COVID-19 has impacted nearly every facet of daily life – including the extensive effects on education. For many months, educators, parents and students throughout the UK have faced extraordinary challenges as schools resorted to near-total closures to slow the spread of the pandemic. Teachers scrambled to adapt to long-term online learning, parents juggled work responsibilities with caring for and educating their children, and students grappled with isolation combined with anxiety about the future – while striving to maintain their learning.
As of 10 December, school closures have impacted over 18 percent of total enrolled learners – a figure of 314,333,192 – worldwide, with closures across 28 countries. Unfortunately, during this time of unprecedented transition, the rush of shifting face-to-face learning to virtual platforms relegated accessibility for students with learning disabilities to the back-burner. Under typical circumstances, the bustling environments of the classroom and playground can be difficult for any child. Adjusting to a rigorous curriculum, social forces, learning new skills, and the nuances of the classroom, are just a few of the many pressures today’s students face. But for those with dyslexia and related language processing difficulties, these struggles are amplified even in the most ideal learning environments – and the adjustments to COVID-19 posed additional challenges for these students, as they were required to spend more time reading and writing independently.
Identifying and supporting students with dyslexia
Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties, impacting between 6.6 and 9.9 million people in the UK who may have symptoms as varied as word recognition, reading fluency, and spelling and writing difficulties. While many people go through life with undiagnosed dyslexia, finding methods to adapt to their condition, students often struggle with various aspects of academic learning. As education progresses, complex language skills are increasingly required – such as grammar acuity, reading extensive textbook materials and literature, and writing long-form pieces – meaning these struggles become even more of a challenge.
Of the many people in the UK suffering from dyslexia, between 800,000 and 1.3 million are young people in primary and secondary education. In the education setting, dyslexia is treated using specific techniques that engage a variety of senses to facilitate comprehension and processing: vision, touch and hearing. For example, a student may be encouraged to listen to a recorded lesson while using a finger to trace the letters of words spoken.
The impact of dyslexia can extend far beyond the classroom. Often manifesting as a language processing difficulty, those with dyslexia frequently face challenges of expressing thoughts clearly or understanding meaning when others speak. The added pressure of learning with dyslexia can lead to high levels of academic stress on students, which can discourage them from continuing with their education. According to the British Dyslexia Association, over 80% of people with dyslexia leave school without diagnosis and therefore with a lack of support. Further evidence by the Association shows that early diagnosis, and the necessary support, can positively influence a pupil’s career opportunities in life.
Proven impacts with assistive technology
In recent years, research has shown that assistive technology can improve reading and spelling aptitude of students, among other skills, helping them to reach their full potential. Increasing a child’s self-reliance and sense of independence, assistive technology can aid students to experience success by working unaided.
Students today have access to traditional supportive technologies, including abbreviation expanders, alternative keyboards, audiobooks, electronic maths worksheets, graphic organisers, optical character recognition, portable word processors, and variable-speed tape recorders, among many other tools. However, new developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are now being integrated into education settings and have the potential to significantly enhance personal learning.
The ongoing evolution of AI-driven technologies has enabled the development of artificial vision technologies, which is particularly relevant for assisting dyslexia and related conditions. Scrambled letters, blurred words, moving text and letter reversals require tedious concentration for students – especially with long-form texts that become more common as education progresses.
As a result of the effort required, students with dyslexia may find themselves fatigued, nauseous and experiencing headaches on a regular basis. Until recently, the only tools developed specifically for reading and comprehension difficulties were found on computers, which are not ideal when moving between teaching locations and completing home learning.
Accessibility is more important than ever
To make assistive technologies truly accessible to those with reading and comprehension challenges, products need to be designed with the user firmly in mind. To support independent learning, comprehension and communication, assistive technologies must meet the needs of today’s students, spanning from primary and secondary to further and higher education. Thankfully, recent advancements are making this objective a reality.
Developers are now innovating discreet wearable and handheld devices that accompany students in any setting, inconspicuously reading any printed material or digital screens. For the first time, texts within books, and on computer and smartphones, are accessible to those with language processing difficulties. These technologies are constantly evolving to become even ‘smarter’, incorporating Natural Language Understanding (NLU) technology – and even voice-activated features to allow the user to quickly retrieve and identify specific information they need from a piece of text.
Adapting to the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, particularly accessible learning for students with dyslexia and related conditions, must be a priority for educators. As we progress through 2021, educators and parents have an opportunity to meet the challenges of these unprecedented times by incorporating advanced, innovative assistive technologies to support students with learning challenges, to give them the best chance of success.
Tsachi Moshinsky, UK director at OrCam Technologies, is responsible for business development and sales across the country, including growing market segments, managing strategic partnerships, and raising awareness of OrCam’s life-changing assistive technology innovations.
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