Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and social and emotional learning (SEL) are not necessarily new concepts or acronyms in today’s nomenclature. After all, DEI was pushed to the forefront of modern work environments on the heels of the civil rights movement in the 60s and beyond. SEL became popular in the mid-90s with the nonprofit Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), as a response to a whole child philosophy of fostering relationships among learners, educators, and parents.
SEL and DEIAB Framed by the Pandemic
But pandemic life and the associated trauma and coping has awakened a whole new sense of urgency in exploring SEL and DEI these days, with more pronounced and dedicated efforts being given to learner populations in online spaces. An international health crisis saw distance education (DE) and e-learning become conflated with emergency remote teaching, and “pandemic learning” seemingly overnight. As if a pandemic hasn’t been enough on its own, during this time the economy has suffered, politics has become more divisive and polarizing than ever before, racial injustice (and resulting outrage) has continued to foment discontent, the LGBTQIA+ community has suffered exponentially, and global warming has continued to take its toll.
It’s… a lot.
Without the physical, face-to-face social supports to buffer some of the dumpster fire of the past 18 months, it’s understandable that vulnerable populations of learners might feel lost, and there is a growing need to acknowledge and nurture mental health as much as physical health, with more transparency and acceptance in this arena every day.
The online community has certainly adapted. In addition to examining and establishing what DEI should look like, the online component of daily life has started to shine even more of a spotlight on accessibility, and the social component (or lack thereof) of daily life has amplified the need for belonging, resulting in more common usage of the extended and appropriate acronym DEIAB.
Many of the ongoing and open conversations surrounding DEIAB and SEL among educators, parents, and learners are grounded in reactions and emotions heightened by e-learning and the pandemic. Therefore, stewards of distance education and e-learning need to advocate not only for learners adapting and responding to (still) unfamiliar online situations, but also for the opportunities created by the very technology that solicited these new feelings and reactions in the first place. This is where the EdTech community has responded in a way that makes me optimistic for the future.
Looking to XR
There are many ways the EdTech world has responded to emerging learner needs in the realm of SEL and DEIAB, much of it in response to the aforementioned challenges borne out of an ongoing pandemic. This includes 38 states explicitly acknowledging student well-being and developing programs to accommodate SEL; acknowledging and addressing accessibility gaps that online learning may have exacerbated for low-income learners, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners (ELLs); and being more transparent about enacting DEIAB policies in efforts to marry innovation with inclusivity.
But it’s not enough to just say that EdTech is out there taking notice about how important SEL and DEIAB are. It’s more useful to dig into innovation that is lasting and impactful, to look through and beyond online learning, to see what the future holds and how it can continue to amplify SEL and DEIAB.
This is where extended reality (XR) is really exciting. For reference, XR is an umbrella term for augmented reality (AR), digital elements incorporated into a live view; virtual reality (VR), a completely immersive experience; and mixed reality (MR), an experience that is a combination of reality and VR.
Klaus Schwab is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. In his 2017 book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab explains this revolution will center on the fusion of different worlds—digital, biological, physical—in ways that stretch to all industries. He also suggests that the fourth industrial revolution will challenge people to consider what it actually means to be human. This would seem like a lofty, Jetsons-style prediction if it weren’t already happening, for example, through things like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and the entire XR suite outlined above. The same technologies and innovations that use to dazzle us on TV and in sci-fi movies are already here. In fact, they’ve been here for a hot minute, and the pandemic is challenging us to leverage them as tools for good. It’s all very existential.
VR in particular, is having a moment. Workforces are looking for training opportunities and ways to beef up team meetings and teambuilding beyond another Zoom call, and students are becoming adept at using VR for lab and complex simulation work. Beyond the utilitarian reasons people are using VR, though, they also get to learn together in low-stress, game-like environments. In VR, participants can be a version of themselves, which allows them to tackle SEL competencies like self- and social-awareness, self-management, decision-making, and relationship skills in low-pressure, interactive scenarios.
Accessibility Guidelines for XR
But in order to get to the payoff of VR potential, the technology needs to be accessible. Access is, after all, a fundamental tenet of distance education, and if VR is here as the cool older brother of online learning experiences, it has got to be accessible.
A critical piece of designing for accessibility involves building with, not for. More than considering what different user populations might need while designing and developing, VR needs to “look for guidance that includes input from disability advocacy groups, researchers, inclusive design and accessibility consultants, XR platform manufacturers and software developers, and content developers.”As XR and VR gain traction, expect accessibility considerations to be at the forefront of design.
W3C has even drafted XR accessibility user requirements, a comprehensive list of considerations that designers can reference as they design spaces and scenarios to facilitate successful, engaging, and enjoyable experiences for people with disabilities. Similarly, XR Association (XRA) and Partnership on Employment and Accessibility (PEAT) have released a joint white paper outlining ways to make technology more accessible.
The Power of a Persona
It is safe to say that content being taught does not always reflect diversity, and this can significantly and negatively impact a learner’s sense of belonging. In this sense then, including diverse representation throughout programs and content is a moral obligation that should not be overlooked.
One way to use AR and VR to reflect the diversity of students in a course and encourage inclusivity and belonging is through the use of avatars. In addition to instructor and student avatars, additional avatars can be created that further become part of a course narrative as students progress through the program; the avatars can develop personalities and have their own distinct journeys. These journeys can include academic and career progression, starting families, involvement within the community, world travel, developing great resumes, landing great jobs, you name it.
Avatars can represent diversity in a number of different arenas, and they should not be presented in superficial “check out my diversity avatar!” ways (so as to not force diversity “tick boxes” for the sake of representation). Stripe, Allison, and Aleandrou explain that in their own usage of avatars, a sexual orientation wasn’t explicitly stated, but on their avatar’s resume they included their volunteer work at an LGBTG charity. Using personas is a great way to consider diversity in homogenous groups, too, particularly for groups of learners of the same cultural or ethnic background.
Even if not every program or content offering has opportunity to create avatars, however, the needle can and should still move in simple ways across existing VR platforms. Users need to be given more options for skin tone, body shapes, gender representation, and inclusive cultural accessories that help people communicate who they are, how they would like to be seen, and how they would like to interact.
XR for Language Learners
Work with language learners has been a huge part of my career, and advocating for language learners (who can be particularly vulnerable learner populations) is part of my DNA. It makes sense to me, then, to look at DEIAB and SEL through the lens of a language learning experience. Consider the personas mentioned above in the context of a culturally homogenous group of language learners. Exposure to—and interaction with—on-level English-speaking avatars and personas from geographically, culturally, socially, politically, etc. diverse backgrounds ensures some experience navigating and integrating SEL competencies like self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills (it can be argued this persona approach accommodates all five of the CASEL 5).
Beyond personas, though, just as content does not always account for diversity, neither does a platform or technology account for all the different ways it will be used. Lee, Spryszynski, and Nersesian acknowledge this gap and make the argument that when designing in EdTech, the technology, content, approach, and context all need to be linked. But educators are scrappy. We are already using plenty of VR platforms that have not actually been designed for education or for teaching language learners. I expect this to change in the future, and my colleagues and I would be happy to help with the design of such platforms. See more in the video below.
About the panel:
Julie McGeorge has worked with language learners since 2005. Her work has allowed her to live and work in China, where she helped open and direct three English training centers. Most recently, she managed academics and research projects at the VIPKid Research Institute. In addition to her work with language learners, she also has significant experience writing and developing online and physical content, including high-stakes CCSS-aligned ELA assessment and ELA content for the high school component of EngageNY. McGeorge recently completed her master’s in distance education and e-learning.
Jennifer Price has been an ESL instructor since 2006 where she taught English in South Korea. After she completed her MA TESOL and Information Communication Technology in Leeds, United Kingdom, she started teaching at INTO, Oregon State University. While at OSU, Jennfier has taught students academic English and advised teachers on using Web 2.0 tools in the classroom and best practices on using Canvas LMS. Currently she is still teaching at OSU, while researching and experimenting with VR and English learners.
Lauren Alva began her career in education in 2007. In addition to teaching adult English language learners in the US and in Turkey, she has experience in course design, teacher training, and LMS administration. While working at Koç University in Turkey, she collaborated with the School of Medicine to design and deliver training programs for medical students and faculty. She’s passionate about finding new ways to use educational technology to increase learner engagement and support active learning. Recently, she completed the eLearning and Instructional Design certificate program at Oregon State University and is on her way to completing a second program on Learning Experience Design. Her goal is to design inclusive and engaging learning-centered experiences online and in virtual reality. She runs a blog cataloguing the experience of teaching language learners in VR through the Global XR Academy: VR Learning Spaces.
CASEL. (2020, October 1). CASEL’s SEL framework.
CASEL. (n.d.-a). Our history. https://casel.org/about-us/our-history/
CASEL. (n.d.-b). What is the CASEL framework?
Committee for Children. (2020). From response to reopening: State efforts to elevate social and emotional learning during the pandemic. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED61
Dong, S. (2021, June 2). The history and growth of the diversity, equity, and inclusion profession. Global Research and Consulting Group Insights. https://insights.grcglobalgroup.com/the-history-and-growth-of-the-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-profession/
Garland, M. E. (2020, October 27). Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging: What 2020 has wrought. [Presentation] Association of Corporate Counsel. https://www.acc.com/sites/default/files/program-materials/upload/10.27%20What%202020%20Has%20Wrought.pdf
Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020, March 27). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning
ISTE. (n.d.). Diversity, equity and inclusion. https://www.iste.org/about/diversity-equity-and-inclusion
Lee, M.J., Spryszynski, A., & Nersesian, E. (2017). Personalizing VR educational tools for English language learners. CEUR Worskhop Proceedings. http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-2327/IUI19WS-HUMANIZE-5.pdf
Department of Education. (2021, June 9). Education in a pandemic: The disparate impacts of Covid-19 on America’s students. Office for Civil Rights. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/20210608-impacts-of-covid19.pdf
Schwab K. (2017, January 3). The fourth industrial revolution. Currency.
Stripe, K., Dallison, K., & Alexandrou, D. (2021). Using personas to promote inclusive education in an online course. International Journal of Technology and Inclusive Education, 10(1), 1634-1638. https://doi.org/10.20533/ijtie.2047.0533.2021.0200
Further Recommended Reading:
Burnette, K. (2021, January 21). Belonging: A conversation about equity, diversity, and
Gorini, A., Mosso, J. L., Mosso, D., Pineda, E., Ruíz, N. L., Ramíez, M., Morales, J. L.,
Marr, B. (2021, June 4). Future predictions of how virtual reality and augmented reality
McMahon, W. (2021, February 8). Could VR be the missing piece in meaningful
Walker, G., & Venker Weidenbenner, J. (2019). Social and emotional learning in