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How COVID-19 Impacted Digital Accessibility and Access in Education

As schools and universities embrace hybrid learning models post-COVID, education technology must be accessible and available online and in-person.

For many families and educators, the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass shift to at-home learning cast a spotlight on critical issues of equity and a lack of resources that students and teachers have been grappling with for decades. As the pandemic closed universities around the globe, concerns grew over how students could keep up with their classes without proper internet access and equipment. Similarly, public school systems needed to find new ways to facilitate learning at home without the same access to childcare, district-provided meals and special services. Learners were dependent on technology to not only attend classes but to complete and submit their assignments, which was not always possible due to issues like lack of high-speed internet and the need to share devices among multiple members of the same household. 

All of these issues highlighted the direct link between technology and opportunity in the education space. However, digital learning also offered some unexpected benefits to students who used assistive technologies to more easily read, write and navigate a virtual classroom. Now as COVID-19 vaccinations become more widely available, at least in the U.S., and schools and higher education institutions are in the middle of summer break, they have just a few months to create a plan for how best to create a successful learning model for students, teachers and parents alike in our “new world.” 

The Benefits of Technology for Promoting More Accessible Learning

While the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic certainly impacted the educational experience, some students did prefer certain features of the e-learning model. For example, many students with visual or auditory disabilities found it easier to use assistive technologies such as closed captioning or speech tablets. The more on-demand structure of distance learning also benefited people with health conditions who previously would otherwise have to miss out on in-person education due to appointments or personal limitations. For college students with chronic conditions who struggle with living on campus and attending live lectures every day, digital schooling has allowed them to view class recordings on their own time and access content when it is convenient for them. 

Online classrooms have also provided a more level playing field for students in terms of interacting with their peers and teachers, removing the physical barriers that still persist at many universities. For example, students who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices don’t have to worry about non-accessible classrooms or seating. In a virtual setting, these students are able to involve themselves in discussions with peers without extra accommodations. 

Many of the digital solutions implemented as a result of the pandemic have also helped students with special needs spend more time focused on learning rather than navigating a landscape that wasn’t designed for them. Recently, NPR featured a story about Boston Public School student Michael Benson, who is legally blind. He previously struggled to carry tools designed to help with his visual impairments between classes and needed additional time to set up equipment in order to read traditional textbooks and whiteboards. According to the article, Michael and his family now feel less pressure with the online learning model that allows them to read from digital slides, magnify visuals and rewatch recorded lessons at their own pace. For many people who struggle with accessibility issues, COVID-19 has accelerated the integration of these new digital solutions in their everyday lives. Educators and policymakers are hopefully taking notice of how these same tools can be valuable in classrooms even as students start returning to in-person learning. 

The Downside of the Digital Divide and the Widening Learning Gap

While there are clear benefits from an e-learning model, many students and families lack the necessary resources and access to technology systems to keep pace with academic demands. One of the greatest issues has been the technological barriers that unequally impact students from lower-income and minority backgrounds. In October 2020, nearly 10% of Black and Latinx households in the United States lacked consistent computer access, compared to only 6.7% of white households. Technology has become just as instrumental to school systems as whiteboards and other basic supplies. The pandemic has amplified the idea that implementing flexible and adaptable technical infrastructure across every part of the school system from administration to classroom aides to student devices can help give people from different backgrounds a better opportunity to learn and succeed.

The strain not to fall behind was even greater for students who rely on special education services and assistance such as counseling and physical therapy. Shifting to a remote learning model made it challenging to ensure that schools were complying with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that entitles children with disabilities to a public education that could adequately meet their needs. The result of these new circumstances meant many children were falling behind in their development when compared to their peers. 

As many schools and workplaces now begin to reopen, states and public school systems are tasked with finding a way to provide “compensatory services” or recovery services, such as speech-language therapy and mental health services to help students mitigate any learning loss or skill gaps that resulted from the lack of resources during the pandemic. Special education directors and other education professionals need to evaluate data and benchmarks to determine any gaps in skill and develop a hybrid learning plan to address students’ needs both online and in-person. 

The Future of Education and Hybrid Learning

Even as the pandemic itself begins to stabilize, many schools are seeking ways to extend and scale their digital transformation efforts going forward. Now that students, families and educators have seen the positives and negatives of digital learning, school systems are searching for ways to put in place blended learning models that combine a campus atmosphere with the modern elements of online learning portals. This requires creating personalized content that speaks to the full scope of student experience from enrollment to class selection to seeking out additional support and resources. According to Gartner’s report on The Top Technology Trends Impacting Higher Education in 2021, elements like 360-degree imagery on university websites, embedded faculty videos and live virtual student recruitment, career fairs and advancement events all positively contributed to helping students stay engaged throughout the 2020 school year. 

The future of education will likely continue to mix elements of both physical and digital experiences, meaning that students will expect more seamless interactions. As Gartner reports, “The management of virtual experiences therefore demands coordination and potentially centralized accountability to build an institution-wide perspective to maximize consistency and minimize costs.” A popular refrain across all industries from healthcare to retail to education during this pandemic has been the need to offer more flexibility. People are advocating for hybrid work and school models that are more customized to individual circumstances. However, the challenge remains for how to ensure that these flexible models are sustainable and practical. Lawmakers and educational institutions need to choose technologies that can integrate easily within their existing ecosystems and seamlessly transition between different devices and interfaces without disruption. Accomplishing this means collaborating with IT experts on exactly what students need to thrive and shaping the tools and systems to reflect those individual circumstances. 

How IT Can Drive the Digital Transformation of Education 

Digital transformation in education also requires empowering teachers and administrators with the content, tools and systems needed to provide students with personalized instruction that serves their needs. Investing in innovative technologies like cloud storage, interactive course materials and mobile systems and tablets that allow learners to participate from any location are all steps that will help keep students and teachers connected both in-person and online. “[IT leaders] are bringing metrics and data to campus conversations and connecting the dots in a bigger picture than their traditional domain. They’re working hard to better understand the enterprise beyond the scope of IT while simultaneously fostering empathy and understanding about the exigencies of technology innovation and execution,” said John O’Brien, CEO of EDUCAUSE, in EdTech magazine

Many students today feel more comfortable using technology than their teachers, and it’s not uncommon to hear jokes about younger generations needing to step in and help adults navigate specific apps or systems for the first time. These learning curves place a burden on school board IT resources and take time away from critical learning. According to Education Week, daily call volume for IT help desks at some San Antonio schools rose from 75 before the pandemic to 600 during the building closures. Making the move to digital as smooth as possible requires school districts to invest in more self-service tools and incorporate technology into the training and onboarding of educators from the start of their careers. CIOs and IT professionals have the power to lead the digital transformation of the education landscape and improve the overall learning experience by pushing for technology to change at the pace of innovation that we’re seeing in the private sector. 

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For more information on the IDEA act and how governments can use technology to meet compliance and accessibility standards, download the whitepaper: Understanding The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act.

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