Accessibility & Technology

by Mat Pullen

Accessibility is not just about supporting SEN, but about access for all. The Cambridge dictionary has two definitions for accessibility:
The fact of being able to be reached or obtained easily, and the quality of being easy to understand.

With this as a starting point, what is the impact on education and classroom practice?
We often use the term differentiation in schools to determine how we meet the needs of learners, tasks are differentiated to meet their general needs, made easier to understand for those that need it or extension activities are provided to provide more challenge.
Often the approach is done in groups, where lower ability learners get additional support.
Odoo • Text and Image
Accessibility is about providing opportunities for the learner to both access the learning AND share what has been learnt.  
Let’s take a child who has difficulty reading (there could be a number of reasons here, age, new to the language, dyslexia etc) We provide them with written instructions to direct a task but they will instantly struggle to access the activity, this is very different to them struggling to do the activity, by the way, the only barrier apparent at first is that they can’t read what they have to do.
So a solution might be to tell them what to do, this way hopefully they understand the verbal instruction.  The problem though is that they only get that bit of information once, whereas the students with the written instructions can check multiple times.  So although it looks differentiated, it isn’t equal.

Let's look at another example.
A child is asked to share what they have learnt about the Battle of Agincourt, the task is to create a presentation and present to the class.  One of the students in the class (usually more than one by the way) is an introvert, the idea of presenting in front of a group is way outside their comfort zone, although they know a great deal, they feel so uncomfortable in front of the class that they don’t present it well and miss out lots of information they know.
A solution might be that they read off of their slides instead, that way they don’t miss anything.  The problem is though that they are not creating a very effective presentation, nor are they presenting it in an effective way, so the task really doesn’t develop anything (other than cementing a fear of talking in front of people)

Both of these examples are true and happen in classes every day, they are not designed to cause learners to fail but often result in that outcome.
So how does the use of technology impact on this?
Odoo • Image and Text
Let's take scenario one if verbal instructions support the learner, why not record the instructions alongside a visual demonstration of the task?  That way the learner can see what is being asked as well as hear the instruction. It also means that the learner can replay the instructions as many times as they need.  A further advantage is that they are hearing the language being used alongside a visual representation of what is being talked about, further helping develop their language skills.
From the teachers' point of view, the additional work is limited, they already give the instruction verbally and no doubt model it in some way visually.  Doing this with technology means it is easier to replay and essentially, save teacher time.
Now let's look at scenario two, what if the learner had to create a verbal presentation but it didn’t need to be ‘performed’ live?  How about the learner creating a presentation and adding a VoiceOver that explains the slides, then export as a video to be shared to the class?  Now the learner is completing the task in the same way but technology has provided a way to overcome the initial block of standing in front of the class.

These are simple solutions that use very basic accessibility tools to support learners, and in these cases supports ALL learners, regardless of SEN.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when you start to explore how technology can support learners.  When you utilise the opportunities that technology provides, you start to see what learning can really look like.  The important thing is to look at what you are actually trying to develop in the classroom, what is the learning intention?  If it is about developing handwriting then that’s the focus for the output, but if it isn’t that, what alternative ways can learners engage in the information and share what they have learnt?  Video, drawings, music, acting, paintings, photography, the list is endless.  When you reconsider what ways a learner can show what they have learnt you provide equity to the learning.

Now let's look at how the teacher or instructor supports the learners.
We have already explored how the use of video can support the transfer of information and the option to replay etc.  From an assessment and feedback point of view, audio feedback recorded onto work, or even video feedback so they can see exactly what is being referred to, will make feedback and assessment more personal and meaningful.  It also allows for feedback to be more instant and as a side effect, reduce teacher workload.
Odoo • Text and Image
The use of technology in the classroom goes beyond learning design as well. Even before teachers start to redefine their learning and teaching, learners using technology have the option to make it easier to access learning.  In iOS, for example, there is a whole suite of accessibility tools that can be utilised by the learner to make learning more accessible.

Using the speech to text and text to speech functions as highlighted in the activity below, clearly shows how accessibility can support learning.

Let's say I have asked the students in my class to write something descriptive about a photo we are looking at.  Verbally they are all capable of using some very descriptive words and phrases to identify what they can see in the picture.  Then I ask them to write it down.  BLOCK.  The students that struggle to spell are instantly disadvantaged, they end up using words that they know how to spell rather than more descriptive words that they can’t spell.

Why not use the speech to text function instead and rather than trying to write the tricky descriptive words that they undoubtedly know they say them into their iPad. The speech is then transformed into text and the students can now see how the word is spelt. In addition, students can now highlight the text and allow the iPad to read back the sentence they have just devised, thus checking if punctuation is needed. This whole process not only develops greater skills, enables the students to show what they know but also enables them to review their work. 

One of the issues that usually gets raised around this topic is that exams need to be written and that learners need to know how to do that to pass the exam.

Well, there are a couple of responses to that.

One, maybe its time to rethink examinations if all they are testing is your writing ability

And two, and probably the more important one, If a learner has gone through school only ever being judged by their ability to write things in a book and this is something they struggle with, for whatever reason, then they will not have experienced success based on what they know.  By providing them with other ways to see what they are capable of you can engage and enthuse them in learning as they can see what they can do.   Once you have that desire to learn and show them that education is for them, maybe then you can help them develop their ability to write as now they see the purpose.

This really is just scratching the surface of possibilities but it does show the impact that technology can have in supporting learners and ensuring that there is a more equitable approach in schools.  How are you ensuring the personalisation of learning in your class?  What tools do you use that helps ALL learners achieve? 

About Mat
Mat Pullen is an Apple Distinguished Educator, Class of 2013, Apple Professional Learning Specialist, Google Certified Educator (Level 2), Showbie Ambassador and Manager of the South Wales Apple Regional Training Centre.

If you liked this article, you can also visit our Accessibility section or watch our Accessibility playlist.