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Edtech accessibility: why software design is as important as hardware provision

Sam Blyth
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Since the pandemic began, discussion around access to education technology has focused emphatically on inequalities in hardware provision. Senior figures in government, tech and education have all grappled with the challenge of providing every young learner in the country with the right devices to learn from home.

But as we remember the landmark of a year in isolation today (23 Mar), do we need to remind ourselves that access for all goes beyond hardware provision?

And, while schools, colleges and universities are set to reopen classrooms and campuses soon, what are the wider lessons we can learn from our pandemic experiences, which will shape education provision for the long term?

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that distance learning hasn’t worked for everyone. A recent report found that 66 per cent of SEND students had not engaged with online learning since classrooms closed last March. Whilst ensuring that some digital divides are addressed by providing all students with tools ranging from iPads to wifi boosters, the provision of hardware alone doesn’t guarantee that they will be able to use them.

Take for instance, students with visual impairments. This cohort needs specially designed products which cater to their specific needs – learning from an eight-inch tablet screen simply won’t cut it. Nor will virtual learning environments which fail to provide learners with real incentivisation: there are studies that suggest students who suffer from ADHD are far more engaged when supported by a platform which compellingly encourages them to move from one task to the next.

In much the same way, there are thousands of learners – whether they be children, young adults, or adults – who struggle to maintain focus with pre-recorded online sessions. For some, effective and enjoyable learning will require a dynamic mix of teacher interaction, peer-to-peer collaboration and quiet spaces (for some who struggle with sensory processing challenges), even within the digital realm. A one-size-fits-all approach is decidedly under-serving these groups.

So, if it hasn’t been plain sailing for accessible online learning, what needs to be done?

Critically, more nuance is required in edtech provision. The top-down focus on ensuring learning-from-home could take place on a national scale was crucial in the short term, but now the attention must shift to ensuring that tailored products get to the right people.

Policy makers working with technology providers to empower distance learning for schools, colleges and universities must ensure that bespoke platforms are made available to their SEND learners. In the short-term, whilst classroom-based learning remains limited, such provision will help reintegrate this group with the learning journey, something that cannot be left by the wayside for any longer.

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And, longer term, a broader shift is required. To suggest that the return to educational institutions – in all their real, physical, four-walled glory – will spell the end of this edtech boom would be wrong. Edtech has enabled us to keep learning throughout a global pandemic, but its positive impact will continue to be felt despite our gradual return to face-to-face education. That’s why it’s equally important not to let this moment pass without addressing how edtech can transform classroom education, as well as distance learning, for those with SEND.

We need to capitalise on our flourishing relationship with edtech to make sure that these learners have the best possible classroom learning experience. After years of inaction, in which the provision of assistive technology in the classroom was deprioritised, we are now in a position where we can leverage our proximity to tech to revitalise SEND learning.

At Instructure, we know that good edtech platforms will elevate most students’ learning and amplify the majority of teachers’ performance. The best ones, however, will be designed from the ground-up with access-for-all in mind, so that every learner and every teacher is empowered. That’s why tools like Immersive Reader, which help make learning a far more engaging and rewarding experience for those of all reading abilities, are fully integrated and available for free with our learning management platform Canvas.

Solving edtech provision was always going to be the number one priority for an education system grappling with the pandemic. Collaboration between government, technologists and teachers has led to praiseworthy levels of tech uptake – a testament to what can be done when robust support is offered in the form of government intervention.

What must come next is the same level of aptitude being applied to resolving the issue of edtech accessibility.

For too long, certain students have been under-served by technology. This cannot go on any longer. Whilst we have not become dependent on education technology, our trust in it has grown exponentially in the last twelve months. Now we must use this tech-confidence to ensure that both distance, and classroom-based, learning is optimised for all learners for the future.

Sam Blyth, Senior Sales Director, Education – EMEA, Instructure

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