Dave Sherwood, CEO and founder at BibliU

In 2020, the inequalities at the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic and the BLM movement put a sharper spotlight on systemic racism, causing societies from across the world to reflect on their own roles in perpetuating social inequality. For far too long, efforts from every sector, discipline or industry have fallen short in creating equal access to inclusion and opportunity.

In 2021, we all are all accountable for deepening our understanding of systemic failures and creating meaningful solutions. This will be the only way to lead real change, including across the education sector.

When looking at what actionable strategies need to be urgently deployed, particularly as the pandemic rages on to exacerbate this inequality, technology has a crucial part to play. There needs to be a stronger emphasis on how digitisation of resources need not be a further enabler of disparities in accessing education, but instead the key to unlocking access for all. Technology can prove itself the mother of opportunity in setting a new precedent in inclusion - let’s unpack how.

Pricing out inclusivity

As it stands, when students step into the further education scene, they face a tidal wave of financial challenges when looking to access the necessary educational resources. Each lecture, seminar and overall curriculum demands a wealth of information to keep on track and succeed, yet many students often aren’t made aware of the high costs of course materials on top of rising tuition fees.

On average, students can expect to budget between £450 and £1070 for books and equipment per year. With many students already under an increasingly tighter budget while at university, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are under severe financial stress, with many unable to foot the cost of physical textbooks. Without financial support, disparities set in from the start of a student's journey, subsequently cause greater anxiety around how their grades might suffer as a result.

The presence of this inequality in higher education has taken an even larger hit, with the pandemic exacerbating barriers to access. The abrupt shutdown of universities and libraries has meant students have had to shift to online learning. Students who can only access content through borrowing books from libraries they couldn’t otherwise afford will be hit hardest. Without a coordinated effort to tailor content to meet the needs of all students, the effect on their studies will be long-lasting and serve to continue denying equal opportunity.

Many organisations are taking great strides in providing better financial support for under-represented groups through bursaries and scholarships to tackle the issue. Technology can offer substantial gains in this work to ensure that it isn’t dealt with as a quick-fix, but rather, provides a roadmap for how to shake up the system as it stands. Institutional partnerships with integrated platforms are paramount to ensure that collaboration takes place at scale to future-proof EdTech strategies. Bringing highly detailed analytics at both a macro- and micro-level to provide a holistic overview of student accessibility and performance will open up greater opportunities to increase engagement. Without consistency across the entirety of an institution, digital integration will only go so far, it requires platform’s that take into account the human element when collating new insights and functionality around this area.

BibliU is one such platform that enables universities to bring textbooks online and allow students to access essential course materials within their own learning environment, thereby removing the issue of hidden textbook costs.

Pathways to inclusive learning

The technology landscape continues to be populated with innovative use-cases that, when applied, provide a gateway to improve inclusion and engagement for all students, regardless of background.

In order to have a far-reaching impact, the process of designing and delivering programmes of study to break down barriers that students face needs to be sped up and made more widely available. A key route to success is to bring efficiency to online provision connecting a community of organisations working towards tackling equality, diversity and inclusion.

One startup innovating in the apprenticeships sector is The Apprenticeship Hack, a platform providing a blended learning approach so students feel as empowered to pursue the same opportunities as others and take charge where they see the need for structural and organisational improvement.

Tools like BibliU are geared towards making it easier for universities to adopt resources that make education more accessible for a diverse student population. By reducing the complexity of providing digital course materials, including Open Education Resources and textbooks, universities will be more effectively empowered to make the switch, which is especially critical for BAME students who are disproportionately impacted by the cost of education.

Tailoring to specific student needs

For too long, students with disabilities have been put off from pursuing higher education, with many course materials failing to meet individual needs. New assistive technologies must be taken advantage of to ensure such students have access to the same opportunities as others.

Therefore, investments should be made in tools like Good Feel, which converts musical scores into braille, and text-to-speech software for those with poor sight, as well as speed-readers for those with neurological disabilities. BibliU’s text-to-speech and speed-reader, alongside synchronised online annotations, mean students who learn differently have access to the assistive technology they need to do so.

All levels of the higher education system must take an active role in their commitment to building a more progressive and equal environment. In order to do so, the right type of infrastructure needs to be in place and must adapt in real-time to the needs of students. Now is the time to leave piecemeal approaches behind and instead take decisive and collaborative action from all key players across the higher education sector.

Dave Sherwood, CEO and founder at BibliU

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