Levelling the playing field

Keri Beckingham explores how schools, colleges and universities are using edtech to improve the learning experiences of disadvantaged students

Across education, technology is being used to benefit the classroom experiences of staff and students alike. But how can edtech help to level the playing field for those learners with disabilities, or for those from poor socio-economic backgrounds? 

Benefitting students with disabilities

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the number of disabled students entering higher education has continued to grow from 221,145 in the 2012/13 academic year, to 279,115 in the 2016/17 academic year. Mark Geremia is Vice President and General Manager at Nuance Communications, a company who have created a range of edtech solutions such as Dragon Speech Recognition software that can assist disabled students with their studies. He believes that technology has greatly benefited students with assistive needs and that although there is still room for improvement, many previously closed doors have been opened.

He said: “Technology’s ubiquity in education is now being matched by better awareness and more thorough assessments of a wide range of conditions. This means that greater numbers of students are getting the help and support they need far sooner, which means there’s less impact on their education.”

In addition, he also believes that through edtech, students are also better prepared for the world of work after they have completed their studies. Commenting further, he said: “They’ll have an appreciation of the tools and solutions they need to help them day-to-day, which could possibly make them feel more comfortable when discussing them with their employer.”

Tackling assumptions

When it comes to social equality in higher education, in 2017 a report by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) found that although more disadvantaged young people are studying for degrees than ever before, “the numbers of those students leaving before completing their studies has risen for the second year in a row”. With that in mind, Duncan Smith, Head of Strategy, Planning & Business Management for King’s Online at King’s College London thinks it’s important that edtech doesn’t reproduce the same inequalities that are seen elsewhere. This means challenging some common assumptions, such as the fact that all young people are ‘digital natives’.

Discussing this idea in more detail, he said: “There remains a significant proportion of people who do not have reliable access to a computer or a high-speed internet connection and they shouldn’t be excluded from education as more and more of it is delivered through technology.”

Widening the talent pool

No Isolation is a start-up company that is focused on developing communication tools that reduce involuntary loneliness and social isolation. Karen Dolva, No Isolation’s CEO, believes that when schools harness the power of technology, they are able to level the long-term playing field for ill or disabled children, or those from poor socio-economic backgrounds. She said: “By enabling them to participate in school, those children will be able to grow up and find a job. He or she will be able to contribute to the community instead of feeling like a burden.

“When we are talking about diversity and how the economy is benefited by leveraging the entire talent pool, these children must not be forgotten.”

The experiences of today’s students

Will Foley is a law graduate and Trainee Solicitor from Norwich. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in his second year at university through the less recognisable symptoms such as bad handwriting, disorganisation and poor spatial awareness. As part of his studies, he used Nuance’s Dragon speech recognition software, something that he still uses today.

Commenting on his experiences of using edtech, he said: “It is a massive game-changer because I can say things and get them onto paper easily. I think this software needs to be introduced at an earlier age, and be available in all walks of work life, in order to reap the rewards and focus on the positives for individuals like me.”

Evie Bruton is a current undergraduate at the University of East Anglia. She also has dyslexia and although she has used Nuance’s Dragon speech recognition software as part of her degree, she thinks that schools need to adopt edtech more for the benefit of their disabled students. She adds: “Schools need to embrace technological advances. As a dyslexic I am no less able than my peers, I just have a different way of approaching work, and I believe that technology like this could provide a level playing field for the future generations of dyslexic students.”

Evie Bruton

Deb Kellsey-Millar is a teacher at an FE college. She has recently worked with a student who was diagnosed with ADD, and was frequently unable to complete his homework or work well in a classroom setting. However, thanks to the Canvas VLE that his college used, he was able to start working online which benefited his learning experience. Commenting further, Deb said: “Traditional methods of teaching weren’t working for him, so when he was tasked with making a poster he chose to do it on an online platform instead, which he could access through our VLE.”

“This meant there was no opportunity for it to get lost or forgotten, and crucially, his peers were able to give him immediate feedback which provided him with instant positive feedback. The fact that this technology was available to him meant he could reach his full potential and produce an excellent piece of work.”

Case studies

London School of Business and Management 

John Fairhurst is Managing Director and Academic Principal at the London School of Business and Management. He says that the University is committed to providing equal and fair access to higher education, regardless of background, and that edtech has helped them to level the playing field via data collection. He added: “It gives us a huge range of data we simply could not collect or sort manually.

“Unit4 Student Management will provide us with the data we need on student performance, so going forward we can review how our degrees help or hinder them, and how they can be changed to give students the best chance in higher education.”

London School of Business and Management

Kings College London

Kings College London is involved in the Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) project. Funded by UKAID, they are working with four other partners (Kiron, FutureLearn, American University of Beirut and Al-Al Bayt University) to provide higher education opportunities for Syrian refugees and host communities in Jordan and Lebanon. As part of the project, they are partnering with FutureLearn to design online courses that are tailored to the needs of the refugees, and are personalised as much as possible to their context.

Discussing this further, Duncan Smith said: “We’re using user-centred design principles to confront some of the challenges around access to technology, designing courses that will work over low bandwidth internet connections and that can be studied whenever is convenient for the individual learner.

“The project has already reached several hundred Syrian refugees in the region, and has ambitious targets for the next three years.”

University of Salford

Dr Alex Fenton is Lecturer in Digital Business at the University of Salford’s Business School. Part of his work has involved placing content on the University’s VLE to allow all students to access learning materials from a smartphone, tablet or laptop, meaning that they can still keep up with their studies if they are unable to attend lectures because of a disability or if they are caring for a family member, for example.

Speaking about his experiences, he said: “We work closely with students to make sure that their particular needs are met. Tech can allow students to access materials from a distance if they are unable to travel in to university for whatever reason and we provide all of the technology needed in terms of specialist equipment, computers and software.”

University of Salford’s Business School