There are currently more than 1 billion people living with disabilities around the world. In the UK alone, more than 13 million people live with disabilities, 70% of which are invisible. This means that, in UK schools today, many pupils are living and learning with disabilities, many of which have not been diagnosed.
The UK Government’s EdTech Strategy recently outlined that technology has the power to bring people with special educational needs and disabilities independence, both in learning and communication. The rapid advances in technology – which can now help people to hear, see and speak using dictation, reading focus and colour changer tools – are helping students with disabilities to unlock their potential. By giving all students a voice in the classroom, tech can change the entire learning experience and make it more collaborative, equal and effective.
Dedicating time in staff meetings for a tech talk can be a great way to demonstrate what tools are on offer.
Encouraging the use of assistive technology
Teachers currently face an uphill battle – including time constraints, performance demands, and a lack of IT confidence – which can hinder efforts to embrace assistive tools. To help staff, schools can create supportive communities where knowledge and experiences are shared across the network, boosting confidence and outlining how technology can benefit students. From our experience working with schools, here are a few key actions that can be taken:
- Introduce initiatives open to the entire school network to get everyone invested in boosting accessibility
At Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, a free access for all training scheme is offered, aiming to raise awareness of what accessibility is and the small things educators can do together to make a difference. As an institute with a high number of students with disabilities, the scheme encourages all members of staff to take part, from teachers to caterers to cleaners, so accessibility is front-of-mind across the board.
- Embrace a ‘trial and error’ approach in using new technology
Adopting new assistive technologies will take time, and it’s important teachers know that not every tool will work for them. Schools should develop initiatives that enable teachers to experiment with tools and see what’s on offer. In Grimsby’s Level Up programme, staff can bolster their digital skills by providing an opportunity to trial tools that can help overcome problems faced in everyday work, whether it be helping manage marking workload or boosting engagement levels from a student. This provides staff with the freedom to test out features and see the benefits for themselves, making them more open and enthusiastic about applying these tools to their teaching.
- Nominate staff as digital ambassadors to be a driving force
Having tech champions dedicated to the cause can really help schools achieve their aim of ensuring every student can learn in a way that suits them best. At the City of Westminster College, staff complete a series of free courses to learn how to successfully use technology and share learning in face-to-face meetings once a week. They are then responsible for sharing their key tips to colleagues – dedicating time in staff meetings for a tech talk can be a great way to demonstrate what tools are on offer to help teachers and students alike.
- Engage students on the journey, too!
A great way to involve students in using more tech in education is to introduce student digital ambassadors who can work alongside staff ambassadors. This gives pupils a voice when it comes to what technology works for them, promoting a healthy cross-culture where staff and students work together to embrace new tools. Student ambassadors at the City of Westminster College are also in charge of compiling a tech newsletter and organising a ‘tech hub’ help desk, where anyone in the college can receive support and demo new tools; this is a helpful way for students to gain some of the digital skills they’ll need for the future.
- Learn by example
Schools’ senior leadership teams should engage in the wider teaching community to understand how others are embracing technology. Not only can they take inspiration from what is working, and implement it in their own school, they can also take advice from what’s not working and learn from others’ mistakes.
These initiatives can help build a culture where accessibility is front-of-mind and exploring new technologies becomes an exciting project. If schools work to adopt even one of these methods, the use of assistive technology can span across entire school networks, crucial to providing all students with the education they need to succeed. After all, accessibility shouldn’t be an optional feature in education or in life – if we don’t strive to include, we exclude.
Clare Riley is further education and higher education manager at Microsoft UK