Reflecting Allowed

Swiss Cheese Analogy for COVID-19 – Rumi Cheese Analogy for Inclusive Education

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 45 seconds

I recently came across this wonderful interactive Swiss Cheese Analogy for COVID-19 protections on the BBC site (here is a still image from the New York Times). Long story short, none of the individual protections against COVID (handwashing, masks, distancing, vaccines, being outdoors) are foolproof on their own. Each is like a slice of Swiss cheese with some holes in it. But when you do them all, each one is likely to cover some of the holes of the others, so the combination of them reduces your risks of contracting COVID, but you cannot necessarily guarantee it 100%. Apparently, this is a known analogy in medicine, because my husband (a surgeon) knew it immediately. When I mentioned I heard of it in relation to COVID, he actually referred to how they describe the situation of the unlucky person who, for some reason, all the holes aligned for them despite all protections, and they still got sick.

swiss cheese analogy. Described here:
Swiss cheese analogy by Ian McKay By Ian M. MacKay –, CC BY 4.0,

I’m proposing that the Swiss Cheese analogy works well for inclusive education as well. There are different things you can do in your initial course design (not just responding to situations as they pop up) that can help improve the chances that each and every student can succeed in your course, can feel “included”. However, every now and then, there will be a student for whom these design measures are not enough, and they fall through the cracks. We need to keep a lookout for these, recognize we can never achieve full inclusion, but keep adding to our repertoire of approaches that help enhance inclusion. I want to work on a graphic for this… and I have an idea 🙂

In Egypt, we have something similar to Swiss cheese, called Roumy Cheese – also a hard yellow cheese with holes. “Roumy” actually means “Roman”, a connotation for “foreign”. Even though it’s actually a very Egyptian cheese, the typical Egyptian cheeses most people eat are white (not yellow, hard), similar to feta rather than Swiss cheese. So maybe that’s why. ANYWAY. If no one has made this analogy in education yet, I’ll call it the Roumy Cheese analogy. Decolonize the analogy (even when Roumy means foreign! Gah!).

One of the things that is extra cool with the Roumy Cheese is that it occasionally has black peppercorns in it, which can be annoying and surprising if you eat it and you weren’t ready for it. I like this addition to the analogy because sometimes measures meant to make a learning environment more inclusive for one person (fills a space where another thing has a hole) might have black peppercorns in other spots that make it less comfortable for other learners (though not exactly excluding them completely). I’m planning to use this analogy in a keynote next week – let me know if you have any comments on it, or critiques, and I’ll revise! With attribution, thanks! I am planning on editing that swiss cheese image into one for “inclusive” equitable course design and facilitation

One of the tricks (but also affordances) in digital education is how to create spaces that allow learners to choose (e.g. to turn captions on or not; to see the chat or hide it, to listen to a podcast or read the transcript). More recently, institutions have been turning to models that approach Hyflex, as in, allow some students to join classes in person and others to join synchronously online, or asynchronously. This is a really complex approach in terms of teaching strategies, and requires many many layers of cheese to make sure no one falls through the cracks, but it does give lots of choice for students. It’s just really many layers of work for teachers. Which needs another analogy, for another day. I know I had written something about this on Twitter recently, but now it has slipped my mind.

I will take my own photo of Roumy cheese, but for now, I found this one on the CheeseMistress blog:

Roumy Cheese slices photo from CheeseMistres blog (I will replace with one of my own as this one may be copyrighted)

Header image: Swiss Cheese analogy for respiratory viruses By Ian M. MacKay – from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0,

13 thoughts on “Swiss Cheese Analogy for COVID-19 – Rumi Cheese Analogy for Inclusive Education

  1. I like the analogy and it is very fitting. My only concern is that the black peppercorns when removed will leave holes behind. So maybe careful planning may help remove those black peppercorns that will make learning ‘uninclusive’ for some, then you end up with holes that hopefully will be covered with all the layers!

  2. I love the roumy cheese idea – especially with the peppercorns … and I also agree that hyflex is a super challenge for instructors – but also for all students – as it will only work well if all the students are aware of the other students (e.g. training the in-room students to use a microphone, even if the microphone doesn’t amplify their voice so that those online can hear) – so hyflex needs empathy on all sides.

    1. Hyflex needs Intentionally Equitable Hospitality a la Vconnecting big time. We know this better than anyone! Check out the visual in the next blogpost! Would love ur feedback. Also, I miss u and u were on my mind recently. Xoxo

  3. I like this so much – it makes a lot of sense and is a really understandable illustration of the issue.

    When you say “We need to keep a lookout for these, recognize we can never achieve full inclusion, but keep adding to our repertoire of approaches that help enhance inclusion” I thought instantly of how we promote or market our inclusivity and accessibility of courses. It is easy to claim something is inclusive or accessible then get defensive when someone proves it is not. Being up front about the limitations to inclusivity and accessibility at least demonstrates our awareness of the limitations, and openness to being shown where something falls short of expectations, even if we cannot solve the issue.

    1. Yes, exactly, Anna. I read/heard today about how this is all a journey not a destination. Or a process not an outcome. Or some such. I remember folk tweeting about it being a marathon not a Sprint, a lifelong journey. And it’s so important to be upfront about how imperfect it is, perfection is unachievable , but we keep striving towards it and we get better, then we realize the goal was farther away as we come closer to it because we become even more aware of what we didn’t know before… I think!

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