Sue Cranmer, lecturer and researcher into digital inclusion at Lancaster University, joins the discussion.
Q. Is tech in education inclusive, divisive or neutral?
Sue Cranmer: This very much depends on how it is used. I have recently researched how disabled young people at the secondary level of schooling with visual impairments use digital technologies for learning. The results show that the disabled young people interviewed are very positive about using digital technologies, particularly tablets, to support formal and informal learning. In addition to the usual advantages of digital technologies experienced by many young people, such as internet research – creating and watching videos, for example – disabled youngsters can use tablets to access the curriculum through the inbuilt accessibility options.
Unlike some conventional assistive technologies, disabled young people can use tablets unobtrusively in classes with peers and avoid the stigma and self-consciousness they may otherwise experience. Nevertheless, not all teachers are on board with using technology effectively to support young people to learn; and specifically disabled young people, and this can limit the potential benefits for disabled young people or even exclude them further. This can happen through lack of teacher awareness or for technical reasons.
Q. What are the considerations when introducing tech into education?
Sue Cranmer: If schools are providing tablets, it can be beneficial if young people can also use them outside of the school. This can then enable integration of formal and informal learning activities across the home-school boundary. In the research carried out recently, some schools allowed disabled young people to take tablets home and to tailor them to their own preferences and needs. This flexibility appeared to support the development of independent and self-directed learning for these disabled children more than those devices limited to school use only and where the ability to personalise is more restricted.
Q. What software or equipment can help?
Sue Cranmer: For disabled young people, tablets can be particularly useful. They are light, easy to use and portable and can be used unobtrusively in place of assistive technologies that disabled children said were more stigmatising. Tablets also have built-in functions, such as cameras, which can be used to adapt resources. For example, young people can take photos and then zoom in or modify the text to their preferences. They can record notes to be read back to them for revision purposes; and they can type using large letters on the screen. As one youngster said about her handwriting: “Because if I write I can hardly see my own writing.” In addition, teachers and teaching assistants can support disabled young people indirectly using digital technologies by modifying resources more effectively and quickly than using photocopier methods and downloading books in electronic format.
Q. If money were no object for education, what equipment or resource could be provided for students that are disadvantaged in some way?
Sue Cranmer: In addition to providing appropriate technologies, interviews with the disabled young people suggested that there is a need for earlier e-safety training, at primary level rather than secondary level, to decrease online risk and bullying which some had experienced as younger children. From these accounts, it also seemed likely that the youngsters would benefit from more support being provided to develop their digital literacy skills at an earlier stage given the importance of these for learning and the added task load that they carry in order to access the curriculum.