Wondering how to reduce barriers your students with special needs may encounter as they work digitally? Do you understand how to prepare our learners’ digital learning environment so every individual has the elements they need to flexibly accomplish their learning objectives? We can begin by scrutinizing our learners’ technology tools and platforms from the lens of inclusion. It’s important to vet edtech tools to verify that they promote access for a wide range of learners. In this blog, I share the basic fundamentals for vetting technology tools and clarify how each accommodation supports different types of learners.
Why I vet edtech tools
For me, vetting edtech products for accessibility is my profession and my passion.
Previously I was an assistant director of instructional technology. While my colleague, the director of technology, made sure the hardware, software, cables and wires all worked, I spent my days vetting products through a curriculum and instruction lens.
My excitement about making learning accessible for every student is also very personal. Of my three children, both my oldest and my middle child are served under a 504. That is a plan intended for children who don’t need or qualify for special education yet, for a variety of reasons, and may benefit from accommodations in school.
Although it may not be immediately evident, supporting learners in this way has long-term and far-reaching benefits.
First, as we advocate for learners by helping them remove obstacles to fully participate in their learning, we teach them how to advocate for themselves when they are older and outside the K-12 setting. This powerfully sets them up for success as they continue their education or enter the workplace.
Secondly, when we make technology easier to use for students served under a 504 like my own kids, English language learners or those served by special education (spED), we also aid students in the general education population.
Thirdly, it allows every learner:
- the ability to articulate and set personal learning goals
- to develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve the goals
- to reflect on their learning process itself to impact achievement.
Tips to vet edtech tools for accessibility
My process to vet edtech tools can help you to ensure that learners are not being unwittingly excluded. Additionally, when I check whether an edtech tool will work for a certain student population, I keep in mind the lift on teachers so solutions are not too overwhelming for them.
My initial questions when I review a tool are:
- How does this help our learners?
- Specifically how does it reach every learner?
- Is it an inclusive technology tool that will help students that are English language learners or multi-language learners, neurodiverse students, 504 students or students served under special education?
- Finally, does it meet Universal Design for Learning (UDL) criteria for accessibility? Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework developed by CAST, a founding partner of the Understood nonprofit. “UDL guides the design of learning experiences to proactively meet the needs of all learners. Inherent in the use of UDL, is the understanding that barriers to learning are in the design of the student’s environment, not in the student.”
Edtech tools checklist to support an inclusive approach to learning
The following checklist outlines the specific criteria I consider when I vet edtech tools. It can help you take an inclusive lens based on UDL principles. Are you providing multiple means of engagement—that differentiation of access to the content that’s engaging in and of itself? Are students able to provide multiple means of representing what they’ve learned? Can you add multiple means of representing the content or the objective (what I’m learning, action and expression)?
Here is the checklist for an inclusive approach to learning:
- Speech-to-text option
- Text-to-speech option
- Changeable color schemes and fonts
- Simplified language
- Pictures and the ability to bring in pictures or images
- Multiple ways of responding for students
- Different ways teachers can provide content
- Typical note-taking tools (highlighter, strike-through, sticky notes)
- Exportable highlighted notes
- Reward between assignments for the younger learners
- Time management tools such as extended time on due dates
- Gamification option
- Compatibility with assisted technology and basic accessibility tools like screen readers
How the edtech tool adaptations benefit different learner populations
Speech to text is a very, very powerful tool that speaks to all students. Some may be intimidated by writing or can express themselves better orally than by writing. Physically some learners have motor issues that affect their ability to write. As an example, I have rheumatoid arthritis which especially affects my hands during wintertime so I use speech to text almost daily to do my job.
Flipping the equation, text to speech helps our students who process verbal information more easily than words written on a page or screen. This could include English language learners or children who have challenges with reading or vision.
The ability to change color schemes and fonts is especially useful for our students who have dyslexia since there are specific fonts that are friendlier for students with dyslexia. Some of our students with visual impairments or served under a 504 require color overlays, so if we can change the color of text boxes, that sometimes helps them process the content within that box. I also use color to differentiate text or topics.
To support struggling readers that are below grade level or for English language learners, look for a way to adjust readability or simplify language. For example, teachers can adjust the readability level of some news articles used in class with some of the programs. Simplifying that language helps with scaffolding the content. This tool is pretty difficult to find, so sometimes I add other Chrome extensions.
Some tools will have a picture dictionary or the text itself will have pictures embedded. I look for this and/or any kind of pictures and pictorial representations and the ability to bring in pictures or images because that is helpful on so many levels.
In “Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual,” Marzano and Pickering prove that adding nonlinguistic representations to a term is processing it in a whole different modality. THAT is higher order thinking and helps students deepen their understanding. Marzano and Pickering further explain that adding imagery instead of just repeating a term’s definition over and over can increase achievement up to 37 percentile points. Adding imagery instead of just writing the word in sentences can increase achievement up to 21 percentile points. Pictures aren’t just fluff added to text—they truly aid and impact student comprehension.
This leads to the importance of having multiple ways for students to respond. It’s very powerful if the student can respond using a picture, an image or a video. Also look for the functionality for learners to express themselves through recording their voice, typing, illustrating or sketching something out.
Similarly, they need as many different ways of accessing the content as possible, so check for different ways that the teacher can provide content. On a Hāpara Workspace I share with students, I may have an assortment of resources they can choose to review. Maybe they’re going to look at a video, read an article or listen to an explanation or a small part of a podcast.
When it comes to note-taking and editing tools, we can use them to promote more fluid workflows and help build motivation. For example, when students have a strikeout tool, they can check off tasks they’ve finished to help them feel a sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep working.
For younger learners, look for a type of reward between assignments or a gamification piece. In some of the programs, as they work through, they get a chance to do a brain break like decorate their avatar or play a quick game. Check if there’s any way to leverage the tool to have those built-in rewards or breaks to keep them going.
Finally, check whether the tool allows you to adjust due dates or give extended time to manage the workflow. That’s so that students receiving the accommodation can have the extra time they need. This accommodation is especially vital on quizzes and tests.
When to give an edtech tool the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down
What happens when an edtech tool lacks some of these criteria? You can look for workarounds within the tool until whatever is missing gets developed or added to a tool. However, when many of these capabilities are absent, I recommend giving it the thumbs-down because it will not truly serve all of our student populations.
Finally, consider the specific makeup of your district to ensure the tool is inclusive of the district’s unique needs. Perhaps there are more students who are economically-disadvantaged, large populations of English language learners or students served under special education. Right now, due to the pandemic there may be a large population of students who are not on grade level. Remember the underlying reason for this process is removing barriers to access so all learners are set up to master the content.
Leveraging Hāpara tools to be more inclusive
All Hāpara tools pass WCAG and similar tests for web accessibility, but accessibility doesn’t stop there. There is much more educators can do to leverage Hāpara tools to be more supportive and inclusive of our students with special needs (which support our general education population, too).
Develop positive relationships with learners
Quite often, students need to leave the classroom to take medicine, see a nurse or counselor or receive other specialized interventions. Obviously, you don’t want to embarrass them by reminding them out loud in front of their peers. Teachers can discreetly send a message through Highlights to remind these students. They may even choose to add an emoji smiley face or GIF. That student will see it on their screen and know they need to go to speech therapy or another type of meeting.
The same idea works if you see a student who’s having a hard time socially-emotionally. With a discrete message you can say, “Hey, I want you to pause and do a brain break” or “I want you to go and see the counselor” or “Take a moment and take some deep breaths.”
Support executive function skills
I’m really excited about our newly-released freeze tabs feature because it provides some excellent ways to support learner achievement. Freeze tabs allows students to open up all the tabs they may need for a class period or certain amount of time to complete their task. The teacher can then click “Freeze tabs,” making those tabs the only ones students can access.
This helps focus and contain students who may have a difficult time sustaining attention or tend to act impulsively, jump around or close tabs. They can choose where they want to get started and have everything they need available.
Freeze tabs really supports differentiation because each student can have different tabs open. For all learners, this tool supports that executive functioning skill of getting started. Having their tabs ready means they are guided or coached. That’s the equivalent of saying, “This is all you need. You can get started. You can sustain that effort.”
Provide differentiation to meet every learner’s needs
Using the grouping features in the Hāpara Instructional Suite allows teachers to provide learners with different ways to access content and a variety of ways to respond. For example, if you’re doing a reading activity you can group learners by reading level and provide each learner with the appropriate text for their needs. This allows all learners to participate in the activity without singling anyone out because they are on a different level than their peers. Learners can also submit evidence in a variety of ways. Workspace allows them to upload Google Docs and Slides, video and audio files.
Grow digital citizenship
Teachers can create focused browsing sessions with content they have curated for their learners. This is a good way of modeling what digital citizenship looks like by choosing appropriate, reputable resources for the activity at hand. By doing this you are promoting independent learning where students will eventually be able to select digital resources on their own to further their research and academic interests.
Whether you are a teacher using the full Hāpara Instructional Suite, just Highlights and Hāpara Filter or not yet using Hāpara, getting started with a series of small steps will make a world of difference for your learners today and long term. You may vet edtech tools during the selection process, tweak what you’re already using to increase student accessibility or employ the same tools with a more inclusive mindset. Taking an analytical approach to vetting your edtech tools is critical to student success.To learn more about how the Hāpara Instructional Suite encourages student success, reach out to a Hāpara team member for a demonstration.