Through courseware and equity-centered design, we can support students and even the playing field, especially for underrepresented students.

Creating courseware with students, not for them: The case for equity-centered design


Through courseware, we can be proactive about supporting students and evening out the playing field, especially for underrepresented students

Key points:

Over the past several years, the college student population has become increasingly diverse. In fact, 56 percent of college students are first-generation students, a significant jump from 37 percent in 2016. As a result, not only are we seeing more underrepresented communities highlighted among college students, but also a wider range of lived experiences. College students are entering two- and four-year institutions with highly unique circumstances, perspectives, and varying levels of preparedness and support. 

Despite this diverse composition, many barriers to college graduation, or even course completion, among students still exist. For education technology companies, this challenge represents an opportunity to meaningfully impact the student experience with teaching and learning materials that are created to specifically address this. Because of these changing student demographics, it is the responsibility of education technology providers to thoughtfully design courseware that meets their unique needs while creating an empowering learning experience.

The power of technology in courseware

Technology brings many benefits to higher education, and when it comes to designing courseware, it can help address a lot of problems. When compared to traditional print textbooks, developing digital content on an online platform allows for efficient, continuous improvement. We can make updates quickly, fix glitches, and identify what needs changing, including in response to user feedback, all without users needing to wait for the next print cycle, which can take years.

Despite these benefits, technology can’t solve problems on its own. When considering the makeup of today’s college student body and how that translates into the edtech products on the market, we must go a level deeper and treat product development with much more nuance.

The need to center equity in courseware and content

Through courseware, we can be proactive about supporting students and evening out the playing field, especially for underrepresented students. When we build products and content with students, rather than strictly for them, we are centering equity in the process. It goes beyond thinking about the student or instructor as the end user. Equity-centered design includes listening to the lived experiences of marginalized students – especially those who are academically underserved and as a result may be underprepared – and finding ways to help them facilitate learning and connections with faculty, to be successful.

Edtech leaders who have the opportunity to engage and facilitate students in the courseware they are building, for example, with user testing centers, are uniquely positioned. By recruiting students to serve as researchers and learn skills in user experience, product design, focus groups, and data analysis, edtech providers bring the very audience they intend to target to the table, giving student voices the opportunity to be front and center. The perspectives of the student researchers and their peers are invaluable and are often ultimately reflected in the way providers design courseware.

Equity-centered design doesn’t just mean delivering features and functionality in a product that meets users where they are, it also includes providing relevant examples and support systems. It requires the designer to interrogate their own biases. When developing course content and problem sets, strive to introduce examples that are relevant and have real-world applications that are actually useful and might even inspire course interest or career exploration. For example, a problem centered on selecting the best real credit card option for specific financial situations or comparing salaries earned by college majors might resonate more than a problem around saving up for spring break in Europe. Such examples have the potential to affect a student’s sense of belonging in a classroom and college – something we should all be taking very seriously.

Edtech providers: Let’s deepen our approach to product development

Developing courseware that helps students by addressing their learning needs doesn’t have to be a rote exercise. Co-designing these products offer a real opportunity to have an impact and give students a safe space to not just learn, but truly immerse themselves in content that speaks to them. By designing courseware that incorporates equity from the very beginning, we can improve higher ed outcomes for today’s increasingly diverse college students.

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