How digital resources can assist SEN and international university students

Edtech is key in supporting SEN and international students with remote learning, says CEO and founder of BibliU Dave Sherwood

Since 2020, universities have undulated between studying on campus and from home, with the latter becoming increasingly familiar for both students and academic staff in the UK and worldwide. University systems, staff, and students alike have done a great job tackling the challenges of remote working, but the need for up-to-date, effective, and accessible digital study materials is more important than ever.

The desire for digital resource availability is well-understood among students – research BibliU conducted in 2021 indicated some 90% of UK students believe study resources should already be available digitally. For SEN and international students, the transition to remote learning is likely to be an even tougher challenge. Data shows that 332,300 SEN students were in higher education in the 2019/20 academic term, while 538,615 international students enrolled in UK higher education for the same term, which speaks volumes for the necessity to cater to these demographics and provide accessible resources that go beyond the traditional textbook.

Financial accessibility

Our research also demonstrates that 70% of students have skipped buying the educational resources they need for their university courses. The data further emphasised the financial challenges students face and the lacking quality of traditional textbook formats, with more than a third (35%) saying they could not afford their textbooks, while a further 32% said they deemed them not worth the expenditure. One of the key overarching themes of digital resources, and key to the mission of BibliU as a company, is that they can dramatically reduce the cost burden on students, and make content more accessible. This is particularly important for international students, whose fees are usually double the price of domestic alumni. The same goes for SEN students, who often juggle the cost of living and study with budgets for teaching assistance and additional, necessary equipment.

Customisable interfaces 

The traditional printed textbook provides a learning experience that doesn’t require screens, which is an often welcome break in modern university study. However, they are non-customisable by nature, limiting the ability for functional, interactive, and accessible learning for those who may have differing learning needs. 

With BibliU, digital resources can be modified to cater to specific needs. Font size can be made larger and words can be defined instantly with a click of a button – allowing a better grasp of the course content. For those with different learning needs such as ADHD or dyslexia, colours in text, infographics, or visual data can be changed or highlighted. For those with sensory disabilities, real-time word-to-voice audio capabilities are a decisively effective tool. Additionally, specific in-resource search capabilities provide faster information gathering for all students.

Collaborative learning

Digital resources can also provide a method of counteracting the isolation of remote learning, by offering an intuitive in-document collaboration forum for students and lecturers alike. Providing a collaborative working environment can digitally mirror the benefits of traditional seminar and lecture-led learning, with students able to brainstorm, hypothesise and critique together. It also allows lecturers the opportunity to access student-thinking processes to examine their progression before viewing the first draft of their assignments. This is a first for university study, and provides the opportunity to monitor student progress and provide targeted advice before examination periods.  

Not only do collaborative working documents induce a more social university experience, but they also provide a faster and more effective system for peer-to-peer and student-lecturer review. This is vital for the progression of international students, who can review their course understanding with other pupils who speak the same language. For SEN students, collaborative functions enable them to be part of the conversation without worrying about geographical or physical access complications, particularly in light of Covid-based restrictions.

SEN and international students may have a harder time understanding course content in some cases, as they are dominantly catered to students without language barriers or disabilities. Without the assistance of in-person teaching, seminar discussion, and lecturer one-to-ones, the emphasis on this is greater. Using end-of-chapter tests, digital resources can analyse strength areas and knowledge weaknesses, before automatically redesigning tests that focus on areas of improvement. This encourages a more self-taught learning process that, when partnered with collaborative features, helps to strike a balance between remote learning and in-class study.

For international and SEN students alike, it is vital the adoption and further evolution of digital resources is maintained. The print textbook is unable to adapt to hybrid learning for these students, and more must be done to support them, with appropriate digital resources forming one part of the equation. The necessary hybrid learning environments globally during the pandemic have highlighted the importance of digital resources, and I hope it catalyses further development that focuses on even greater accessibility for all students.

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