During the pandemic, and as students have been returning to school, the disparities between individuals as a result of the digital divide has been thrown into sharp relief. Before the pandemic, Ofcom figures showed that 9% of children – between 1.1 and 1.8 million – did not have access to laptops, devices or tablets at home. The government’s pledge of 1.3 million devices along with the efforts of school leaders to rustle up laptops has still left a significant number of pupils without their own device, or adequate data and connectivity, to do their school work effectively.
But there is another side to accessibility and inclusion that has received less high-profile attention over the last year: the extent to which remote or blended learning involving technology – alongside in-class work with or without technology – has had an impact on children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
It’s an area that the Chartered College of Teaching has looked at in its recent (Feb 2021) review of research evidence on supporting all students’ learning, wellbeing and engagement. It notes that:
“Despite certain challenges that the online learning environment presents for students with and without SEND, it also holds significant advantages that can support students’ learning. For example, the ability to learn at their own pace, access recorded materials as often as they need to, and use screen readers or adapt the layout of content easily to their needs, are only some of the benefits of learning in an online environment. Consideration should therefore be given to how those features of distance learning that have been found to be beneficial for students’ learning through this crisis can continue to be implemented once schools reopen to more students.
However, it also highlights that blended learning can bring a range of challenges, such as a stronger reliance on the written word, which can be a particular challenge for students with developmental language disorder (DLD), dyslexia, Down’s syndrome and visual impairments; additional distraction, which can be particularly difficult for students with ADHD; the need to operate a keyboard or mouse, a potential difficulty for students with Down’s syndrome and certain physical disabilities. Small and blurry videos and audio lags can make it challenging for students who are deaf or hard of hearing and rely on lip-reading to hear what is said.
It underscores the point made in the Disabled Students’ Commission Annual Report 2020-2021: Enhancing the disabled student experience that, while the increased flexibility offered by online learning was welcomed by some students, others had concerns, which were “nuanced and often differed by impairment type, highlighting the need to not treat disabled students as a homogenous group, and to recognise that the support requirements differ in complexity.”
However, what comes across clearly is the role that technology can play in making learning more inclusive and accessible. Crucially, by designing for diversity as a default, learning content becomes better for everyone, not just those pupils or students with a demonstrable need for it.
While the widely referenced European Framework for the Digital Competence for Educators (DigCompEdu) predates the pandemic, teachers may wish to consider Area 5, which is about Empowering Learners, and includes proficiency statements on a scale ranging from Newcomer to Pioneer (bearing in mind that this neat progression which may not match real life experience!)
- Newcomer who is concerned about accessibility but is afraid that technology may make participation harder for some students
- Integrator – descriptive statements include: I ensure that all students have access to the digital technologies I use. I am aware that compensatory digital technologies can be used for learners’ in need of special support (eg learners with physical or mental constraints; learners with learning disorders).
- Expert – descriptive statements include: I consider and respond to potential accessibility issues when selecting, modifying or creating digital resources and provide alternative or compensatory tools or approaches for learners with special needs. I employ digital technologies and strategies, eg assistive technologies, to remediate individual learners’ accessibility problems, eg visual or hearing impairments.
- Leader – descriptive statements include: I employ design principles for increasing accessibility for the resources and digital environments used in teaching, eg as concerns font, size, colours, language, layout, structure.
- Pioneer in this area is typified as someone who is regularly ‘innovating strategies for accessibility and inclusion.
Exploring and signposting
Over the course of the next few weeks, as part of the BlendEd programme, we’ll be exploring some of the practical ways in which this consideration of what technology can offer can be done, signposting and highlighting features that the main platforms offer, as well as some specific tools and resources that are freely available plus some approaches and strategies.
This is a huge area, potentially taking into consideration individual special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), students with English as an additional language learners (EAL), or students who are more able or gifted in some way. There may also be students who have specific short-term needs due to illness or other circumstances.
Our first guest video on this theme, contributed by John Galloway and Hilary Norton, who both have extensive experience of advising schools in this area, picks up on the DigCompEdu statement of ‘I ensure that all students have access to the digital technologies I use’ and serves as a general introduction to this area with a specific focus on literacy tools and process.
The video can be watched with or without subtitles and a transcript is available.
Whatever platform you are using it’s important to check awareness and familiarity with all that’s on offer to support inclusion and accessibility. The links below offer a starting point: