior. Ruha Benjamin in her ISTE 2016 keynote called it something I find more accurate: discriminatory design. Because we all recognize that the design is not hostile to everyone. It is only hostile to homeless people. That’s exactly what discrimination is.

It isn’t a big stretch for me to move this conversation on to education and edtech because both Mike and Ruha were already referring to that architecture in that context.

So here are some questions and reflections:

  1. In what ways are our classroom and campus architectures discriminatory by design? For example, chairs for students in my context are much less comfortable than those for the teacher.

  2. In what ways are technologies we use discriminatory by design? E.g. EdX and FutureLearn force learners to go through content sequentially. This drives me crazy because I usually like to have an overview and access particular parts randomly. In what ways are aspects of LMS design hostile to teachers? To learners?

  3. In what ways are our class activities and assessments discriminatory by design? Do all of our assessments require writing in a particular dominant language or discourse? Is that necessary? Do we require students to watch lots of streaming video? Doesn’t that discriminate against people with weaker internet at home? Does it require them to spend more time on campus than would be comfortable? Does it discriminate against those with visual disabilities?

  4. In what ways are our content choices discriminatory by design? Do we pick readings that are accessible to all students or merely those with the most cultural capital? Do we ensure diverse voices are heard or merely the dominant ones? If we require students to pay for eTextbooks, we discriminate against those without credit cards

How can we make more of these aspects of education more participatory by design? Tell us in the comments

Image by Laurie Avocado via Flickr CC-BY

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