Building inclusive online learning environments is an arduous undertaking for any EdTech company. The same solution needs to facilitate individualized instruction to serve learners in both introductory and Advanced Placement classes, students with learning differences, and students from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
So, it’s no surprise that in an effort to address multiple modes of learning, some providers can take a lackadaisical approach to developing accessible software. As long as the platform meets federal and state Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, identifying and removing additional barriers of technology often fall by the wayside.
In order to create successful learning experiences for all students, every EdTech provider needs to start prioritizing accessibility and inclusivity – and view accessibility less as an “add-on” and more as a “must-have.” When students of all abilities have the opportunity to learn alongside each other, and their diverse identities, perspectives, and backgrounds are recognized and respected, they thrive both in terms of academics and social emotional development.
Here are three ways the EdTech industry can embrace accessibility and turn their platforms into powerful catalysts for success.
Shift thinking from accommodation to accessibility – and incorporate it from day one
When crafting inclusive learning platforms, we often think in terms of “accommodation.” But, in reality, accommodations are a band-aid, not a building block of an effective EdTech solution.
As an industry, we need to shift our focus from accommodation to accessibility. Accommodation is a reactive response, requiring the provider to make requested technology adjustments for an individual due to an inaccessible design. On the other hand, accessibility is proactive, where an inclusive environment is created for all learners, regardless of ability, and obstacles are removed from day one.
Historically, accessibility is not one of the first considerations in the product development cycle. Ongoing testing can significantly add to development costs and extend the time it takes to get to market. At the same time, schools are putting pressure on edtech providers to deliver solutions faster as they are under their own deadlines to meet the ADA and Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) needs of their students, and fill in learning gaps that continue to drag down students three years after the pandemic.
While accessibility testing can be cumbersome, the lack of foresight can have a negative educational impact on students. Not to mention, accommodating needs aftermarket is often extremely expensive for budget-conscious school districts. Instead of leaving accessibility protocols in the hands of the quality assurance team, everyone in the company, from the developers to the sales staff, needs to be aware of expectations. In addition, multiple checkpoints in content, design, and engineering must be established to ensure factors are checked, tested, and verified as shippable.
Solutions providers can no longer cut corners to meet the basic learning needs of students – we have to create enriching, engaging experiences that prepare them for their futures.
Expand the EdTech view on inclusivity
Today, there are more than 7.3 million students with disabilities seeking an equitable public K-12 education, whether they struggle with a specific learning disability, visual or hearing impairments, autism, developmental delays, or a host of other physical, mental, or emotional issues that can impact how they comprehend curriculum.
EdTech companies and school districts have steps in place to differentiate learning for each student, from text-to-speech software and audio captioning, to simple navigation that reduces cognitive load. However, many providers think in a fairly narrow sense when developing compliant software, basing inclusivity only on learning disabilities rather than taking a macro view of environmental, social, and cultural aspects that can hinder a student’s full potential in the classroom.
For Xello, which develops student-driven college and career readiness software, improving inclusivity required viewing accessibility through multiple lenses beyond legislative requirements:
- Device compatibility – Today’s learning isn’t limited to the laptop. Even after schools expanded technology adoption during the pandemic, 22 percent of teenagers say they continue to do their homework on a smartphone because they lack access to a computer or reliable internet service at home. This issue disproportionately impacts students of color and those who live in low-income households and rural communities. To ensure students don’t fall behind, responsive design must be incorporated to ensure the interface adapts to different device layouts without impacting its navigation or usability for a consistent, equitable user experience.
- Enhanced multilingual learning – English learners (EL) who speak Spanish as a home language represent almost eight percent of all public K-12 students. Most edtech platforms have built-in machine translation to assist EL students, but true inclusivity requires appointing actual humans to professionally translate and proof every piece of content to promote equal access to information. By taking that extra step, edtech providers not only prevent learning barriers outside the classroom, but help EL students’ parents play an active role in their child’s academic success just as their English-speaking peers do.
- Inclusive learning environments – Research shows that academic and social-emotional outcomes for students of color improve when their teachers reflect their cultural and ethnic identity. Similar inclusivity must be woven into the DNA of any EdTech product strategy. For instance, a platform’s imagery should promote diversity while reducing gender and racial stereotypes and biases. In addition, culturally-attuned content can better engage users of varied backgrounds.
Encourage schools to be more demanding of their EdTech providers
The breadth of EdTech tools available and the time required to vet each one create the perfect storm for an exhausting evaluation process. When acquiring software, school leaders have to ensure the content aligns with the district’s curriculum and is developmentally and instructionally appropriate, which means evaluating accessibility often slips below the radar. Too often, decision makers take a provider’s assurance of compliance at face value and are left to find expensive workarounds when the promise doesn’t come to fruition.
Critiquing the accessibility of a platform should be one of the district’s first steps in the evaluation process. In most cases, by following just a few basic tasks and dedicating two to three hours to the mission, an experienced IT team can spot glaring oversights that limit a student’s accessibility. Auditing factors, such as text tagging protocols, screen reader compatibility, device compliance, and multiple means of engagement, both through automated and manual testing is essential for provider approval.
Before jumping into a solution, school leaders, teachers, IT staff, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) coordinators need to establish a predetermined set of requirements based on legislative guidelines and student needs to ensure they ask the right questions of vendors and partner only with those who make inclusion a benchmark of their corporate culture.
Taking the next step forward in accessibility and inclusivity
Today, every district outfits its schools with ramps, elevators and other features to serve students with disabilities, tailors its in-school services and accommodations around learning differences, and strives to deliver DEI programs. Collectively, EdTech companies must mirror school districts’ efforts by incorporating contextually relevant accessibility initiatives in an online learning environment. By devoting the time to meeting every student where they are and supporting them along their academic journey, we can help them reach their full potential today and set the foundation for their promising futures.
About the author
Te Thebeau is Vice President of Product Experience at Xello.