When discussing diversity and inclusion, we often talk about changing who’s at the table, about making sure women, people of color, and other often-overlooked stakeholders are represented. The idea is that by expanding who is at the table, we’re expanding the voices being heard. This idea isn’t bad; indeed, it’s very important. However, this idea is also inadequate.
We need to be thinking not only about who’s at the table, but the entire nature of the table, what happens at that table, what resources and tools are available, and which voices are actually heard (or how ideas are shared in other ways).
Just months into the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, the NSF AISL project UniVRsal Access: Broadening Participation in Informal STEM Learning for Autistic Learners and Others through Virtual Reality (DRL-2005447) was funded, with the goal of broadening participation in informal STEM learning by leveraging the unique affordances of VR for accessible and immersive science learning, designing for and with neurodivergent learners — learners with ADHD, autism, and other sensory, attention, and/or social differences. To achieve this, we embraced the neurodiversity movement’s tenent “nothing about us without us” (Charlton, 1998), and codesign dominated the first two years of the project.
Co-design is the act of designing and creating with stakeholders to ensure the final products are usable by and address the goals and needs of the stakeholders. Ten members of our co-design team were undergraduate interns from Landmark College, a post-secondary institute specifically for students who learn differently. Some of these interns were involved for a semester, others a year, and one for two years. The other four co-design team members were education developers and researchers from the Educational Gaming Environments group (EdGE) at TERC. Together, we shaped the STEM-based VR game Europa Prime and related research.
All the co-design team members had “a seat at the table,” but this alone wasn’t going to translate into everyone’s ideas being “heard.” While none of our neurodivergent co-design team members were non-verbal, there were definitely different levels of comfort, willingness, and ability with sharing ideas verbally. Thus, meetings had to be carefully crafted to meet the preferences and needs of the participants as a team and as individuals. For example:
Many other scaffolds were used during and between meetings. None of these scaffolds were, in and of itself, all that innovative—task templates can be useful, audio recordings are an alternative to writing, assignment descriptions can be highly specific or loose guidelines, drawings or online images can be used to capture ideas, and partners can assist each other. To facilitate co-design, the team put extra intentionality into finding and supporting different ways for each and every member to fully participate and help shape what was being developed. And more than any specific scaffold, co-design is about building relationships and trust.
As part of a previous pilot project, some basic elements of Europa Prime had been developed and tested. Co-design team members largely embraced these pre-established elements; however, they also offered and pursued ideas for significant story alterations, backstory and character development, physical game controls, and more, reshaping the game in unexpected ways important to them. Sometimes these contributions were distinct from obvious neurodiversity considerations, such as with the design of the fictional Flame Jelly lifeforms introduced by a member interested in biology and animal behavior. Others struck to the heart of addressing the goals and needs of neurodivergent learners.
For example, several co-design team members proposed EM Spectrum puzzles as good STEM content with important sensory-input scaffolding connections. As the design process progressed, we saw that perceiving different wavelengths of EM radiation, including ones beyond the visible, could be analogous to challenges faced by some neurodivergent learners when sensory input is overwhelming, inaccessible, and/or incomprehensible. Also, as the team faced and addressed its own communication-related challenges, members used this experience to motivate the idea of integrating communication into the game. The need to figure out how to communicate across various divides became an ingame means of addressing social differences.
Bringing together these and other design ideas, the team devised and crafted the Minos, fictional cephalopod-like aliens who communicate using the EM spectrum, but only at very low brightness levels (as bright lights can overwhelm) and only partially in the (so-called) visible (as perceptions can differ). The Minos communicate by flashing sequences of different colors, including in ultraviolet wavelengths. Just as learners with autism may experience sensory integration differently than (so-called) neurotypical learners, the player and the fictional Minos are receptive to different sensory input and must find common understandings and establish basic levels of communication. And this is just one example of how the codesign team has addressed fundamental aspects of the proposed project—STEM learning, sensory differences, and social scaffolding—in ways that wouldn’t have come about without the central involvement of neurodivergent members of the team.
Engaging in authentic co-design requires:
Doing this can be challenging and time consuming, but it’s worth it, as co-design has the potential to be transformative. What’s happening at your table? Check out more about co-design, the project, and the transition from design to development at edge.terc.edu and https://www.terc.edu/projects/univrsal-access/
UniVRsal Access co-design team: Zachary Alstad (EdGE), Gerald Belton (Landmark), Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki (EdGE), Teon Edwards (EdGE), Ian Hagberg (Landmark), Katherine Hoder (Landmark), Jamie Larsen (EdGE), Daniel Lougen (Landmark), Nicholas Payne (Landmark), Daniel Santana (Landmark), Becky Scheff (Landmark), Stephen Soltero (Landmark), Ben Stafeil (Landmark), and Zack Steinbaum (Landmark), as well as Bennett Attaway (observer from Knology, the project’s external evaluators)
Teon Edwards is co-founder and director of design for EdGE at TERC. With a background in astrophysics, mathematics, and education with a focus on the use of technology and multimedia for learning, she has developed numerous science curricula, experiences, tools, and games. She’s PI of the UniVRsal Access project.
Charlton, J. M. (1998). Nothing about us without us: Disability oppression and empowerment. Berkeley, Calif: University of California.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL- 2005447. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.