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8 Findings on EdTech Solutions for Young Learners with Disabilities

By Guest Writer on July 14, 2021

disability education

Educational technology, arguably, plays an important role in helping to ensure children and young people with disabilities have fair and optimised access to the school curriculum and ensuring they have opportunities to develop their independence, agency, and social inclusion.

These principles are underpinned by a ‘rights’ agenda as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Optional Protocol (​UNCRPD​), which demands fair and equal access to education for all.

EdTech can play a powerful role in supporting children’s learning, not only in ways of providing access but also in enabling children to use appropriate technology independently. This also enables them to enjoy the benefits of a full school curriculum and be able to participate in activities in different educational arrangements.

A Systematic Literature Review

Given these strong assertions, it is vital to carry out a closer examination of international published evidence to understand whether EdTech is making a positive difference to the educational experiences and outcomes of children and young people with disabilities in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

This Systematic Literature Review of EdTech for Learners with Disabilities in Primary School Settings in LMICS was guided by the overarching aim of establishing the categories of EdTech that may be appropriate to support the learning of children with disabilities aged 6–12 years in LMICs. A critical review of the published literature was deemed essential.

The field of disability and EdTech (mirroring larger trends in disability and educational research) has remained dominated by international assertions of support through the sustainable development agenda goals, anecdotal commentaries and strong personal assertions but these are substantiated by little evidence.

Through a review of published papers, we endeavoured to establish how successful EdTech has been in terms of viability, improving educational access, learner engagement, and learning outcomes in LMICs. The review provides a synthesis of what we know from the evidence and highlights gaps in the existing knowledge base.

8 EduTech Literature Review Key Findings

Findings from the review identified novel ways in which EdTech is having a positive impact on the lives of learners with disabilities in different countries across LMICs, mainly in Asia and to some extent in South America. The studies explored novel opportunities for schools to pilot software programs or even provide learners with applications (apps) that can be used on mobile phones or tablets.

There have been significant new developments in the number of Assistive Technology which are having a small but significant impact on how, where, and when learners with disabilities access and engage with the national curriculum.

  • This has been noticeably the case for deaf and hard-of-hearing learners in Pakistan, who have been making increasing use of SMS and social media to access information for lessons and be able to communicate with their peers.
  • The review also found other novel examples where apps are being used by learners to access the curriculum to, for example, teach sign language to deaf children in Thailand using videos showing finger spelling, pictures, and text captions.
  • Furthermore, in India, zoom magnification and photographic apps are also being used on mobile phones and tablets to enable learners with low vision to access the same learning content at the same time as their peers.
  • In Bangladesh, learners have been testing a new app known as mBraille to help them to learn to write Braille. Although the app shows positive signs of impact, it still requires further development, and better alignment with the curriculum before it can be considered appropriate in a learning context.

These exciting advancements should lead to apps gradually replacing more traditional forms of AT (such as handheld magnifiers), but there still needs to be more evidence that they are pedagogically and environmentally appropriate for the target group of learners and can be afforded by the supplier (for example, a national ministry of education).

There is some emerging evidence that engaging with technology is having a positive effect on learners’ levels of confidence and well-being across different groups, such as young people with autism, those who are identified as blind or deaf / hard of hearing, and learners with physical disabilities. While the rigour of these studies does not allow for nuanced understandings, there is broad agreement that learners are embracing technology and experiencing new ways of engaging with learning, and most importantly, forming friendships and creating new bonds at school.

Given the wide scope of this review, however, it is astonishing that there is so little evidence on ​evaluations​ of educational interventions which met the inclusion criteria. Some key findings from the evidence base and are summarised as follows.

1. Educational settings of research

While evidence highlights a broad range of EdTech being used in different educational arrangements, such as mainstream schools, special schools, and resource centres, this implies that there still is a real lack of evidence on how EdTech can be most effectively introduced in these settings, especially within mainstream settings.

Despite the significant push towards inclusive education over many decades, the majority of the studies remain located in special school settings. A possible reason for this could be the rapid development and wide range of low-, medium-, and high-tech devices specifically for children with visual impairment and deafness or for the hard of hearing who have traditionally been in special schools.

2. Infrastructural limitations

While there has been an exponential increase in the breadth and choice of EdTech for persons with disabilities, many of the studies we found are still at an early stage with little projection of how they can be scaled up in regions where there is reduced access to power, a lack of technological expertise even within the same country, or dedicated funding streams.

3. Technocentrism

Evidence suggests there is more of a focus on developing technology per se, rather than aligning it to curriculum goals. As a result, there has been insufficient emphasis on finding out how technology can help teachers to support learners’ access in a more inclusive manner.

This is reflected in around half of the reviewed studies, which appear in either engineering, computer science, or health journals. Furthermore, there is a strong tendency to use EdTech to support entry factors, with little literature exploring the impact of these on children’s ​learning outcomes, classroom engagement, and social inclusion.

4. Scope of studies

Most of the studies were of a short duration and had a small sample size. There is a disproportionate concentration on specific impairment types over others. For example, more than half of the studies in the review focused on deaf / hard-of-hearing and blind / low-vision learners. A possible reason for the lower number of studies involving learners with other disabilities, particularly with learning difficulties and autism, is the lack of consensus, of not only on ​how ​but also ​what ​AT can be used in teaching interventions.

For example, there is lack of agreement on whether all forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) fall into AT, particularly as some are electronic-based (communication devices) whereas others are more low-tech, paper-based forms (drawn symbols or pictures on laminated cards). There is also the added issue of AAC content not meeting the different languages and cultures of learners with disabilities.

Evidence from the review suggests there is a lack of knowledge or agreement on the definitions of AT globally, apart from devices commonly used for sensory and physical impairments.

5. Lack of gender awareness

Reporting on gender differences was rare. Less than 20% of the studies provided a breakdown of male and female participants with a tendency to aggregate both male and female into the total number of participants. When studies did provide disaggregated gender data, there were, on average, twice as many male participants.

Two studies in China on learners with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) only included boys in the study. This was the case for both learners with disabilities and their teachers who were surveyed. While it is not clear if these were single sex settings, nonetheless it raises important issues for ensuring that female learners and teachers are specifically included in the EdTech discourse — more so, given that there is a disproportionate use of access and usage of EdTech among women in many LMICs.

It is important that gender equality be an integral part of the implementation of EdTech to ensure that technological advances benefit both male and female learners and teachers.

6. Teachers’ use of EdTech

Findings of this review highlight a reluctance among teachers to actively adopt EdTech solutions / interventions in their everyday teaching. We noted significant gaps in the amount of knowledge teachers have on even the most basic technology used in the classroom. This could be due to the lack of know-how in relation to the use of technology to respond to the specific learning and social needs of different learners.

Indeed, there is also evidence of the significant lack of training available to teachers to incorporate technology in their pedagogical repertoire in professional development programmes. Some studies called for an explicit need for teacher development to move beyond theory and focus on providing teachers with opportunities to practise new technological skills and gain confidence in using them with diverse learner groups.

7. Role of parents and carers

There was a real lacuna on capturing the perceptions and involvement of parents / carers of children with disabilities in the use of EdTech interventions. However, those very few studies that had included their views of technology and explicit ‘buy-in’ showed reduced rates of abandonment of devices by the children. Parental / carer involvement and monitoring of devices, such as mobile phones and tablets, also showed improvements in children’s levels of communication, mobility, and overall confidence levels.

8. Adopting a holistic approach to using technology

A key message emerging from the review is the gathering momentum that assistive technology apps for mobile phones and tablets are having on the education of learners with disabilities. Furthermore, when they are more sustainable, they are expected to have additional benefits within and outside the schools, leading to greater communication, independent living, and self-advocacy at home and in the community. Unfortunately, this added value for investment in AT apps can be lost when we look at pervasive technologies through a lens of just health, employment, or education.

Overall, our review clearly highlights that there is little understanding of how, when, and what type of technology should be introduced into the learning process in order to respond to the specific needs of children with disabilities. Moving forward, an urgent need exists for more interdisciplinary research that encourages AT designers to work closely with learners and other key beneficiaries, including teachers and parents / carers.

We need to reduce barriers to children’s learning by identifying new approaches to how learners with disabilities can access information to develop their knowledge, confidence, and diverse skills. ‘Access’ in the context of EdTech is a complex and multi-level process that requires innovative pedagogical teaching approaches.

By By Paul Lynch, University of Glasgow; Nidhi Singal, University of Cambridge; Gill A. Francis, University of York

Filed Under: Education
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