Decolonising your learning resources: representation matters

Find out what steps can be taken to review your learning resources from an anti-racism lens and why this is important for both ethnic minority and white students



6 Jul 2022
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Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Exeter

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Despite the disproportionate challenges that ethnic minority students can undergo to get into universities, they still do not stand on a level playing field, with an unequal chance of success compared with their white counterparts, according to Universities UK and the National Union of Students 2019 #closingthegap report. In fact, even when entry grades and poorer socio-economic circumstances were controlled for, ethnic minority students still experience an awarding gap. Positive efforts have been implemented by institutions to close the progression and awarding gaps, yet they persist and a whole-institution approach is required to address racial inequalities.

Belonging is crucial to both the retention and success of students in universities. A poor sense of belonging, shaped and exacerbated by low levels of diversity and representation, is likely a contributing factor to disparities in progression and awarding. Ethnic minority students have been reported to have a poorer sense of belonging, with their learning relationships hindered by the very low number of role models in academia.

Diversification to decolonisation

A step towards representation is to diversify the learning resources used in teaching. Typical learning resources used in higher education are non-representative of the diverse student body, and reviewing these can help deconstruct the set pool of familiar resources that has been established. In medicine and allied health disciplines, ensuring that diverse learning resources are embedded within the curriculum can help students to improve their clinical skills, while providing opportunities for students to learn about structural, political and social factors that lead to different health outcomes in minority groups.

To achieve meaningful change, it is necessary to consider the way that we teach – the pedagogy – as well as how we integrate learning resources into curricula. To move from diversifying modules to decolonising them, it is necessary to consider the systems and structures that underpin knowledge production, and how these are replicated across different spheres of society. This work is reflective, requiring an examination of knowledge and its production and how we assign value.

Here are steps you can take to begin reviewing your learning resources as part of the process of decolonising the curriculum.

Look beyond the popular textbook

For many years, using a colonised lens has resulted in knowledge derived from the Global North being considered more scientific, objective and research based. Reputable sources are not limited to those published in, or by, white English-speaking countries. Yet the exclusion of voices that have been historically disregarded as non-canonical, continues to uphold Eurocentricity in higher education. This homogeneity ultimately hinders education and research in any field.

Textbooks can provide an accessible introduction to a topic or subject area, but you are likely to miss opportunities to include a more diverse range of authors in your curricula and to contextualise the white, Western-centric perspective by relying on these alone. Most academic textbooks and journals are published by a few large publishers based in the US and Europe. This reinforces the harmful notion that knowledge created by the Global North is more “reliable and powerful”. By sourcing learning resources from a wider range of publishers, we can challenge this and offer students opportunities to explore a range of perspectives.

Consider open access resources

Journal collections in university libraries are shaped in part by “big deals” – collections of bundled journals offered by publishers to reduce institutional subscription costs. Journals within these deals often consist of highly cited publications from the UK and the US. These deals can exclude research from the Global South, where researchers may not have the same networks, funding or platforms to disseminate their research. The open access movement provides an opportunity to broaden the pool of scientists, creators and inventors who can publicise their work to the academic community. By seeking out open resources, and by publishing our own work through open access channels, we can support a more equitable knowledge ecosystem and introduce students to a greater diversity of knowledge.

Consider including grey literature

Presenting a range of perspectives in case studies and reading materials can promote a sense of student belonging that can positively impact engagement and learning. Sources of grey literature – material produced outside traditional publishing – can be useful, as they provide access to case studies and perspectives that may not be represented within traditional publishing. Grey literature is likely to be discipline specific. In science and medicine, open resources such as the Mind the Gap handbook aim to address the lack of diversity in clinical images. The handbook curates images to support students to identify clinical presentations in black and brown skin, addressing the gap within medical textbooks.

Diversify learning methods and resource formats

Using a range of formats for your learning resources can support an inclusive curriculum and provide opportunities for all students to demonstrate learning. Alternative formats such as video and podcasts provide a platform for marginalised voices while offering learners variety in how they engage with subject matter.

Collaborate with students

Decolonising the curriculum isn’t simply about diversifying the literature or authors used in our courses, it’s also about how we teach and critique the established canon. Involving students in this process is an excellent way to develop their academic literacy, while ensuring that the whole student body feels engaged, empowered and reflected in the curriculum. A starting point would be to organise activities or discussions with students around the canon, considering the inherent narratives and voices and areas of exclusion. Activities such as these can provide opportunities to contextualise disciplinary knowledge and engage all students in learning and critical dialogue.

Partner with librarians and archivists

Contact colleagues working in your university library and archives to see how you can collaborate. Partnerships between education, research and professional services staff is key to achieving a whole-institution approach. Like the institutions they are part of, libraries and archives have been shaped by a Western, colonial worldview. Across the sector, librarians have been exploring ways to acknowledge this and support their institutions’ moves towards inclusive curricula. Projects have included efforts to analyse collections and adopt inclusive collections policies, alongside work with academics to review reading lists. You are likely to have an academic librarian who can offer advice on learning resources as well as archivists who can support your students’ engagement with primary sources. Starting a conversation with colleagues may lead to joint initiatives that make the learning experience more inclusive and representative.

Musarrat Maisha Reza is a senior lecturer in biomedical sciences; Amy McEwan is the academic liaison librarian working with the College of Medicine and Health; and Emily Calvo-Hobbs is a second-year medical sciences student, all at the University of Exeter.

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