Edtech - the route to equality for SEN learners?

For many years, EdTech tools have served as learning supports for students who require additional attention from teachers or have special educational needs. Far from mainstream, they were implemented to aid teachers already being pulled in multiple directions.

However, as the emphasis is increasingly placed on inclusion and understanding the way individuals learn, we are seeing these same tools flooding into classrooms, with positive results for students across the board.

This year of course, we’ve all seen the rapid rise in technology centered learning. We’ve embraced technology like never before and we’ve sought to ensure that we provide as much learning as possible for every student. That’s brought its challenges for SEN students - because as we created more digital resources than ever before the pressure of time and the need to ‘teach to the middle’ with generic resources meant that accessibility and the individual needs of SEN students weren’t as high on the list as they should have been.

Equity of access in a digital world

Indeed, guidance from the DfE during the period of full remote learning focused heavily on ensuring SEN learners received equity of access to the new digital world. The guidance called on schools to “provide additional support tools to pupils who have barriers to engagement...including children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)”. It advised teachers to ensure  “educational activities should also be created in a range of formats, so that they are accessible to all," and “use a wide range of accessibility features. For example, voice-to-text and text-to-speech conversion, or different viewing formats to support pupils with dyslexia and other special educational needs. It is useful for teachers to research these features when planning and designing their teaching”.

The DfE’s curriculum guidance couldn’t be clearer: “Consideration will need to be given to how remote education approaches can be tailored to ensure the content is accessible to pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), including children who are in receipt of SEN support.” With advice now in place to schools that detailed remote learning plans must be in place for the next academic year, it’s incumbent on us to plan for SEN provision through a technology lens. 

The next few months will prove to be a critical time for schools as they prepare to reopen and get ready for a new school year in August and September. Moving to remote or blended learning practices, or planning for all eventualities will mean adapting to new and innovative methods of delivering lessons will be challenging and - most likely - frustrating. It is clear that everything needs to be done to make sure that the playing field stays level, that students are engaged and that nobody is being left behind or feeling excluded. 

SEN students can be particularly vulnerable as they cope with even the potential of not being at school, with changes in their daily routine, with not seeing their friends or teachers and with grasping new ways of working and accessing learning.  Keeping the student connected to learning and to the school through engagement with their teachers is critical for them at this time.

So how can EdTech tools really achieve this without requiring fundamental changes to curriculums or lesson planning?

The EdTech debate

Educators, policy makers and parents have long debated over the extent to which technology should be used in the classroom and how it can be used most effectively. In the last five years, we have started to see compelling evidence that well-designed technology can make a significant difference to learners’ outcomes when deployed by teachers. Fast forward to remote learning and we’ve vastly increased our knowledge of the impact of technology - we’ve seen increased independence, newly motivated students, and many new ways of engagement. Yet there are of course many students who need more support, and now need it digitally. 

With a vast array of tools available, which are often easy to implement, there are more opportunities now than ever before to make extra support available to all students. It’s important to clarify that it is the synchronicity of tech and teacher time that will make an impact, rather than a heavy reliance on one or the other.

For example, imagine that technology which could help your students to adapt the curriculum to suit their needs and make each learner feel supported, whilst adjusting to how they learn, when they learn and where they learn.. Not only does this create an environment where teachers are able to manage their heavy workload, but they can also focus on spending time ensuring that students who require extra support are receiving it.

We don’t know what the next year holds, but we do know that technology will play a central part. Remote learning can be lonely and disengaging for the student, and the importance of communication, feedback and assessment has never been more important. There are incredibly powerful technology tools available to support these areas, but whenever SEN students are working in this way, we also need to ensure that we supplement these amazing tools with enhanced provision - the finest resources and the finest technology in the world simply can’t be effective if those students can’t access them.

During these testing times, EdTech tools surely give all students their best chances at success and may build a strong foundation for the future.

Making informed choices in a crowded market 

This is all very well, but there is a history of poorly designed products developed by companies that weren’t actively engaged in conversations with educators and didn’t focus on the features, software and programs would make a positive impact in the classroom. This, rightly, leads school leaders to a key question: how do we measure the efficacy of EdTech tools, especially when it requires investment?

In every classroom, there will be children who learn in different ways and with contrasting educational needs. Tools aiming to enhance inclusive learning need to be designed to engage students, whilst also offering extra support and features that encourage all learners to stay motivated.

The recent school closures required schools and teachers to use new means of ensuring continuity of learning for SEN students while they are out of their normal school environment. As we build our remote learning continuity plans, we have to ensure that this stays front and center. 

These new means will be informed by the same steps that underpin teacher practice for in-school settings: planning; implementing; monitoring; and reviewing. In assigning work to be done at home by SEN students, schools and teachers should be mindful of the pressures that some families may be experiencing and not overburden them with large amounts of work that require adult assistance - little and often is the key.

For the families of the 350,000 children aged 0-17 with a learning disability in the UK, the shift away from a traditional school setting and the potential of more to come  presents significant challenges, as many of these students rely on interventions, accommodations, and specialized instruction to support their diverse or specific learning needs.  At Texthelp, our tools are uniquely positioned to help provide that extra layer of support by providing information in alternative formats, helping with self expression and concentration.

With Read&Write, we’ve built a single tool that provides every student a central set of tools and supports that drops right into their learning - so no matter the platform, the device or the subject, they enjoy consistency. Read&Write is used by millions of students across the globe, and is built on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. This is important because when learning happens outside of the classroom, and learning becomes more independent than ever, SEN and indeed every student must have the flexibility to select the tool that helps them most. The DfE guidance is clear, it’s built on best practice and Read&Write provides the central tool that can support every aspect of it:

  • Read&Write helps provide alternative formats. Text-to-speech provides accessibility and modeling, and allows students to create audio books directly from digital resources. Web pages can be adjusted for reading level and have dstractions removed or its layout changed. 
  • It supports individual needs. With dictation for those that prefer it, translation for those with a different mother tongue, prediction to support writing and screen tints to help focus.
  • Read&Write removes barriers to engagement and ensures content stays accessible to every SEN student.

Read&Write is just one of a suite of tools that stretches across deeper engagement and accessibility for math with EquatIO, help with reading aloud through Fluency Tutor and motivation for writing with WriQ

The power of EdTech in a crisis and ever evolving situation

These are challenging times for both teachers and students as schools now plan clear and concise remote learning strategies to ensure provision is in place for wherever we’ll be teaching and learning going forward. In this we must ensure that our SEND students are not disadvantaged and don’t face the barriers that occurred during lockdown. Accessibility for these students will ensure accessibility and equity of access for all students. For many schools, this is uncharted and unprecedented territory. However, EdTech tools can provide the means for building a tech-enabled 'at-home' strategy which will keep students engaged and supported without hindering their learning.

In the short term, teachers will build on what they have learned so far - the importance of workflow with tools like Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams. The need for constant communication. The importance of formative assessment and quality feedback and the balance of the amount and frequency of work assigned to students. But we need to learn and understand more about our SEN students and how we can adapt these areas to ensure they are fully supported. 

As technology advances, digital tools are growing in efficacy and can clearly be shown to positively impact not just SEN learners, but all children as they learn and express themselves in their own individual ways. One thing is clear; inclusion for all students is a priority for policy makers and educators, and as teacher workloads continue to increase, EdTech has a vital role to play in delivering that equality.  

If you’d like to explore how Read&Write, EquatIO and Fluency Tutor can help support SEN students at your school, then please get in touch.