2 Intentionally Equitable Hospitality as Critical Instructional Design
Maha Bali and Mia Zamora
Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH) is a facilitation praxis that was first developed by the co-directors and members of the grass-roots movement called Virtually Connecting (Bali, Caines, Hogue, DeWaard & Friedrich, 2019). Virtually Connecting (VC) has “challenged academic gatekeeping via rendering private hallway conversations that build social capital at face-to-face conferences into public hybrid conversations in which people who cannot attend conferences are able to participate” (Bali et al, 2019, para. 7). As such, IEH was initially focused on hybrid professional development intended to promote equitable access to conversations, with multiple volunteers as facilitators. This paper recontextualizes the concepts and spirit behind IEH to work in a formal educational context, replacing facilitators of VC conversations with teachers in formal contexts, and replacing participants at conferences with students in classes.
IEH begins with the notion that the teacher or workshop facilitator is a “host” of a space, responsible for hospitality, and welcoming others into that space. IEH requires intentionality about who is involved in the design of that space, noticing for whom the space is hospitable and for whom it is not. IEH is iterative design, planning, and facilitation in the moment. It also includes the interactions outside of formal gatherings that influence formal, synchronous interactions.
As Priya Parker (2018) has suggested, the way we gather matters. This observation holds for educational contexts. A class is often a unique entity, with its own chemistry or “personality”. It holds particular memories. A class occurs at a particular time in one’s life, and it is experienced in a particular place. Learning together holds the potential for unique growth moments, and can be truly transformational if it is tied to a sense of belonging. If a student gains the experience of being included and heard, it makes a critical difference in what kind of learning is possible for all.
But this aspiration is often at odds with institutional mandates that hem teachers in with an emphasis on content and prescribed learning outcomes. How can teachers foster an authentic and collective sense of belonging when designing for impactful learning? How can they create an equitable environment that is hospitable to diverse students? Since all gatherings are essentially collective endeavors, learning design for equity-in-community is a critical component of IEH facilitation. IEH is a values-based approach that promotes co-learning among students, who might be different in innumerable ways, by prioritizing the needs and wants of the most marginalized among them.
As a critical pedagogical approach, IEH centers values rather than measurable predetermined outcomes. Intentionally equitable hospitality is not neutral. Rather, it prioritizes the values of social justice while fostering learner/participant agency within the learning space, while never forgetting the ways in which power and oppression work outside of that learning space, and how they influence it. For educators, the “intentionality” at the core of an IEH approach is a crucial first step. When we wish to practice IEH, we need to continually renew our intentions to notice oppression and injustice and seek to redress them, to iteratively modify and adapt our practices according to the responses and reactions of participants/learners, particularly those who bring marginalized perspectives.
When we say “we”, we don’t mean “we” educators only, but a practice of spreading an IEH mindset and praxis for everyone participating. The work requires a constant renewal of the daily effort to pay attention, to interrogate one’s own positionality, to imagine and extend one’s own critical engagement with “the other”, and to reckon with the limits of one’s own understanding of other people’s lives—to model this and explicitly discuss this so that co-learners can begin to practice IEH with one another. As such, IEH works on multiple levels and in different directions, not all of which will work in harmony in every context—a behavior considered welcoming by one group may exclude another. Ultimately, the educator is host, but never the gatekeeper. The students are essential co-creators of meaning in the learning community. This seems a simple paradigm shift, but takes a significant amount of critical self-reflection.
IEH work is always in process, taking the form of an aspirational journey, but never an arrival. Educators must embrace iterative modification, emergence, and revision thinking. This article aims to set a framework for how a teacher, instructional designer, or faculty developer can incorporate IEH into their learning design, and it shares real stories from our practice.
Why Do We Practice IEH?
Learning environments, whether virtual, hybrid, or in-person, are inherently inequitable, for two reasons. First, because they mirror the outside world, encompassing the range of oppressions including white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, ableism, xenophobia—and all of the intersections within participant identities in the learning space. Second, because learning spaces introduce their own power dynamics, related to institutional cultures and how learners are expected to interact with authority figures, and related to hidden curricula that encourage or hinder certain behaviors, including, for example, host controls over muting/unmuting in video conference platforms, seating arrangements in in-person classrooms, and angling of cameras and location of microphones in Hyflex/Dual Delivery classrooms. Individuals within these learning spaces have an unequal opportunity to learn, to contribute to everyone else’s learning, to grow. If we cannot control oppression and social injustice outside of the learning spaces we design, at the very least we can resist them within spaces we are able to control and influence, recognizing that our work will always be a journey, it will always be partial and that we continually strive for more, because:
Marginality can be visible and invisible… Those at the centers can never see what it looks like to be on the margins, because the world looks different from the margins…
This unique perspective, especially on suffering and in-betweenness, is why we need to have voices from the margins in our textbooks, teaching our classrooms, managing our educational institutions and representing us in media and in government. This is why Kamala Harris matters so much to girls, black women, Asians and immigrants in America. Because cognitively understanding systemic inequalities does not prepare you to truly understand the experiences of being marginal/ized (Bali, 2021, para. 9-10).
Representational justice matters in the classroom. We have a responsibility to elevate voices historically oppressed by privilege. IEH includes the ongoing work of representational justice—to understand that representation matters and that we all possess the agency to manifest narratives of both our neighbors and ourselves that embody humanity, truth, and respect. Attending to representation in a classroom can be corrective—undoing past misrepresentation—or reflective—embracing the full breadth of complex identities existing around us. When we create equitably hospitable spaces, we help nurture the growth of everyone present, so that each co-learner may gain more insight and more power beyond the boundaries of the spaces we traditionally inhabit.
The work of “opening up” conversation to diverse lived experience in a classroom context is an essential component of the social justice values underpinning IEH. When students can discover stories “that feel like home” in their curriculum, or even better, if they find the courage to share stories that represent their own perspective, we see the beginnings of trust-in-community. Learners honor the stories of others—whether empathizing with those stories comes naturally due to shared experience or uncomfortably—via epistemic listening to stories from perspectives one has never encountered fully before. This intimate and deliberate design work allows for narrative emergence in classroom spaces and aspires to create the conditions for co-learning in compassion. But this kind of trust can only be built with careful and equitable forms of engagement. IEH is a map for this nuanced and ongoing effort.
When Do We Practice IEH?
One of the main criticisms of traditional instructional design is its over-emphasis on design ahead of when actual teaching takes place. It assumes that if you design something thoughtfully enough, with some sort of empathetic imagination as to who students are and what they may want, then when you enact this design in practice as a teacher, everything will fall into place. However, what actually happens in practice may differ from the plan (see Alhadad, Bali, Gachago, Pallitt & Zamora, personal communication; Bali, M., Gachago, D., and Pallitt, N., 2022; )
IEH does not dismiss the importance of planning and design, but it recognizes that making a space hospitable happens at various times in the process:
- Pre-design: Whom do we consult in the process of imagining our design? Do we contact past students? Do we discuss with colleagues from diverse, especially marginalized, backgrounds? Do we have access to our current students and how far can we involve them in the design?
- Design: In what ways can our design anticipate power inequities, and in what ways can these be redressed a priori? In what ways can we leverage flexibility and openness in design and diverse pathways and “Universal Design for Learning” in order to make room for participant/student voices to modify the design, a design that is inherently participatory and emergent with learner agency baked into it by design?
- In the facilitation/teaching moment: What kind of practices promote psychological safety for diverse participants to participate fully and also speak up when something is not comfortable or welcome? Can we move away from safe to brave spaces? How do facilitators respond when something goes wrong, when one participant’s behavior may create discomfort, offend, or actively oppress? How do participants themselves respond?
- Beyond the moment (sustaining community): How do we iterate, beyond a particular teaching moment to reflect on our own, and with our students/participants in order to help us notice anything we may have missed, and imagine how to do better next time?
Some of the practices of IEH as done in VC that transfer directly to classroom teaching include:
- Prioritizing listening to the more marginalized voices and ensuring everyone has an opportunity to express themselves.
- In the same way that VC invited participants to select conferences and guests for sessions, students can be asked (e.g. via surveys or in dialogue) to choose topics for the day, for example, ahead of class or during class.
- Creating spaces where participants, rather than facilitators, can choose and change the direction of the conversation, embracing serendipity.
- Ensuring participants have agency to participate in the ways that feel most comfortable for them, via audio or chat, with cameras on or off.
- In recorded conversations, having time before and after a session that is less formal and unrecorded, where some people may feel more comfortable speaking and interacting.
- Using semi-synchronous spaces to sustain community between synchronous sessions.
How Do We Notice Social Injustice and Oppression?
Social injustices are multidimensional. One typology of social justice is Nancy Fraser’s (2005), which differentiates between:
- Economic injustice, such as access to digital devices and infrastructure, which can be redressed via redistribution or resources;
- Cultural injustice, which involves the erasure or misappropriation of certain cultures, such as the absence of Indigenous and non-white cultural perspectives from many Western curricula, and can be redressed via reappropriation; and
- Political injustice, which involves the inability to participate in democratic decision-making about one’s own fate and circumstances, and can be redressed via participatory parity.
These three dimensions are, of course, not mutually exclusive; people’s identities are intersectional. For example, many populations suffer from a combination of these, such as African Americans. In some contexts, a group may suffer one kind of oppression but not in others. For example, Christians are the majority in many countries but are religious and cultural minorities in Egypt, where many of them are economically prosperous but overall their culture is not well-represented in curricula. In this context, they may therefore suffer ideological and interpersonal oppression. Economic inequality becomes particularly important in online learning if sessions are synchronous and students do not have access to dedicated devices, stable internet bandwidth, or private spaces to learn in their homes.
Oppression exists on many levels, from ideological oppression in society (racism, sexism, etc.), to institutionalized oppression (policies and laws that are unjust, such as redlining), to interpersonal oppression (such as microaggression) and internalized oppression (such as impostor syndrome). Recognizing these many levels and naming them, and how they manifest within our learning spaces can help us attempt to redress them. When we, those with power to control and design a learning space, recognize these oppressions, it enables us to promote “parity of participation” (Fraser 2005) for the learners in the design of the learning process.
Inviting everyone to participate in creating “community participation guidelines” as a democratic process does not remove the power dynamics amongst the participants or the internalized oppression of some participants. This may leave them silent or unable to object if other, louder voices, suggest items they do not agree with. Indeed, internalized oppression may mean that those unused to having agency may make decisions harmful to themselves, for lack of imagination of their own potential or of alternative options (Walker & Unterhalter, 2007). For example, students unused to having agency might, when given the choice of presenting their work as a regular paper or using any multimedia of their choice, fall back on what they have internalized as considered “good academic work” traditionally. How do we create environments that dismantle oppression, while raising critical consciousness of all involved, in order to achieve “parity of participation” so that the most marginalized in our group feel empowered as co-owners of the space?
“Feminist education for critical consciousness is rooted in the assumption that knowledge and critical thought done in the classroom should inform our habits of being and ways of living outside the classroom” (hooks, 1994, p. 94).
Stories from the Field: IEH in Practice
We have critiqued instructional design that assumes a good design done ahead of time will produce particular results. In reality, much of the work of creating socially just learning spaces requires facilitation in the moment, whether this is done via negotiation amongst learners or by the facilitator listening and responding to learners. Centering equity in the design process helps reduce equity emergencies (e.g. one person dominating a conversation) but does not eliminate them. Similarly, a well-facilitated session centering equity is incomplete without pre-work that promotes equity (e.g. who is involved in designing the session, how is the time agreed upon, is there community building done ahead of time?) and post-work that builds on the session to take equity work forward.
The examples we offer of IEH applied in educational settings may not apply IEH in all the ways VC has done so, but show its spirit in various ways.
IEH originated from how the VC community strove towards equitable hospitality before, during, and beyond conversations. Before a conversation took place, work was done to ensure those furthest from justice could choose which events to do VC at and select guests at conferences with whom they would like to speak. This work involved inviting guests and ensuring representation of women and marginalized groups in the guest lineup where possible. It also involved announcing sessions and personally reaching out to virtual participants to join sessions when they showed interest but didn’t register. During the session, the presence of both onsite and virtual buddies ensured there were hosts welcoming people in and checking that needs of both sets of participants were met, and participants could focus on the conversation while technology was taken care of. Beyond the session, VC built community such that IEH was a central value and praxis we developed, and we often reflected asynchronously or synchronously after events on ways we could improve the equity in our hospitality. Beyond learning how to manage the technology to run a VC session, new volunteer buddies shadowed more experienced buddies to learn from the ways different people modeled equitable hospitality to fit their personalities. Occasionally, VC would solicit feedback from participants formally, but informal feedback was collected all the time.
What hyflex classrooms can learn from Virtually Connecting
A model of hybrid synchronous teaching called Hyflex often involves a teacher in a classroom, teaching some students in-person while others join virtually via video conferencing. This is a model that is both technically expensive and pedagogically complex to apply well, but some educational institutions attempted versions of it during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a way to ensure distancing and flexibility within classrooms without being fully online. This model has so much in common with the Virtually Connecting format, of having a group of people together in one space connecting with a virtual group. (Bali, 2020)
If IEH is not applied in a Hyflex setting, virtual students are likely to feel like second-class citizens. One way to counter that, to ensure virtual students’ voices are heard and needs are met, is to have someone like the VC “onsite buddy,” someone sitting in class who is responsible for checking in with virtual folks to check if they have questions or concerns. In cases where teachers do not have TAs, rotational student volunteers can do this role. There can also be something like a VC “virtual buddy” responsible for virtual students, helping with things like breakout rooms, etc., and perhaps communicating with the onsite buddy, or if they are a TA, occasionally facilitating smaller virtual conversations.
Without this kind of support, the teacher’s attention will either be divided between the two groups, giving neither of them sufficient attention, or they will end up focusing on one group more than the other. Occasionally, equity-minded teachers end up focusing on the virtual students, which is still problematic for the in-person students.
As with VC, some degree of digital literacies and competence helps promote a more equitable experience. For example, when teachers want to solicit responses from all students, they can choose tools that both onsite and virtual students can use at the same time, using external polling tools rather than the ones within the web conferencing tool, or they can use collaboratively edited documents instead of writing on paper or the in-class whiteboard.
In all of this, listening to student feedback continually can ensure teachers redress any inequities that occur, and perhaps sometimes students themselves can suggest solutions to increase equity in a Hyflex classroom.
Reflections of IEH Approaches in the Classroom
Telling small stories to build trust
How can an educator lay the groundwork for a learning community built on sincere connection and trust? How can this be achieved when a group of different people comes together for a class? How can an educator convene a group of strangers and effectively foster both compassion and critical acumen?
You cannot insist upon trust. It has to be something that emerges from moments—moments that build upon each other over time. A formal class affords this time in ways one-off PD events do not. There are many quick warm-ups and introductory activities to engage students in IEH (see Bali, Caines & Zamora, undated). These moments make a big difference.
Getting to know one’s peers is not necessarily an outcome that bears much academic significance in a traditional class. But to know your co-learners, little by little over time, is a key reason why most people feel motivated and connected in a course. Authentic and voluntary participation is also key to the success of peer learning modalities. I, Mia, incorporate many warm-up and reflective activities leading to short but sincere moments of sharing during class time. They are never a waste of time. Rather, these activities become a critical building block of IEH.
Small stories make all the difference in building a sense of community. There is secret power in a story. Stories can be a small gift given with purposeful intention. They can provide insight into the life of the storyteller. They are like a seed that is germinated (or a sachet of tea that slowly infuses in boiled water)—pervading gently in one consciousness, growing an understanding of something new. A small story can be a bridge between different people’s perspectives.
In lieu of the typical introductory protocol of going around the room (or Zoom grid) to introduce oneself by name and major (a ritual that is at best boring, and induces dread and stress for many students), strategies like the IEH “Image Gallery” warm-up can be used (adapted from “Four Ideas for Checking In”). Here, everyone looks at a grid of randomly selected abstract images. Examples of pictures in the gallery might include a cozy fireplace, a bright electric cityscape, a rugged mountain terrain, or a labyrinth garden. Each co-learner is asked to choose an image from the gallery and explain why they chose it. How does it relate to how they might feel at the moment? What does that image mean to them and why? The result is numerous small stories that each individual chooses to share. The critical element of IEH design here is that each participant has the agency to choose whatever insight they want to share. There is no expectation or prescription of what one must tell others about themselves. It is the interpretive openness of the prompt—“What do YOU see?”—that generates something unique from each participant. The insights yielded are the glue of growing trust and understanding between co-learners.
Student remix as IEH co-creation
As a teacher-facilitator, I, Mia, am always exhilarated when I see signs of IEH values taking hold. IEH is evident when students intuitively suggest ideas for new forms of co-creation. It happens when students come up with their own (unsolicited) ideas for how to actively engage with each other. By imagining new ways to remix activities, they build upon IEH foundations and make evident new levels of trust.
A simple example of IEH student re-mix was when a thoughtful student asked to return to the Image Gallery protocol towards the close of a course. The special twist on the original protocol was that instead of each student selecting an image and then sharing a personal insight, this time each student would select an image inspired by thinking about another student in the course. What image in the gallery resonates when thinking about a peer in the course?
In this case, I immediately knew that it would only work as an equitable protocol if each and every student received a “shout out” from another student. In the class of 20 students, I designated 5 random groups of 4, and asked each group to self-assign who they would select an image for within that small group, so that it was ensured that every person was accounted for. Since this remix was conducted in Zoom, I also invited them to send “shout outs” to other students through use of the chat if they wanted to. These would be “extra” insights in addition to the one “shout out” they shared with the overall group. I knew that many wanted to share their positive insights with more than just one other student in the class. The result was an exhibition of generosity, insight, and complex forms of trust. Students shared things they noticed in each other, and reminded everyone of knowledge they gained from certain individuals along the way. They paid particular forms of tribute to each other, and they made evident how each person has their own unique way of contributing to a community’s overall learning.
Liberating Structures in Faculty Development Workshops and Classes
I, Maha, am a faculty developer, and when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to move everything online, I tried to apply IEH in online workshops, to model it for faculty, so they could use it with their students. I quickly realized that VC-style conversations without topics and informal dialogue, are difficult to facilitate equitably in larger groups, say, larger than 12 or 15 (something Autumm Caines, 2015, often calls “The Interpersonal Multitudes Barrier”).
When we offered “morning coffee” and “ask us anything” sessions that were announced as open dialogue, centering faculty members’ interests and needs over faculty developer agendas, this usually worked out because numbers were small enough for everyone to participate, like a VC session. However, with larger, more formal workshops, we needed something different.
At first, we used polling tools, the chat, and Google Docs, but this still centered the workshop facilitator’s agenda and privileged text-based over oral interaction. It seemed better to use breakout rooms, have people discuss in smaller groups, and then report back. This potentially gives time for every voice to participate and for a workshop to feel more interactive. However, poorly designed breakout sessions could be disastrous: you had to balance the number of participants per room, the timing, and the breakout settings. It was sometimes necessary to have a facilitator in each breakout room, which was not always logistically feasible, and we also learned that breakout groups needed very clear instructions to follow or they felt lost or awkward. This is where virtual Liberating Structures (LS) were a saving grace.
Liberating Structures are “are easy-to-learn microstructures that enhance relational coordination and trust. They quickly foster lively participation in groups of any size, making it possible to truly include and unleash everyone… [They] can replace more controlling or constraining approaches.” Among the ten principles underlying the design of LS, the two most relevant for IEH are:
- Include and Unleash Everyone
- Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions
When we used LS in our workshops, faculty members’ key takeaway was often to plan to use more breakout rooms in their classes, and their key PD need was to learn how to use breakout rooms smoothly. In response, we offered hands-on workshops on creating breakout rooms and workshops explicitly teaching LS. Students since then generally gave positive feedback on the use of breakout rooms in classes.
LS are designed to promote equitable, respectful collaboration, through the sequence of steps, distribution of timing and group size. Originally designed for in-person collaboration, most LS work well with virtual breakout rooms.
Three particular structures demonstrate IEH by respecting all voices equitably:
- 1-2-4-all (https://www.liberatingstructures.com/1-1-2-4-all/) is a dialogue version of “think-pair-share”. In 1-2-4-all, a facilitator shares a prompt. Each participant thinks about it on their own first. This gives people who are more reflective, non-native speakers and marginalized groups a chance to think quietly without interruption and formulate their thoughts before sharing in the second stage of sharing with pairs. The next stage is discussion in a group of four before sharing with the larger group. When people test out their ideas in small groups, they all contribute and gain confidence while building on each others’ ideas before sharing with the larger group. It ensures everyone participates, in contrast to most large group discussions, where certain individuals tend to dominate the discussion.
- Conversation Café (https://www.liberatingstructures.com/17-conversation-cafe/) places participants in groups of 4-5 to respond to a prompt, giving micro-timing for individual participation within rounds (and thus it helps if someone volunteers to be the “timer”). In the first round, each person takes one minute to respond to the prompt, and in the second round, each person responds to other people’s responses in one minute. Afterward, there is some open conversation time before wrapping up with key takeaways that a “volunteer note taker” writes on a shared document. This approach approximates equity by giving equal time, but of course, some people need time to think before speaking (and would benefit from 1-2-4-all). Others might need different amounts of time to express their ideas, either because they are non-native speakers, they take time to express complex ideas, or they just speak more slowly. IEH might ask people who speak more quickly to give up their time for others, give people time to write quietly in a shared space before sharing orally, explicitly give more time to marginalized groups (e.g. students in a student-faculty conversation), or let marginalized groups speak first.
- Troika Consulting (https://www.liberatingstructures.com/8-troika-consulting/) is another LS that uses microtiming and introduces reciprocity well. Each group of 3 works together in 3 rounds, switching roles each round. Every person has the opportunity to act as a “client,” asking for consultation from others, and the other two perform a quick consultation using a specific format; all of this occurs within 10 minutes. This structure is surprising in how quickly, in the space of 10 minutes, one can receive useful ideas for a challenge one is facing, from people who may not be experts. The reciprocity of asking for help once and giving help twice in the same structure tends to also be satisfying for participants. This kind of structure done within faculty development workshops empowers faculty to set the agenda for what they want to discuss, to seek help from peers rather than faculty development experts, and when used in class, encourages students to seek help from colleagues not just look to teachers for help. It may help people to be given time to prepare for their “challenge” ahead of time before they go into groups since the time is usually limited and the process quick. It is important for facilitators to create a relaxed atmosphere before sending people into their groups so as not to create anxiety over the time limits.
For any LS, whether participants are strangers or not, it helps to dedicate time for people to introduce themselves or say hello before the activity. This alleviates the stress of working on the task, which could be difficult for some people to do without a warm-up.
A limitation of LS is that they require participants to “buy into” the participatory approach. If someone with lots of power decides not to follow the process, they may not end up making room for others to speak. Moreover, following a process that listens and builds upon ideas of all voices in a one or two hour workshop does not mean this will automatically transfer into changing the culture in a work environment unless there is further intentionality.
Some ways of addressing this is to use the facilitator’s power with what Priya Parker calls “generous authority”. Parker writes: “A gathering run on generous authority is run with a strong, confident hand, but it is run selflessly, for the sake of others. Generous authority is imposing in a way that serves your guests. (Parker 2018, p. 81). Replace “gathering” with “learning space” and “guests” with “learners/participants”. Generous authority” is using power to achieve outcomes that are generous, that are for others” (Parker 2018, p. 82). It involves protecting participants from others who may hijack the experience for their own agenda, temporarily equalizing participants despite hierarchies outside the space, and helping participants connect with one another (Parker, 2018).
In practice, when using LS, the facilitator or teacher needs to explain the process to everyone and perhaps make explicit ground rules around sharing space and having all voices heard. If the groups are extremely unfamiliar with such approaches, there may need to be some co-facilitators present with small groups or moving between groups to check in and help out. The facilitator is likely to succeed better if they use inclusive warm-up activities that allow participants to get to know one another and get into the mood with low-stakes activities and discussions that do not build on anyone’s authority. Some participants will resist unless they know the purpose of every step. It is sometimes worthwhile to stop and make time to discuss purpose before or after an activity, to help more participants stay on board.
The facilitator’s generous authority involves reminding people of timing—its importance for equitable and productive dialogue—and designing who ends up in which group with thoughtfulness. For example, if the facilitator knows the audience well, they may avoid placing extremely dominant participants with extremely shy ones, unless they can have a co-facilitator to support equity in that group. The facilitator may decide to ensure marginalized groups are not tokenized in groups, e.g. never have one student among five faculty, but rather 2-3 students with two faculty. There also needs to be a safe way for a participant to report issues or seek help from the facilitator at any point. Finally, participants unwilling to try these ways of doing things may choose to “pass” but not be “counted” among participants, possibly observing, but indicating clearly so facilitators don’t count them among active group members in something like Troika. It is important to recognize that people who resist these approaches may come from all walks of life: they may be very powerful people unwilling to give up on hierarchy, or they may be marginalized groups unwilling to make themselves vulnerable. It is important to remind ourselves of the purpose of a gathering, invite the right combination of people first, and design the groupings and the flow of the experience in ways that help us meet the purpose; it is also important to remind ourselves these decisions can be really complex (Parker, 2018).
In terms of follow-up beyond a session, it would depend on the facilitator’s relationship with and power amongst the group of participants, but at the very least, a live session or meeting can end with agreements on future commitments or next steps based on the dialogue. Where there is a sustained relationship among facilitators and participants, there may be some degree of negotiation behind the scenes before and after sessions that can help make sessions more constructive and fruitful beyond the meetings themselves. Reflecting on higher education, the power dynamics when a faculty developer is offering a workshop to tenured professors in one department is different than if they were a learning community across disciplines that meets regularly and is very different from a class. And a class of 15 in a seminar-style classroom is different from a class of 40 learning online which is different from a class of 80 learning in a large lecture hall.
In August 2020, we (Maha, Mia) collaborated with Autumm Caines and approached an organization called OneHE (whose goal has been to enhance higher education globally) to suggest a collaboration with “Equity Unbound” (Equity Unbound is an emergent, collaborative network which aims to create equity-focused, open, connected, intercultural learning experiences across classes, countries, and contexts). The collaboration we proposed was to create and curate an Open Educational Resource that demonstrated to educators worldwide a variety of ways for building community online. We felt this was needed because people unfamiliar with online teaching needed ideas for building community online, especially in these traumatic times of physical distancing. Faculty developers and educators worldwide were overwhelmed, so we designed these resources with demonstrations and templates they could adapt.
These resources practiced IEH by:
- Involving multiple people around the world from different contexts in their design, so people who experienced online differently or had different resources could notice and point out inequities or challenges with each suggested strategy for community building
- Offering adaptations for elements that may not be accessible to some groups. E.g. synchronous and asynchronous options; breakout and no-breakout adaptations
- Inviting feedback from the public and inviting viewers to contribute. We used critical and constructive feedback on the resources, to iterate and adapt them since.
For concrete, practical examples, see Bali & Zamora (forthcoming, in Learning Design Voices)
IEH in Equity Unbound Studio Visits
“Studio Visits” are a way to enrich both classrooms and professional development engagements with the practical experience of experts in the field. The visits are virtual by nature, and bring together diverse co-learners from different locales, and with different levels of training or professionalization. A studio visit is marked by its unscripted nature, and there is little to no formal agenda set for the time allotted, as people enter into fluid conversation around a shared interest. A Studio Visit encourages co-learners to have informal, open discussions, giving participants access to dig deeper into how someone’s scholarship, research, art, or practice has developed. The Studio Visit inherently challenges the hierarchical power dynamic of experts “presenting to” students as authority figures. We often host Studio Visits on a range of topics on behalf of “Equity Unbound”—an equity-focused, open, connected, intercultural curriculum that builds critical digital literacies in a global context, highlighting issues of web representation, digital colonialism, and safety/security risks.
Sometimes Studio Visits are conducted within a closed class setting with participation limited to the professor, the guest speaker, and the students. In these cases, IEH facilitation is a matter of extending a pre-established classroom culture. At other times, Equity Unbound Studio Visits are open. Professors join students from varying countries and cultural contexts, and co-learners represent diverse institutions. In these cases, there is an explicit power difference between the participants. Educators engage with confidence and professionalism, often rendering some students unsure. Some may intuitively take a back seat to those who they perceive as more “qualified” to participate. Also, some faculty participants have established collegial connections with other faculty participants. Therefore, a Studio Visit can be an occasion to have a chance to virtually reconnect with colleagues. But acquaintanceship among a few may leave others feeling like inherent “outsiders.” In these open contexts, we have discovered that IEH is crucial in pursuing equitable co-learning. We must be intentional in the way we welcome everyone. The design for “opening up” the Q & A time should prioritize students and unaffiliated co-learners to share insights and ask questions. We must also remind all participants to be mindful of the varying levels of professional training and to make space for everyone to feel included in the ensuing conversation. Without clearly stating these intentions, the conversations are likely to be “hijacked” by collegial senior faculty who unintentionally get carried away in their own participation, leaving little room for the less practiced.
Student-Faculty Co-Design Sessions
I, Maha, recently co-facilitated a session where students, faculty, and staff worked together to brainstorm and prototype ways of integrating gender into the curriculum at my institution. Although we used participatory approaches from a combination of Design Thinking and Liberating Structures, and kept people in small, diverse groups to make time for every voice to speak, we discovered later that in some breakout groups, student voices were not heard because some of the faculty spent a lot of time talking and no one took on the responsibility to ensure all voices were heard. We had used another Liberating structure known as “TRIZ” (a Liberating Structure that involves solving complex problems in a playful way by going backwards, working towards an anti-goal) in that session, which does not micro-time the group time, versus something like Conversation Café, which does remind us to give everyone a turn and equal time.
IEH As a Community Endeavor: Beyond the Facilitator
What the above two experiences highlight for us is that for IEH to truly work, it is not enough for a facilitator to have these values and enact these practices. It is important for the community to have internalized the values or at least a few key people willing to co-facilitate in small groups or as backup in big groups. This is much harder to achieve in one-off meetings versus ones where the same group meets multiple times, like a class, and can learn from the facilitator’s modeling. Beyond internalizing the values, participants willing to help facilitate sessions need to practice the ability to recognize oppression and microaggression as it happens, have strategies for countering it, and have a strong enough voice to speak up against it and challenge it, even if it is uncomfortable or against someone with more power than themselves. This is a big ask, and may not be “safe” to do in every context. The original Virtually Connecting context usually involved people with different degrees and types of power but who did not work together in the same institution and have those formal hierarchies of power between them. However, within the context of an institution, such power dynamics cannot be overlooked. Therefore, it seems that in an institutional context or in one-off meetings, it may be necessary to ensure that those with the most power are reminded orally of the importance of IEH, and those with the least power are aware of their rights as well, so they may advocate for themselves. Having some co-facilitators there, especially when people are unused to participatory approaches, can help, because, in virtual environments. the facilitator cannot see the dynamics of all the rooms at a glance the way they would in a physical setting.
IEH may not come naturally to all educators and instructional designers. It requires the practices of both equity and care to work in harmony, where equitable pre-planning and design are embodied with care in the facilitation of a learning space (Bali & Zamora, 2020 & 2022). It is also important to emphasize that IEH is not one practice or a list of practices, because “the notion that one model of care will work for everyone is absurd…humans vary in their abilities to give and receive care” (White & Tronto, 2004, p. 450). Nel Noddings (2012) asserts that a caring approach means we “do unto others as they [emphasis added] would have done unto them.” This may mean anticipating others’ wants and needs and designing to address them, or it may mean a more democratic and compassionate approach that is more participatory (see Bali et al., 2022; Alhadad, Bali, Gachago, Pallitt & Zamora, personal communication).
IEH is a praxis that strives towards socially just care. In a “caring-with” democracy, we can set a goal of structuring institutions and practices so that each person’s individual preferences can be honored.” (Tronto, 2015, p. 34). Bali & Zamora (2022) name “socially just care” as follows:
This is when social justice is realized and embodied in a caring manner by participants in a social space… We did not name it “democratic care” (after Tronto, 2015) because democratic processes do not necessarily lead to equitable outcomes. We did not call it “parity of participation” because such a term does not emphasize the importance of care in order to create the social justice end goal. Socially just care, rather, promotes social justice and parity of participation in its designs and planned processes, and is enacted with care such that it always iterates to nurture self-determination, agency and justice for all involved, in whatever manner meets their diverse care needs, and addresses the multiple dimensions of injustice individuals and groups may face. It distributes the care responsibility so that the care is not “partial,” and it goes beyond the “contractual” equity to ensure it goes beyond words and documents and becomes the lived experience within a social space.
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