Diverse Characters In Learning Scenarios

In response to my post on Name Generators for Learning Scenarios, someone asked,

“Does it really matter if we choose John instead of Bob?”

Christina, a graduate student who critiqued my blog post said she wished that post went deeper and listed some unanswered questions.

“For example does the name have to be of a certain neutrality or a certain ethnicity? What about gender? What are the latest trends and best practices in regards to gender roles in instructional design materials?”

I would argue that the diversity of our characters and visuals should reflect the diversity of our audience. When in doubt, I tend to err on the side of being more diverse in my representation rather than more homogeneous. I’d rather show an aspiration of diversity, even if organizations haven’t reached that goal of diverse representation in real life yet.

Names have power. Different names have different implications of age, race, background, etc. If you only ever call your characters Bob and John, you never represent women or anyone that isn’t a white, middle-aged, middle class man. If your audience is mostly 20-something and Latino, they’re going to have a harder time identifying with your characters.

Being part of a diverse team makes us smarter and more innovative. Diversity is good for business and for society as a whole. As instructional designers, I think we have a social responsibility to support diversity in the learning experiences we create.

Diversity Mask

Image Credit: Diversity Mask by George A Spiva Center for the Arts. CC-By

Gender

For most learning scenarios, I aim for a roughly 50/50 split of women and men because that’s what the world population looks like. Your workplace might actually be closer to 60/40, but in general, an even split is a good goal.

In some industries, an even split isn’t realistic. Firefighters, for example, are overwhelmingly male. I wouldn’t try to create a 50/50 split if I was designing a course for firefighters. I would, however, try to have at least one or two female characters.

Women should also be represented as managers, mentors, and leaders. I create a fair number of courses with two narrators like my coaching and mentoring course. In those courses, one character is a mentor explaining content to someone less experienced. I try to alternate male/female for the role of the mentor, especially if I create multiple courses for the same client.

Race and Images

An informal poll in a LinkedIn group showed that most IDs and eLearning developers are already trying to represent diversity in race in the images in their courses. This can be a challenge with stock photos. Trina Rimmer provides excellent suggestions for how to work around the lack of diversity in her recent article The Lack of Diversity in Stock Images Hurts Your eLearning—and What to Do About It. Her ideas include taking your own images, altering stock photos, and using illustrations that don’t obviously show race. I’ve also seen silhouettes used for that same purpose.

I often use stock images for mini-scenarios. If I need multiple images of the same character, I usually use cutout characters from the eLearning Brothers library. Especially for business people, their library has diversity of gender, race, age, ability, and body type. Not everyone in their library is a skinny model; it’s more realistic.

I adjust the racial diversity of my characters and examples depending on the audience. For example, I wrote a course on improving educational outcomes for Native Americans. Native Americans make up about 1% of the US population, but they make up less than 1% of the models on stock photo sites. Stock photos of Native Americans often show exactly the kinds of stereotypes we were trying to combat in that course. It took some creativity and diligent filtering to find the right images.

As I explained in my previous post, I use name generators to help me create more authentic names of Latino or Asian characters. For the Native American course, the SME provided the name of one major character, and I researched common names for another character.

Any Exceptions?

Are there exceptions to aiming for diversity in characters? Overall, it depends on your audience. The person who asked why it matters if we call characters Bob or John lives and works in an Eastern European country with a fairly homogeneous population. He says he doesn’t use diverse examples, and he uses traditional names in his country. That may be the best choice for his audience (although I’d still argue for gender diversity in images and characters).

In the US, most organizations expect some diversity in the images for their courses. My experience with global companies has shown the same to be true in those settings, perhaps more so.

What Do You Do?

If you create characters for learning scenarios, are you conscious of the diversity of those characters? How do you reflect your audience in your examples? I’m especially interested in hearing about people outside the US; I wonder if the cultural standards differ in other countries.

 

4 thoughts on “Diverse Characters In Learning Scenarios

  1. I am conscious because this is still a white male world and we need to better represent the world we see around us or the world we wish to see. If we want to promote diversity in our programs and staff the simple act of putting characters and images that are non-white male seems like a no-brainer to me.

    • To be honest, this has become such an automatic thing for me that I was surprised at the resistance I found from my previous post. I think the majority of people are like you and see the value in trying to show diversity, even if they’re not quite sure how to do it. There are still people who don’t see the point though.

      I suspect that may be a bit of privilege; if you’re a white male, so many of the issues around diversity are invisible to you. If you don’t see a problem, why would you change it?

  2. It’s not just being nice when you see some of the new Hollywood movies having Asian characters and elements from Chinese or Japanese culture (even just a character sign in the background). It’s because they have done the research and know that it does trigger connection to that audience — it’s future big money audience.
    However, it is difficult in practice, when you only have 1 or 2 characters to connect to as many learners as possible.

    • I often have more than just 1 or 2 characters because I’ll also give names to characters in mini-scenarios for assessments. Instead of just basic recall multiple choice questions, I write a 2-3 sentence scenario and name the character. That can give you a few more options. It’s not equal to a main character, of course, but it’s that small trigger like you mentioned.

      I see two more options for you if you’re really trying to reach everyone with 1 or 2 characters. First, you could use illustrated characters with different unrealistic colors (red, blue, green, etc.). That can signal diversity without showing specific races. You can also use silhouettes, line drawings, or something more abstract.

      The second option is to not think about trying to reach everyone in every single course. If you’re creating 5 courses, maybe the main character is Asian in one, Hispanic in another, and Black in a third. Sometimes I have to take the long view and think about all the courses in a curriculum, not just my one 15 minute module.

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