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Immersive Learning

3 Keys to Creating Inclusive Learning Opportunities

As simulations gain traction in both in-person and remote classrooms, a multimedia author explains how he ensures they speak to all students.

students at row of computers

In 2016 I had the opportunity to write one of the very first educational simulations I would ever work on. It was about a global pandemic, and it allowed students in our College of Health Professions to make choices such as talking to a popular local pastor to boost vaccination rates among the public.

While some folks may look back on that as a harbinger of hard times to come, I think of it as an early experience with something that's become my favorite duty: writing simulations. As the multimedia writer for program development at Western Governors University I've picked up a few best practices along the way to ensure our simulations are inclusive and engaging.

1) Lean in to the challenges.

When we first began creating simulations with the Muzzy Lane authoring tool, my manager made an offhand comment about the College of Health Professions having an anatomy course coming up. She added that she didn't expect me to be able to make a dialogue, which is at the heart of most simulations I create, for a course like that.

I like a writing challenge, however, so I wrote a simulation that asked students to step into the role of Dr. Frankenstein. Each time students threw the switch on their monster, his organs would get all out of whack. In the course of the simulation, the monster would describe his symptoms to students who would have to decide, for example, if he needed his pancreas, his liver or some other organ reattached.

Most of the simulations we create are much less exciting. They tend to ask students to step into a meeting, a more traditional lab, or some other real-world workplace scenario. But more fantastical situations can be a lot of fun for students to work through, especially when it's in a notoriously dry class like anatomy.

2) Include everyone!

Another of the more absurd simulations I had the opportunity to write was also for the College of Health Professions. This one was about blood types, so I asked students to step into the role of a bartender at a vampire bar. The wrinkle was that different vampires could only drink specific types of blood.

From there, a cavalcade of famous vampires were introduced throughout the simulation, from Blacula's Prince Mamuwalde to Marceline the Vampire Queen from Adventure Time. At WGU, the median age of our students is 35, as opposed to the national average of 26, so including characters that people of varying ages would recognize was a way to help students connect to the scenario in an unexpected way.

When it comes to equity and diversity more generally, our department talks a lot about how to be sensitive to those concerns. My general rule of thumb is that if there's already a particular identity represented in a simulation, the next character we introduce should be of a different background to better reflect the diversity of our students. And if we can get students to laugh with each other about how they learned, so much the better.

3) Challenging stereotypes can be subtle.

One of the powerful things about simulations is that you can effectively challenge stereotypes subtly and without preaching to students. You can make the characters whoever you want, so why not give them identities that contradict any common stereotypes?

For example, our teachers' college asked us to create a simulation about individualized education programs (IEPs). They said that students were feeling intimidated by the process of creating them and didn't really understand what to expect. As a former paraeducator myself, I was quite familiar with the IEP process and understood how scary it might be for aspiring educators.

We began with a simulation that just covered part of a meeting. Eventually, that expanded to become two simulations — one for the initial meeting to determine if an IEP was called for, and the other for the actual IEP meeting. The stakeholders wanted to focus on an elementary aged character, around 2nd grade, which meant they would be a bit too young to meaningfully contribute to the meetings. It felt wrong, however, that this character wouldn't appear in the scenario. So we added a third simulation for the observation step, making this a pretty robust interactive learning experience.

The instructional designers from the teachers' college were pretty adamant about using these simulations to challenge some common stereotypes about students in special education, so we made our student a child from a white, middle-class family who was showing signs of dyslexia. The extra simulation gave us the chance to expand the child's character, and let her display traits not stereotypically associated with IEP students.

The focus of the simulations was what happens in the IEP process. Who should a teacher expect to see in an IEP meeting? What might occur during the meeting? How should they prepare for that? By being intentional about who those characters were, however, we were able to encourage aspiring teachers to look past their preconceived notions of who needs an IEP.

Contextualized Learning Experiences

Simulations are a great option for creating compelling learning opportunities or assessments that get at learning that can be difficult to measure with other tools.

The way that I've come to think of my favorite simulations is as contextualized learning experiences. They have the power to take theoretical or abstract lessons off the page and into life by providing the specificity, messiness and practicality that only come with a particular context. Whether that context is the absurd world of classic monsters or the high-stakes and personal process of ensuring a student's individual needs are addressed, we can design learning opportunities that include everyone.

About the Author

Kelly Morris is the multimedia writer for program development at Western Governors University. He can be reached at [email protected].

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