By Simone Buckley

Yes. There's a difference. Educational Technology is not, in fact, Accessible Technology.

Many may see this title and think, “What do you mean? Educational technology provides students access to their curriculum.” Yes, Educational Technology can often provide students with a variety of ways to explore educational content. But how does it help students access and interact with their curriculum? The short answer, it does not. When U.S. schools were forced to transition to a form of virtual learning in the spring, many teachers were providing students with a plethora of content. This included materials such as: slideshows, virtual documents, or recorded videos. Much of the content we were providing students were things such as video links from education resources. Now, I hold nothing against many virtual academic resources. However, just because these resources teach content, does not make them accessible or engaging.

So what does accessible technology really mean? Well, it allows students to interact with their curriculum. How do any of us truly learn best? We learn by doing. This is the same for any student of any ability. When you can do things on your own, you retain more information. And guess what, if you try yourself and fail at completing a task, you have retained important information as well. We do not have to create perfect work in order to learn and grow, we just have to be given the opportunity to try on our own.

🤔 Okay, so how do we use accessible technology in our classrooms?

First of all, make sure students are being offered tools to interact with their educational content to their specific needs. Many schools opted to utilize cloud-based systems, such as Google Apps for Education, during remote learning. Remember just because you are providing your special education student with a virtual document and keyboard does not mean it is inherently accessible to that student. All students learn and access knowledge differently.

Let's look at it this way. Many teachers have heard of different learning styles such as visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Students of any ability tend to favor one of these learning styles over others. The problem comes when we begin to create materials based on our own favored learning style. For example, I am a visual learner so it makes sense in my mind to create a hyperdoc full of exciting images and content. I think it looks amazing! However, my auditory learner may be lost in the sea of visual content and overwhelmed before they even start.

How do we combat this?

We combat this by creating all of our content focusing on the principles of Universal Design for Learning. We need to give students access to the curriculum content in multiple ways and allow the students to demonstrate knowledge utilizing multiple means of expression.

Here is an example:

Let's say you are assisting students with their understanding and knowledge of basic addition facts.

  1. You begin your lesson by providing students with access to a slideshow.
  2. In that slideshow, you use various visual manipulatives as objects to be counted, and you also insert audio to support your written directions.
  3. Then you have students collect objects from around their home and create their own addition problems by taking pictures of their materials and creating a slide deck of their own.

Not only have you reached all learning styles in this example, but you have also created a student led activity that engages and produces creativity.

We can also empower our students to create their own accessible environment catered to their needs by assisting students and their families with the right tools. Again, many schools are using Google Apps for Education and there are many great extensions that students can utilize that will individualize their learning experience. It is important as educators that we are making these recommendations for home based learning. For example, you have a student who is diagnosed with Autism. This student gets overwhelmed with too much visual stimuli and is a primarily auditory learner. There are two different types of technology we want to make sure she has access to. Technology that will declutter her screen and text to speech. Now that you understand what she needs, you can make the recommendations (as there are several extensions available that do one or both of those options).

📓 Finally - what should be your big takeaways from this?

  1. EdTech DOES NOT mean accessible tech! I hope that plays on repeat in your heads after reading this.
  2. When you are developing your materials think: “How can I reach ALL my learners in one activity?” It may seem overwhelming at first but the more practice you have, the easier it will become over time.
  3. Keep yourself informed. You don’t stop learning when you become an educator! We need to continue to do research so we can offer our students the best accessibility tips for home and school use. Don’t be afraid to hop on Twitter and randomly message that woman who is always tweeting about accessibility and technology.

Education is never meant to be easy; it is meant to be rewarding. As educators we need to provide ourselves with the proper tools so we can create an accessible experience for all of our students. 2020 might not be the easiest school year to come. However, I believe it will be the year we learn more about what we can do with our technology to reach all learners. Knowing that gives me great hope for teaching in 2020 and beyond.

Simone Buckley has been working in the special education field for about ten years with a majority of that time spent focusing on assistive technology student supports. She is a RESNA certified assistive technology professional, a Google Certified Innovator and a certified special education teacher. She has started my own initiative to help assist educators in receiving the proper resources and professional development they need to serve special education students. One of her more recent projects has been her Special Educators Guide to Teaching in 2020: In-Person, Hybrid, & Remote. Follow Simone on Twitter @RampUpEdu to learn more!

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