How technology can help break down barriers of accessibility in education

Matthew Jones, vice president content acquisition and strategy at Perlego, explains why accessibility is about a lot more than affordability, and how edtech can bridge the gap

When we talk about accessibility in education, we tend to offer a blinkered view on what it truly means, becoming drawn into primarily domestic debates of admission fees and entry requirements. However, the issue is much broader than this.

The latest UN figures reveal that there are over 263 million young people out of full-time education globally, the equivalent to one out of every five people aged between 5 and 17. There are a number of reasons why, some being clear – such as physically not having an educational facility to attend – while others are less obvious, like a teacher not having the adequate training or resources to deliver an effective education.


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The ultimate effect of this is stark. More than 360 million children worldwide leave primary school unable to read or do basic maths, and millions also face limitations in gaining access to further and higher education.

Technology can play a significant role in dismantling these barriers to education. This is a fact that has been recognised by the powers that be, with the government recently launching a research project and fund into education technology to explore how it can be used to support initiatives in developing nations.

More than 360 million children worldwide leave primary school unable to read or do basic maths.

By using technology, students across the world will gain access to tools that are tailored to their needs and situations, helping to level the playing field with those who currently have access to educational opportunities.

Accessibility is about more than affordability

Disabilities and flexibility

Over the last decade, much emphasis has been placed on improving the accessibility for students with disabilities or other distinct educational needs.

Physical resources often require students to travel to libraries or similar facilities to either rent a textbook, or gain access to course material, something which may prove to be difficult should the student have a disability, or external responsibilities inhibiting travel to a library. Furthermore, should they also have sight problems, small fonts may also act as a barrier to accessing the information.

Technology can provide a solution to these restrictions. Digital textbooks allow resources to become available to anyone with an internet connection, rather than just those who can either access or afford to purchase a physical copy. Not suffering from the same issues of scarcity as ‘traditional’ textbooks – as digital copies are able to be reproduced almost infinitely at very little cost – e-textbooks provide a more flexible solution for students who may not be able to easily travel to a library. These students will be able to access materials as required, rather than being limited by the libraries opening times or location.

E-textbooks provide a more flexible solution for students who may not be able to easily travel to a library.

Similarly, we can leverage robotics technology to help those who are unable to access school. Something which might be lost with purely web-based forms of education would be the physical connection with the teacher. This often increases the confidence of students, as they feel supported by the physical presence of an educator in the room. By using robotics to maintain this presence, technology can ensure that those who cannot attend school are being afforded the same responsibilities.

Language

In an ideal world, all educational material would be produced in the mother tongue of the location where it ends up being used. Unfortunately, this isn’t always feasible. There are well over 6000 languages being used on a daily basis, and for a publisher, it will not always make economic sense to go through the potentially costly and arduous process of translation, printing and distribution.

The effect of this on a child’s learning could be significant. Even though a great portion of the world’s population is now multilingual, being taught in your native language ensures the greatest chances of comprehension and understanding for the student.

Educational technology provides a solution. Whereas it may come at a significant cost to reproduce material in another language, when using digital textbooks, the cost is often negligible. As such, with the economic relationship surrounding the production of economic materials being reformed, their distribution can now be justified economically in parts of the world that would have been otherwise ignored.

Despite the clear societal benefits of using educational technology, more needs to be done to support its increased uptake.

How we can further support the growth of edtech

Despite the clear societal benefits of using educational technology, more needs to be done to support its increased uptake. Take the example of financial technology. The UK has become a global fintech hub in part due to the actions of government to foster innovation and growth. Edtech, which is arguably more valuable to the wider community, lacks this same support. As such, any incoming education secretary must make it a priority to end the inconsistency of the past few years, allowing the sector to thrive.

All companies need funding to survive, but in this respect, edtech does often end up falling by the wayside. By amending the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SIES) to give tax breaks on investment in early stage companies that have a remit for the public good, we can ensure that the edtech sector continues to grow, giving more individuals access to a good education. While Britain is already a world leader in the sector, it still needs to be supported to allow it to thrive as fintech has.

Despite its importance in a good quality of life, there are still great disparities in the access to education worldwide. Educational technology can help with this, improving the delivery of education to some of the most underprivileged groups of people. However, if this is to become a reality, the sector needs further support. This will aid the development of innovative ideas, allowing as many students as possible to reach their potential.