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eLearning and Inequity—Why Districts are Turning to Accessible Technologies

A mother and child look at a laptop together in their home

eLearning came like a stranger in the night. Many educators walked out the door one day to find that school was canceled the next. Plants and even classroom pets were left in classrooms—like the stories of ancient villages who left so suddenly, their pots were still burning on the fire. 

Now, everyone is awakening to the fact that eLearning is really tough. It’s no panacea. 

It’s tough on teachers. Teaching through a screen is not only challenging—it’s emotionally draining to lose the personal connection with students. 

It’s tough on administrators who scrambled to shift gears 180 degrees across entire systems in a matter of days or weeks.

It’s tough on parents who balance their own work while helping their children. 

It’s tough on students who aren’t accustomed to engaging with computer-delivered instruction (video instruction, eLearning packets, etc.) for long periods of time. But it’s really tough on students who have disabilities from reading and writing challenges to executive functioning issues.

Accumulated advantage

A girl sitting crosslegged outdoors smiles at the camera with a laptop in her lap and a backpack next to her on the ground.

Most students at the top tier of the class are adapting to eLearning. They’re the ones that take an assignment and get it done early with the extra credit completed. They’re the ones who will understand the directions affixed to the top of the eLearning worksheet. Sure, there is a lot they will miss out on not being in the classroom—I’m thinking about the dissection unit, group projects they take the lead on, and gym class certainly won’t be the same—but eLearning could end up being valuable, teaching time management, learning to work independently, and experiencing a mode of working that is becoming more common for knowledge workers. These students will likely operate in a mode that they always have where the most adept continue to benefit. 

As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers, “The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured.”

Students who struggle are the oaks who for whatever reason have had some challenges to their growth. It’s not just biology—it’s also the environment. And now eLearning comes as a rabbit to chew on the bark of the sapling.

Who gets left behind?

An animated character of a child looks up at a large pointed peak made out of colorful giant letters and art supplies

One striking factor that educators are pointing out is that the students who struggled in class are really struggling with eLearning. eLearning amplifies and illuminates the issues that struggling students face. In class, they can raise their hands. If they have a confused look, that’s a sign for the teacher to help. They have a physical presence in the classroom. 

With eLearning, those opportunities for help are diminished, and many students can too easily fade into the shadows. It’s difficult to see where someone is struggling, and students can very much feel alone in learning. 

As learning packets are sent home, and students engage with recorded video lessons (or live Zoom instruction available in a few districts), the gap between students who “get it” and those who need help is widening. 

Everyone wants to help, but people are feeling helpless for not having many options.

Better access through accommodations

A mother smiling with her daughter who is wearing headphones and glasses while working at a computer in a home

For years, related service occupations like occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and assistive technology specialists heralded the value of reading and writing accommodations to help give students access to learning. But their traction was limited. Now, notice is coming from the highest levels—directors of instructional technology, principals, special education coordinators, and even superintendents are taking note. They see firsthand a new system of support that can help students across a whole range of abilities—from dyslexia and dysgraphia to executive functioning issues. 

Of course, accessible technologies aren’t a panacea, but they have become an integral part of the solution and core component of school district infrastructure.

This year with its dramatic shifts came 40 years after we started producing accessible technologies. Over those years, we developed many accessible products, held over 300 summits for practitioners, educators, and administrators, ran an accessible technology conference, and developed several frameworks of implementation for accessible technologies. 

While we wish the additional attention didn’t come to accessibility through a crisis, we recognize the importance of our role in the solution. Namely, to help schools better serve students who are the most vulnerable—helping equip them with the necessary tools for learning.

To do this, we came together and made some decisions. We chose to pull our 40 years of experience together around supporting students in the best way we knew how. We focused on five things that would offer the most help to schools and students:

  1. We made our learning tools available for free to practitioners, schools, and districts through the end of the school year.
  2. We opened up two thematic curriculum units (at least four weeks of instruction each) for free access to special education teachers and parents.
  3. We launched a series of free webinars focusing on eLearning
  4. We expanded self-guided implementation resources through our Learning Academy to get staff and students up and running quickly
  5. We developed resources for parents to support their children at home

The struggles students face in classrooms may be amplified through eLearning, but the way forward will bring new systems into place that will still be there long after the pandemic has passed. Much like the dawn light that comes out of darkness, a new awareness will emerge. And with the efforts of each individual, community, and country, this pandemic will pass and lead into a new era.

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Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D.​

Karen A. Erickson, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. Her focus is on understanding the best ways to assess and teach reading and writing to children with the most severe disabilities. As a special education teacher, Dr. Erickson has worked to support students with a range of disabilities in a variety of classroom settings, particularly students who do not use speech as their primary means of communication.


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