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TRANSCRIPT: Tales of Teaching Online ep. 54: How to increase belonging and inclusion through character design (Joan, Kat and Sarah)

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Intro: Digital, student-centred, creative, innovation, imagination, initiative, stories that matter.

Joan: I’m Joan Sutherland. And this is Tales of Teaching Online brought to you by Deakin Learning Futures. Hello. Today I’m here talking to Kat and Sarah about a belonging and representation project that they’ve worked on in the library. Hello Kat and Sarah, can I ask you to introduce yourselves and your role at Deakin University?

Kat Cain: Thank you for having us in for this chat. I am Kat and I work for the Deakin Library Learning and Teaching Portfolio. So I’m all about designing learning experiences and really focus on digital literacy elements.

Sarah Fennelly: My name is Sarah Fennelly and I’m a Digital Designer in the Library and I work for the Digital Experience team. And my main function is to help create and deliver a user-centric experiences that engage and impress students and researchers. So really on the visual side of things. Joan: Today we’re talking about the belonging and representation project. Can someone talk us through a bit about that?

Kat: Sure can. And what I would say too is that when we want to talk about any sort of library projects, we do recognise that it’s coming from people and from place. And that much of this work took place on Wadawurrong Land where Sarah and I both live and work. But it was actually intended to connect with Deakin students across Australia and in fact globally. So we really do like to acknowledge the living culture and the unique role that our first-person, First Nations People have in this country. Because part of that was all inclusive character design that we were focused on. If I was going to dive into the project and tell me about it. What we would say is that inclusion is, needs to be embedded in teaching and learning and it needs to be embedded in academic libraries. And that’s whether it’s in staff diversity, it’s service delivery, or whether it’s in what we are creating in our spaces. And so we know that belonging and representation and experience of spaces invokes a digital and physical are really critical aspects of that some of that inclusion. So this particular project, which was all around belonging and representation, but it was a specific thing in terms of designing inclusive illustrated characters to be used in teaching and learning and social media materials. When you’re talking about designing those kind of things it was both about engendering a sense of belonging for the students that would see these images. But it was also to ensure that our teaching staff in the library, were able to create materials that use these representative images in a really seamless way. Sarah, what would you say around from a designer’s perspective, what our project was focused on?

Sarah: Yeah, it was really focused on a mixture of things, I guess, to help us designers to be able to have, I guess a character suite that we could refer to a use when we’re looking at designing learning modules and helping. It could also be animated videos as well as social media posts. So they kind of used everywhere. And we also wanted the characters to be able to be used by library staff when they creating their own, their own learning modules or content so that they didn’t actually have to go out in search of those design assets and elements, trying to find things that would look like they fit the brand and style at Deakin. It just enabled a really nice consistency of look and feel and it sort of uplifts I guess a lot of work where it gives it that extra element of cohesion, I guess across multiple platforms and across a lot of their content. So it’s trying to help, basically trying to help staff save time, rather than having to go off and find all the stuff that’s creative commons and free to use and all that kind of stuff. It just, it really gives people a little bit more time back to focus on their actual content rather than trying to worry about the look and feel of what they’re putting together.

Joan: It’s interesting what you say around the inclusivity and the inclusion component around helping designers with a character suite because we talk about teaching and learning professionals and academics and what they need to do to make things accessible and inclusive, but from a design perspective, that’s one of the key elements I can imagine. And in talking to other accessibility people, Darren Britten actually said something really nice was accessibility is around access for students, but inclusion is about inviting people to join and that sort of touching on what you were talking about Kat is that invitation for a number of different types of people and doesn’t matter where you come from or what your features and characteristics are, you making it inclusive for everyone. So based on that, did the need come from saving time or was it for that belonging and inclusion? So where did the need come from?

Kat: It does, it does really come down to the belonging and the inclusion. I think even you can even link it to like from a very basic level to contact like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that we actually, the access for the teaching staff was around that self-actualisation to be able to do and create things and an inclusive, accessible way. For our students we’re looking at the social emotional aspect of belonging and seeing themselves and the connectedness. But it’s a complex area, the inclusion. It’s not just here this is the thing that we deliver that represents inclusion. As you said, it’s how do we, how do we build these things? How do we invite people to be part of that creation and use?

Joan: How does it address the needs the needs of inclusivity in teaching and learning specifically? So I understand that you’ve got characters. So how does it address that need?

Kat: We, we really looked at it, it around the concept of, do I see myself in these spaces, these learning experiences, all these social media posts. And we used a particular pedagogy from education, are called mirrors, images and sliding doors, which is Bishop work. And it’s something that really shapes a lot of picture book illustration in fact. But because it is all around this representation, to break it down in sort of a basic pedagogical snippet. The mirror is the story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity. And we wanted students to actually see themselves in the learning modules that we created in the scenario-based conversations that we had. Because we wanted them to see themselves valued and to be seen as part of the Deakin community. We also had a lens on window which is getting them to look through other students perspectives, other Deakin community members perspectives and to open up their understanding of the diversity of our community. And that opening up of new experiences is actually a really critical part of any learning journey and that doesn’t matter if you’re studying law or education, creative arts, or medicine. You need to be continually challenged to look at things in a new way. And it seems like imagery would not be a huge part of that, but it in fact, massive because we have something visually based creatures and in fact we even took a windows and mirrors approach in how we developed the project, but I might even let Sarah talk to what, how did we use a mirrors and windows approach in that?

Sarah: So in the actual development process, we, I guess drew on our knowledge of our own experiences from sort of I’ve worked with diversity and inclusion at Deakin before and creating a few joint projects, one of which was the Human Library, which was all to do with IDAHOBIT week as well as we had at the time she was also a student, so we had sort of an understanding about looking at our cohort from outside as well as then developing a suite of characters. Then also, again engaging with diversity and inclusion to find out had we correctly represented our cohort. Where were our gaps of knowledge because obviously there were expertise in diversity and inclusion that we don’t have ourselves. So it’s really, we’re very fortunate to work in an organisation where people are happy to share and collaborate, to come up with a really great outcome for our students. Were able to collaborate with them and come up with a really fantastic suite of characters with their input and their expertise and their guidance really, yeah. It was definitely a lot about acknowledging your own understanding of what knowledge is and what your limitations of your knowledge are and then reaching out to the right, people and having a chat really and coming to it with really good intentions. I think it worked out really well.

Joan: It’s a great perspective to have actually in relation to what your limitations are and knowing that you don’t know everyone, you don’t know everything. And there’s people with different pockets of expertise and that collaborative nature here at Deakin. I wanted to touch on something that you mentioned around looking from Kat, from, looking from different perspectives. And perhaps Sarah, you can lend a voice to this in the sense of how do you design something or a character pack in this case, that allows learners to look at things from different perspectives?

Kat: There’s a couple of elements that we’d probably unpack there. You’d have that grounding piece that we do find in online environments that characters have often negative stereotypes as a default without even meaning to. Or that they are a very simplistic sort of masculine, white, dominant kind of character. Or they are a amorphous purple type, non-connecting element. If they’re the only perspectives or windows onto other people in your community that you have, you’re not getting a very rich idea who our fellow Deakn-ites, so by working through processes to, to understand the richness and the deepness of different types of people, you’re, you’re opening up the shutters I guess on the window to see what’s through. Now look, there’s no way to have one on online identity that is representative of yourself or everyone in any one. There are only so many characters you can develop . I will actually let Sarah talk through that. How do you get to move away from the purple people eaters to an actual rich character?

Sarah: Yeah, so I guess in this scenario, we were fortunate the marketing already had that sort of graphic, I guess styling that was created. So it was really about us taking that sort of style and then coming up with our own guess different, I guess characters. Individual persona is a character. And I guess it’s, yeah, it’s about like having looking to there’s a bit of research is that there’s quite a lot of artists out there that have done some amazing work with diverse character designs. Anoosha Syed has some fantastic graphics that they have put out and that I actually looked at and was able to have an sort of go through and talk about how to do different skin tones of all different types. So that you can really start having a look at the beauty of the diverse range of colour and representation that you can bring into each of the characters. And I think it’s also sort of looking at, it’s a really hard balance of figuring out but not being overly stereotypical as well. That’s really hard. So that’s again goes back to not just, I guess having you as a learning designer and you’re the only person who makes this and that’s it. That’s where you get everyone involved. That’s where you get people with lots of knowledge and you take advice and you work and you sort of help visualise what they’re thinking. I guess if that makes any sense. So really it’s just you’re using the skill set of the visual designer to really bring out in the imagination of the people who know. For me, that’s how I guess we came about. And it was really also like getting some of the student cohort involved with having a look at some of the characters that we’ve designed, especially on non-binary character Sam. So going through like three variations and having the students be able to choose which one of those characters they felt best represented them. So there’s a lot of different, it’s not just a simple process if that makes a lot sense.

Joan: There’s a lot of consultation and cooperation along the way which is fabulous to see.

Kat: Yeah, I’d also like that, that collaboration. I’m coming from a learning and teaching background and Sarah comes from a design background and the resources and expertise that she is going to bring to this kind of project is just invaluable because it is a richness that I am not going to understand from a visual communication point of view. One of the elements that she brought was these artists that are already out there doing this work. And there was a particular photographer that was quite eye-opening for us who was called Angelica Daas. I thought, yeah. And as you said that there should be no standard peach and pink skin tone that Daas outlined. And I think what it made us realise is that the world is full of diversity and to keep communities full of diversity and our students and so we should be positively celebrating the beauty and not selectively curating particular one.

Joan: For what we think.

Kat: Exactly. Yeah.

Sarah: I think the world. Do you know what I mean? That’s it. I’d definitely recommend Humane and it’s a great exhibition by the artist, has picked Pantene colours for everybody. So takes a photograph of a person, tells you what their Pantone, colour is and there are so many, It’s amazing. Yeah, It’s amazing.

Kat: I’d even extend off on that earlier question your had around, how do you open up that that window? Now when you’re talking about character design, an imagery, you’re actually developing stories. As the accessory, the look. There’s all sorts of things that are happening with those characters in terms of story. And that is the storying and connection is such an important part in audience connection. You really want to create stories that will stick with people that they engage with. One of the fascinating things that Sarah discovered in doing some user testing with students, taking these character out to the students was what you think they might connect with is very different to what they actually do. I might get you to explain that first.

Sarah: Yeah. So one of our students, one of the questions that we posed in there was around what could you relate to any of the characters? And the student at the time said that sort of looking through each of the characters that on there’s not really one that relates to me. And then she said, oh, hang on a minute. Trent does because he’s got glasses like I do. So it was just like that subtle element. You don’t necessarily, the character doesn’t have to look exactly like this. You could just have like a little element that you draw that same sort of connection to I guess would be the right word. Yeah.

Joan: It’s so good to get that student voice because in talking to Darren in the previous podcast, I was talking about around accessibility and inclusion. He was talking about even technologies with accessibility and how, how students feel, do they feel included based upon different strategies that we implement in teaching and learning and actually bringing that voice to fruition. And then touching on what Kat you touched on around Sarah’s role in this that visual storytelling and that’s so powerful to pick up that teaching and learning expertise, but translate that into a character and doing things like glasses. If they’re fabulous glasses, I’d love them and nice, colourful. But what people resonate with you know. So it’s not always just culture. It’s not skin tone alone, It’s accessories and creating that narrative, which is great to hear. I suppose, how, how are they being used at the moment to design learner experiences?

Kat: They are used in a variety of different learning experiences. That can range from a very quick D2L CloudFirst page where it’s part of a scenario learning and as a character introduced and you worked through a health behaviour problem or something like that. They’re also, we’ve used them in escape rooms that have been created in a digital space. And they’ve got a whole different like they’ve got a whole backstory as they walk through it. They a part of our video creations that we use for both teaching and learning and hey, this is the library and we’re open and these are the kind of things and this is your space conversation. They’re also used in social media posts in various ways. So they get the re-use of the characters in an embedded way is quite extensive. The one that’s often overlooked is that they are put onto single screen displays in some of those physical spaces in the library.

Joan: Right. Wow. So do they have their own social media hashtags and Twitter handles?

Sarah: No. Not that I know. That’s a really good idea. I should pass that one on to the social media team.

Joan: It’s great to see that they’re not just used in one element like advertising or that you’re actually using a multifaceted approach so it becomes the norm so people can identify with them. So what’s your ideal from here. So you’ve got this belonging and representation project where you’ve designed these inclusive character pack and designers are using them now. But what would you like to see next with this project or what is happening with these character pack.

Kat: At the moment the character sit within a learning design system that library staff can go in and explore and they can build everything from scenes to each individual PNGs. What we would really like to see is opening up that resource in a sustainable, consistent way for the broader teaching and learning community as they can. This isn’t a simple thing to achieve now, because it a design bank, essentially it’s a it’s a space that has to be maintained. Files have to be who had editorial control over them. And it’s also linked into concepts of some of the character development and some of the subtle signifiers, those accessory things that we’ve talked about have all been designed in mind with a library, teaching and learning contexts, yes. Yeah. And so there’s questions around.

Joan: context is important.

Kat: Context is important. So there’s a larger conversation to be had around. How do we open this up? As I said, in a sustainable contextualised way, which is not an easy thing to do.

Joan: Absolutely not.

Sarah: Ideally, we’d like to extend the character pack that we currently have. So that’s also because we have had lots of feedback over the years since. I mean, these were created back in 2018, 19. So we’ve had lots of feedback from now from students and we’ve got feedback from staff and putting that together and figuring out where our gaps still are and how we’d like to move forward. So there are yeah, that’s a project as well hopefully coming up.

Joan: There’s a lot, there’s a lot happening in this space, but it’s good to say that it was started in 2018, 19. And obviously, a massive shift online has highlighted another need in relation to having such characters as this so hopefully we can translate it into that teaching and learning space, although it is a big challenge as you highlighted Kat, I suppose throughout these projects was one key insight you’ve had in relation to belonging and inclusivity?

Kat: It’s not so much a key insight from myself. It’s just one of the most beautiful pieces of feedback that I’ve heard in terms of a project. Often when you’re working in teaching and learning or digital design, you almost feel like you’re creating to the void because you create things and you hand them over for someone else to embed in their teaching experience or into the Cloud. What happened is that as part of the data collection that Sarah and the UX specialists at the library did was that they had a beautiful quote from a student participant that I really love to share because I was just so beautiful. So the comment was ‘I’m so glad to be in a university that puts energy and effort into making its students feel comfortable and welcome.’ My key insight is that the time that these kind of projects take has value and impact. Joan: Inclusivity matters.

Kat: Yes.

Joan: Yeah, that’s a beautiful, a beautiful insight, but it’s great to get that feedback, to submit what you’re doing is valuable even for one student. And if it’s only one student that’s giving you feedback, there’s gonna be a number of students behind that. So thank you for sharing that and Sarah.

Sarah: So the thing that I found that was really fantastic. And I don’t know if it’s surprised me, but it was just really heartwarming and lovely is the fact that there are so many people in the university who are working here that are wanting to achieve the same goal, which is to have, and want students to feel included and want students to feel like they belong and to create a safe community. And I think for me that was really evident throughout this whole process is that, yeah, there are people that really care and there are people who will give their expertise and without expecting anything in return. But just because it’s a part of always like that feeling of I don’t know what to say, greater good, but creating a really fantastic environment for everybody. And I really, really found that encouraging. And it was really great to be able to work in an organisation where people just genuinely want to help each other. And that was actually something that was really great and fantastic that came out of this project.

Joan: That’s fabulous, isn’t it? I think I’m just talking to yourself, and as I mentioned, Darren earlier was about accessibility, has been around the term accessibility for a long time. We’re hearing a lot more around inclusion and being more inclusive than what that actually means. So conversations like this highlight it and bring it to the surface. So I would like to thank you for sharing your experiences on these podcast today, but also the work that’s gone into this project. It’s, I love the character pack myself. I can see different uses and I can see it evolving over time as well. So I’d really like to thank you for your time and energy and I know there a lot of people behind the scenes as well and it’s not just the two of you, but thank you and thanks for sharing your experiences.

Sarah: Thanks so much for having us.

Joan: No worries.

Kat: Thank you for having us.

28 November 2022

Last modified: 1 December 2022 at 5:02 pm

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