13 Inclusive Curriculum Design

Allison Hector-Alexander


Ontario Tech University


Diversity is celebrated and acknowledged as one of our most prized strengths in Canadian culture. This variety and uniqueness is reflected in all our social structures. Education systems and programs should be designed and implemented to take into account the wide diversity of learners’ characteristics and needs. Inclusive teaching involves cultivating an awareness of the dynamics that shape classroom experiences and impact learning. Students differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information presented to them. Many times, this is based on their lived experiences which are closely tied to their social identity. More prevalent are students who, because of their particular profile of perceptual or cognitive strengths and deficits, find information in some formats much more accessible than others. Even more common, are students from diverse backgrounds who are participating in the dominant language and culture of the average classroom who, therefore, face barriers in accessing information when presented in a manner that assumes a common background among all students. Inclusive curriculum design involves being responsive to these dynamics and intentional about using strategies that foster a positive learning experience. This chapter will explore foundational elements of inclusive curriculum design strategies and how these strategies create access and foster learning. Ultimately, inclusive teaching is good teaching.

Keywords: accessibility, culture, curriculum, diversity, inclusion, instructional design, technology


Students who are engaged in learning do not exist as a homogenous group. They come into the learning environment with experiences reflective of their social location and culture. Culture pervades learning, and in designing instructional environments, consideration should be allowed for issues concerning the social and cultural dimensions of task design, communication channels, and structuring of information if the needs of culturally diverse learners are to be met.  To meet the needs of learners, the student should be treated as a whole. This means that learning tasks go beyond knowledge and skills to include other aspects of being a person in society as well as an approach that recognizes that the complex biological, sociological, and psychological individuals that are students are acknowledged. Inclusive design presumes that the aim of inclusive education is to eliminate social exclusion which is a consequence of attitudes and responses to diversity in race, social class, ethnicity, religion, gender, and ability (Vitello & Mithaug, 1998). As such, it starts from the belief that education is a basic human right and the foundation for a more just society (Ainscow, 2005).

Inclusive Design

In learning, there exists a responsibility for educators to design their curriculum in such a way as to promote success among all students. An inclusive curriculum design approach is one that takes into account students’ educational, cultural, and social background and experience as well as the presence of any physical or sensory impairment, and their mental well-being (Morgan & Houghton, 2011). An inclusive curriculum design acknowledges that students have multiple identities that are shaped by their previous experiences and that a diverse range of personal circumstances influence how they learn.

Inclusive education is championed as a means to remove barriers, improve outcomes and remove discrimination. Inclusion is, however, a complex and contested concept and its manifestations in practice are many and various (Lindsay, 2003). Treviranus and Roberts (2008) surmised that good design is at the core of inclusive educational technology. Based on this assumption, accessible e-learning refers to design qualities that endeavor to make online learning available to anyone irrespective of their ability or social location, and to ensure that the way it is implemented does not create unnecessary barriers to the learner interacting with technology affordances (Cooper, 2006).

When designing a course, each move matters. From the selection of course materials, to the instructors’ teaching methods, to the ways students are asked to demonstrate their learning, the fact is, the course may privilege some students while disadvantaging others. Therefore, in order to facilitate inclusive learning, we need to ensure students can interact successfully with the technologies, themselves, peers, educators, supports, and learning materials. This means that the key issue in guaranteeing inclusive learning is the identification of any challenges to learning posed by the learning interactions.

Theoretical Framework.

Constructivism and community of inquiry (COI) are two examples of theories that provide a framework for educators to consult when exploring the foundations of inclusive design. Constructivism is characterized by a set of principles relating to the ‘messiness’ of how knowledge is created and how individuals develop understanding. Socio-cultural theory, originating with the writings of Vygotsky (1978) emphasizes that learning is a form of enculturation, in which the individual is socialized through gradual participation in tasks, scaffolded or assisted by educators until full competence is attained. Lipman (1991) conceptualizes the COI approach based on the same principles of common goals, shared inquiry, and peer learning and offers a vigorous theoretical basis for the design of culturally specific environments. With its emphasis on collaboration, shared experience, and participation, the community of inquiry model has been used as an epistemological framework to address the needs of culturally diverse learners (McLoughlin & Oliver, 1999). Every learner brings with them a rich cultural history and experience. Educators who create space for shared inquiry ensure that students’ lived experiences add to the learning.

Cultural Inclusivity.

The use of technology to facilitate learning is infused with personal cultural values and assumptions. The misconception that culture is restricted to ethnicity restricts the design of curriculum to a standardized methodology. There are cultural dynamics within groups of students who experience learning through sex, gender, ability, race, socio-economic status, etc. lens, and whose needs should be considered when designing curriculum.

Research has shown that computer based collaborative work can transform classroom cultures, the roles of teachers and students, and the expectations of learners (Damarin, 1998). It has been argued that one of the essential foundations of student-centered learning environments is cultural inclusivity with a focus on enabling learners to access learning resources in a manner that is consistent with their values, beliefs, and styles of learning (Chen et al., 1998).

McLoughlin and Oliver (2000) noted that one of the limitations in current instructional design models is that they do not fully contextualize the learning experience, and are themselves the product of particular cultures. The design of technology based curriculum is not culturally neutral, but instead is based on the particular knowledge, lived experience, and goal orientations of the designers themselves. It also means going beyond surface level design considerations, to achieve culturally inclusive constructivist learning environments.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is proposed as a way to address the diversity of learners as constructs of individuals and their environment in higher education classrooms (Rose et al., 2006). UDL emphasizes that barriers to learning are often caused by inflexible curriculum, teaching materials and methods, rather than by an inherent problem located in an individual student. It focuses on eliminating barriers to learning by considering the diverse needs of students in the design and planning stages of curriculum rather than addressing the barriers later on through individual accommodation (Rose et al., 2006, 2). The focus is on providing a framework that gives all students an equal opportunity to learn.  The term emphasizes the special purpose of learning environments in that they are not created only to transmit information, but are created to support and foster the changes in knowledge and skills that defines learning.

Considerations for Meaningful and Inclusive Curriculum Design

Inclusive curriculum design requires a global and inclusive perspective, sensitivity to cultural differences, and an appreciation of the numerous ways in which culture influences learning. Instructional designers need to consider the ethical and pedagogical underpinning of goals, objectives, content, and instructional activities, and incorporate not one, but multiple pedagogies according to learner needs (McLoughlin & Oliver, 2000). It is also imperative that the design be authenticated by a member of the group or groups to whom the learning materials are addressed. McLoughlin and Oliver (1999) also noted that learning materials should be tested with the target groups during the development phase to ensure authenticity.

Instructors should create flexible tasks and tools for knowledge sharing. One of the basic principles of instructional design is that learners should be able to share what they have constructed with others (McLoughlin & Oliver, 2000). This reinforces the social and collaborative focus of learning and creates an online community. Collaborative task design that enables groups to combine expertise and assign roles encourages learner control. Knowledge sharing can be fostered by utilizing online tools that students can use to discuss assignments and offer peer support like Facebook, Twitter or Google Drive. It is also important that flexible and responsive student roles and responsibilities are established. From the onset, awareness of learners needs must inform the design process. For most students, introduction into an online community is often a new experience and therefore technology related skills have to be learnt. Communication tools and social interaction should be provided for learners to co-construct knowledge. Learners should be able to access multiple channels of communication with instructors and with other learners.

Learners should also have access to varied resources to ensure multiple perspectives. This can be achieved by moving away from instructivist approaches where all information is prescribed by the teacher to constructive and connectivist approaches where learners actively add to learning resources, suggest additional materials of interest, and discuss alternatives. By providing flexibility in learning goals, outcomes, and modes of assessment, learners take ownership of their learning goals, the topics they choose to research, and the pace and order in which they access the resources. By offering choice learners can develop self-knowledge of their own learning needs and performance.

It is essential that instructors be attentive in studying how deficit assumptions may be influencing perceptions of certain students. As Bartolome (1994) explained, teaching methods are neither created nor implemented in a vacuum. Design, selection, and use of particular teaching strategies arise from perceptions about learning and learners. In this respect even the most pedagogically advanced methods are likely to be ineffective in the hands of those who implicitly or explicitly subscribe to a belief system that regards some students, as disadvantaged and in need of fixing, or, worse, as deficient and, therefore, beyond fixing (Ainscow, 2005). Inclusion is a process. That is to say, inclusion has to be seen as a continuous search to find better ways of responding to diversity. It is about learning how to live with difference and learning how to learn from difference. In this way differences come to be seen more positively as an impetus for fostering learning, among learners and educators.

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Implementing inclusive education is not an easy task and requires significant change to facilitate improvements in the way educators design learning. Inclusion involves a particular emphasis on those groups of learners who may be at risk of marginalization, exclusion, or underachievement. This indicates that there is a moral responsibility to ensure that those groups that are statistically most at risk are supported, and that, where necessary, steps are taken to ensure their presence, participation, and achievement in the education system. Branch (1997) posited that the rationale for considering culture as a design dimension for effective online instruction is that it enables learners to develop a cognitive guide for new knowledge and enables them to integrate new concepts within a coherent perspective that recognizes and values their cultural heritage. The Inclusive Design Research Centre leads the Floe project and provides a source of guidance, tools and tips for producing inclusively designed learning resources, including guidelines for creating inclusive resources and inclusive web games and simulations. Floe has created an inclusive design guide which equips educators with resources for learning about and applying Inclusive Design principles, practices, and tools to the design process. Further exploration of similar tools could enhance inclusive design practices.

Branch also recommended that instructional designers begin the process of culturally inclusive design by adopting the pedagogy of social constructivist learning. By recognizing that learning is culturally and socially contextualized, the design process becomes grounded and located within the communities and individuals for whom the learning materials are intended. By designing from a culturally informed, constructivist theory such as situated cognition or cognitive apprenticeship, instructional designers can plan activities where learning is a process of participation, communication and co-construction of knowledge (Collins et al., 1998). Equity issues about social inclusion with regard to education therefore suggest the need to focus specifically on the extent to which educational policy and practice can enhance both the recognition given to historically marginalized groups and at the same time provide representation and participatory access.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2019 by Allison Hector-Alexander is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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