Brad Turner is vice president and general manager of global education and literacy at Benetech, a nonprofit that makes software for social good.
While we’ve long known access to internet and technology in and out of the classroom is important for education, the pandemic forced us to confront the need and existing inequities with greater urgency than ever before. Many worried about the harm school closures would cause for students who did not have sufficient access to technology and internet access.
We were particularly worried about the effect of the pandemic on students our work supports, students with reading barriers such as those with dyslexia, blindness or physical disabilities that impact learning. As has been heavily reported, students with learning differences and disabilities who are learning remotely are not able to get the same services they would receive during in-person learning, and they can encounter new barriers inherent to the remote format, which widens existing gaps.
Would the digital textbook chapters have audio and highlighting to assist students with dyslexia? Would a 2nd-grader with a visual impairment be able to complete her class’s worksheet without a 1:1 aide? Would a student with cerebral palsy be able to take a digital science quiz with limited fine motor control?
Technology is essential for students with learning differences
When we asked teachers about their experience supporting students with reading barriers this past school year, access to technology and internet stood out as essential. Nearly 80% of teachers said it was an important factor for empowering their students with disabilities to read and learn this school year.
For many students, access to specific assistive technology devices is essential for meeting their individualized learning plans, such as IEPs or 504 plans. For many others, technology empowers an independence that lessens the burden on parents and caregivers who must fill the role of in-person aide for activities that cannot be completed independently.
We know that when equipped with the right technology, students can thrive. In fact, some students with disabilities have reported preferring distance learning. With the right support, virtual learning provides more flexible options for student accommodations and customized learning.
Still, not all technology solutions are created equal. Schools must be strategic about the technology they implement and ask smart questions about the usability of the product. Does it require access to internet, or can it be used in offline settings? What level of supervision or adult support is required for students to use this software? Is it accessible for students with disabilities who may need switch access or need screen reader compatibility?
Whether the technology schools employ augments or eliminates barriers is largely shaped by consideration of these questions.
Digital divide persists
While schools, governments, and nonprofits have rushed to increase access to technology and internet during the pandemic, many students still do not have access to sufficient technology to read, learn and participate in class.
A University of California, Los Angeles, study showed 1 in 3 students in the U.S. does not have sufficient access to either a computer or the internet, and this access barrier disproportionately has impacted Black and Hispanic students and low-income students. Benetech saw this mirrored in our own data from teachers who support special education students. Only half of teachers serving schools, where a majority of students received free and reduced-price lunch, believed these students had sufficient access to technology.
Without that technology and internet access, very few teachers felt they were able to meet their students’ individualized learning plans, or keep them reading and learning sufficiently during the pandemic.
We can’t lose focus
As more schools are able to safely reopen, we cannot lose our focus on closing this digital divide. Technology is an essential tool that can be the great equalizer for students — and especially for students with disabilities. By enabling different personalized modalities of learning, the assistive features built into tech empower students to learn and participate independently in ways that work for them, leveling the playing field so every student is empowered to achieve his or her potential.