“Servingness” Through Culturally Sustaining Learning Design

Last month, CSUCI celebrated our designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and our identity as a community rich in cultural wealth and knowledge. In federal law, the HSI designation is for institutions that enroll a Hispanic-identifying population at a certain numerical threshold (25% or more full-time equivalent enrollment in undergraduate programs). Beyond that enrollment figure, CSUCI has long sought ways to enact servingness, a concept that Garcia, Núñez, and Sansone (2019) have argued as something embedded in structures (e.g., policies; employee diversity, etc.), practices (e.g., community-based activities; advising, etc.), outcomes (e.g., advancement opportunities), and experiences (e.g., affirming experiences on campus). Enacting servingness is a conscientious commitment because of the unconscious biases insidiously present in a system of higher education that was not designed for diversity, and one in which research repeatedly shows that students continue to encounter negative, racialized experiences even at institutions designated as HSI. 

With this post, Teaching and Learning Innovations seeks to unpack ways we are learning to think about the concept of servingness through the lens of learning design and by partnering with peace educators who are focused on antibias and antiracist (ABAR) practices and procedures. We will articulate the tacit things that learning designers think about when developing a learning experience, the questions we ask about how learners see their community’s cultural wealth reflected in their learning experiences, and two of the projects we are currently working on.

Learning Design is about Learners and Learning

While traditional instruction may begin with content, like that found in a textbook or syllabus, learning design begins with the learning context: Who is the learner? What brings them to this learning experience? What contextual factors need to be considered in the learning experience design? What are the parameters of the learning environment? What kinds of engagement or experiences should be built into the design? It begins with questions like these, in addition to desired learning outcomes, that serve as a point of departure in learning experience design. To think about these things during a design process requires intentionality and focus on both the cognitive (things that learners will need to know and be able to do) and affective (feelings, attitudes, motivations, etc.). This is why working with a learning designer can be such a valuable experience! We can bring these perspectives into a collaboration around learning experiences.

If, for example, a learning experience needs requisite prior knowledge in order to be successful in this new situation, a learning designer might recommend that the learning segment begin with an informal knowledge check to assess prior knowledge, experiences, and attitudes. Then, they might suggest a move to some low-stakes review activities, then introduce the new content as building on the previous work, including several examples and opportunities to practice and receive feedback, and then an assessment of the new learning. In addition to cognitive scaffolding, learning designers also consider the way in which the learning climate fosters and affirms the learner’s cultural wealth. In TLi, we draw from Plotts (2021) model of cultural presence, which occurs at the intersection of intentionality, collaborative and contextual learning, relational versus transactional design, interdependent learning and outcomes, and convergent versus divergent thinking. Another consideration is the way that course content, images, and media mirrors the diversity of the learners or what Estrada et al. (2018) designate as “kindness cues.”

Similarly, if the learning experience is going to occur asynchronously online, the learning designer may recommend connection and engagement opportunities through multimodal activities, such as VoiceThread or Playposit interactions. Beginning with a low-stakes opportunity to use the tool to introduce themselves and perhaps share their interest or experience with the course topic or discipline can afford learners the opportunity to connect with peers while also familiarizing themselves with a tool that will be employed later in the course or program. A learning designer will also recommend considerations for consistency and accessibility in the asynchronous course design. These examples paint a general picture of design considerations from a traditional learning design perspective. 

Designing for Servingness

Servingness at our HSI is, in part, about affirming, nurturing, and celebrating the community cultural wealth of Latina/o/e/x students. Over the past few decades, asset-based pedagogical research has shifted from culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings) to culturally responsive pedagogy (Gay and Hammond) to culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris and Alim). Teaching has moved from including aspects of multiculturalism to focusing on integrating aspects of students’ specific cultures in curricula, to striving to maintain and nurture students’ various cultures and ways of knowing. According to the author who conceptualized this latest additive approach, Django Paris, “Culturally sustaining pedagogy seeks to perpetuate and foster – to sustain – linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling.” Culturally sustaining pedagogy affirms students’ aspirational, familial, societal, navigational, resistant, and linguistic funds of knowledge and, therefore, helps dismantle systems of oppression in which the ways of knowing and funding knowledge of Communities of Color are seen as inferior to those of the dominant group.

At CSUCI, centering the Latina/o/e/x learner’s experience and dedicating ourselves to uplifting and maintaining students’ cultures are ways we can embody servingness. In TLi, we are asking ourselves many questions: From a design perspective, what opportunities do we have to center the learners’ experiences? In what ways do learners have opportunities to see their community’s cultural wealth implicit or explicit in their learning? How do we ensure that in our design, we remove barriers as a means of ensuring, rather than compromising, rigor? 

To that end, we are keeping these concepts at front of mind in the work that we do. We also have two projects in progress that we look forward to sharing: Bilingual Course Starter Kits and an Equity Pathway for Course Feedback.

In order to celebrate the linguistic cultural wealth of our Spanish-speaking students, we are expanding the course starter kit. One version of the starter kit has simultaneous translations. The course banners, major headings, and general directions in the Canvas modules are in both English and Spanish. In order to help make the languages clearly distinct for the reader, English text is in black, and Spanish text is in dark red. This kit is designed so that all instructors, including those who may not speak Spanish, can utilize them in any course. With this kit, native Spanish speakers can see their primary language represented in Canvas across content areas and disciplines. The second kit contains a sequential translation in which the Spanish is separate from the English. In this way, the English is easily deleted, so that only the Spanish appears. This version of the kit was designed for use in courses that are taught completely in Spanish, such as courses in the Spanish and  Global Studies Departments and courses that help teacher candidates meet the requirements for the Bilingual Authorization. This kit clearly centers native Spanish-speaking students’ funds of knowledge. In both cases, students have opportunities to see their linguistic repertoire represented in institutional platforms.

We are also working to develop an equity pathway in our campus’ existing online/blended course feedback process. While existing pathways offer feedback on dimensions of the CSU Quality Teaching and Learning (QLT) rubric, this equity pathway will invite faculty and their peer observer to examine and provide feedback on aspects of a designed course through the lens of an equity framework. Both the Starter Kit and the Equity Pathway for Course Feedback are in development with milestones planned over the next calendar year. We look forward to sharing these and other projects with the community. As we are reminded that justice and servingness are not destinations but a journey and commitment, we hope that these contributions help our community enact these shared values.

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