How technology is driving inclusion in education
Relying on technology for learning has become mainstream and there are few schools, colleges or universities that don’t take advantage of technology to improve the student and teacher experience. In the last few years, though, the utilisation of technology has moved from a facility that provides additional content (such as electronic whiteboards) to a wide-reaching enabler helping teachers to personalise their lessons for different learning styles in the same class, providing administrators and faculties with insight into student progress and teaching quality and, in some case, redefining the very idea of the “classroom”.
The classroom doesn’t have to be a physical entity – not even in schools – and recognition of this has improved access to education for a wider group, including children and students with SEN.
Throughout the past decade, the use of desktop computers has declined as individuals and institutions have embraced the concept of “bring your own device” (BYOD) and mobile apps have been accepted as useful tools for teaching and engaging students. Many further education and higher education institutions have created personalised mobile apps to provide easy access to class schedules, news, grades, library resources, sports information and more. Mobile collaboration and communication is a key benefit of mobility. Online discussion boards, that can be accessed via mobile, keep students connected with peers and instructors and send out notifications of grades and announcements. They also save valuable student time.
Switching it around
One example of how technology has changed the nature of teaching itself is the introduction of the flipped classroom method. Moving away from the traditional face-to-face teacher-led lessons, this method gives students access to books and online resources in advance of any tutorial. The classroom then becomes a supervised space in which to debate and practice, expanding on students’ self-study. The idea is to encourage students to experiment during the time they spend together as a group, making use of the multiple ideas that are shared once they have a base-level of understanding around the subject.
This reliance on technology is already changing the way new schools and universities are being designed, with fewer large lecture halls being built and more focus on social spaces and technology. There is already a paperless university in UAE and maybe that’s something that won’t be so unusual in a few years’ time.
The widespread adoption of technology has also had a significant impact on the teaching of children and adults with SEN or disabilities. The main goal of many of these people is to live independently. Inclusive learning is key to this. All students, including those with significant disabilities, should have the same opportunities to receive excellent education, with the necessary supplementary aids and support services, to prepare for productive lives as full members of society.
The role of technology
A key issue educators need to be aware of is that a student may not have an obvious disability in the real or virtual classroom. They need to understand better how technology can help. In fact, while some technology can be unbelievably empowering for a person with a disability, others can create significant barriers to a student’s success. PDFs, for example, are extremely useful and account for 50 per cent of all material currently stored on virtual learning environments, although some students find them difficult to learn from because the documents are not always designed to be compatible with screen readers. Better accessible content plays a key role in boosting student productivity. Technology itself can help with this issue. Software exists that allows teachers to assess all content, suggests immediate changes to improve accessibility and offers guidance for the development of future lesson materials.
A truly inclusive classroom combines an awareness of diversity and equivalent access to each student. With inclusive classrooms, students with diverse needs are included in general education methods. Unlike an integrated classroom, where all students of all abilities are required to complete the same work and be assessed in the same way, the inclusive classroom’s focus is on learning outcomes.
Inclusive learning benefits learners of all abilities but students with disabilities and SEN, in particular, are better off. Often, these students feel isolated from their peers and don’t know how to engage with them, especially when it comes to discussion in class. Some can find a virtual conversation, conducted from their own computer, more comfortable that speaking up in a face-to-face situation.
When considering how to implement a successful inclusive learning environment, here are some things to keep in mind.
Start with a high-level review
Consider how a course’s pedagogy, content and technology will impact people with cognitive, hearing, physical and visual impairments. This is not just thinking about the specifics of a disability, but also involves looking hard at teaching practices and theory, and at the content that’s been selected for use in class.
Be clear about the outcomes
Make sure the syllabus is prominently displayed online so that students of all abilities are clear on the goals and objectives required of them during the course. Instructions must be unambiguous, especially when considering students with autism who rely on clear guidelines. Be flexible about the way that students can work to the same end result.
Assess the course material carefully
Check that all images have alternative text. Some infographic texts have flashing images that can trigger epilepsy seizures. Word and PowerPoint documents need to be properly structured. PDF’s must be tagged for accessibility. Videos must be captioned. Many screen readers used by visually impaired students cannot distinguish between bold and italic text and can have trouble configuring tables. Use software that can help check your online content, feeding back on problem areas and offering suggestions for improvements to improve accessibility.
Take stock of the software
Do the colours being used have proper contrast? Does the entire page magnify? Are the controls accessible with a keyboard? Does clicking from labels move the cursor to the right element? Are audio and visual notifications provided in more than one format? Is the content clear when style sheets are disabled in the browser? Are additional plug-ins and downloads required? To be accessible to all, web conferencing software needs to have visual cues and multiple formats available.
Be considerate of undisclosed or unknown disabilities
The variety of student learning styles is extraordinary and goes way beyond the traditional seven learning styles (visual, physical, aural, verbal, logical, social and solitary). There are many students who experience difficulties when learning but have not declared their physical or cognitive issues, and many whose difficulties have not been assessed or identified.
Inclusive learning approaches benefit all students, not just those with a particular difficulty to overcome. Clearer, well-explained, easy-to-view material will be welcomed and should help improve outcomes for the majority of the class.
Technology is here to stay and the near future will reveal even more imaginative ways for teachers to help students who have SEN by using predictive analytics to catch any issues early, ensuring more online collaboration between students, schools and countries, and opening up a world of inspiration for the next generation of learners.
Dr Demetra Katsifli is Senior Director of Industry Management at Blackboard, a US-based company providing learning management systems and education and communication software to the education and corporate sector: