Over the course of the past year, K–12 districts have created entirely new ways for teachers and students to connect and collaborate. Now, schools face mounting pressure to prioritize in-person teaching over online options, but not everyone is eager to return. Recent survey data from Echelon Insights found that 45 percent of parents would keep their children entirely online, if possible, while 22 percent of parents preferred a hybrid learning model.
And while a portion of this back-to-school reticence stems from safety concerns, a subset of students also found solace in the accessibility of e-learning. For some, it’s the ability to work at their own pace thanks to asynchronous learning options. For others, it’s the on-demand availability of assistive technologies (AT) such as closed captioning or customized peripherals.
This creates a new challenge for K–12 schools: How do they facilitate learning without limits as students come back to the classroom?
How to Make Technology Accessible to Meet Students’ Needs
New technology for the classroom had been steadily increasing over the past few years, before the accelerated acquisition in response to the pandemic. “Technology is already integrated into nearly every aspect of students’ lives,” says Sheldon Horowitz, senior adviser at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “Devices like interactive whiteboards, tablets, and a dizzying array of content sharing and curriculum enhancing tools and programs have, to varying degrees, been incorporated into ‘business as usual’ in virtually every classroom.”
Despite this uptick, however, Horowitz points to an emerging issue: “Students with disabilities and other traditionally disadvantaged students are often not considered from the outset when technologies are being developed and systems are put in place. This creates even greater inequalities and widens opportunity gaps for our most vulnerable learners.”
Teachers, administrators and CTOs must work to bridge the gap between technology availability and accessibility. For Horowitz, success in doing so requires a twofold solution.
First, schools must map the specific needs of students to assistive and instructional technologies. Next, districts must ensure that staff, students and parents “have the training and support needed to embrace the full range of benefits these technology tools have to offer,” he says.
There are a number of steps school districts can take to achieve these goals, Horowitz says. To begin, school leaders should look at AT as a type of accommodation and differentiate between AT devices and AT programs and services.
To appropriately meet the needs of students with disabilities, district leaders must also understand how AT helps them gain access to the general education curriculum. Personnel on schools’ decision-making teams responsible for implementing technology solutions must also be familiar with students who have disabilities and know the steps for evaluating the effectiveness of AT for individual students.
Providing Adaptive and Assistive Technology to K–12 Students
When it comes to finding the most beneficial AT to help both students and teachers, Horowitz points to the Universal Design for Learning. This model prioritizes the ability of students and teachers to select technology solutions that increase engagement, facilitate action, sustain effort and encourage communication.
From an implementation perspective, this could mean the addition of peripherals such as purpose-built mice, keyboards and headsets, or could include software tools that automatically add closed-captions or help teachers record video lessons for later review.
Horowitz recommends resources such as the Educating All Learners Alliance Tech Tool Library, which helps educators and parents search for specific tools and learn more about their accessibility features. He notes, however, that “it’s not so much about the devices themselves but rather the things the devices can do and deliver.”
As schools move back toward in-person learning models, Horowitz recommends creating a shared understanding of key terms related to AT adoption, use and outcomes. He also highlights the need for diligent procurement processes. These processes should ensure any services or products are compliant with state and federal Information and Communication Technology Accessibility regulations, which provide assurance that educational technology suppliers “have the expertise to ensure their products can accommodate the needs of a wide range of learners,” he says.
Accessible technologies make it possible for schools to eliminate potential barriers and deliver learning without limits. But, as Horowitz makes clear, technology itself is only part of the equation for sustained supportive success. “While selecting the right AT is a critical first step, implementing AT solutions with the whole child in mind is going to yield the best outcomes,” he says.