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How Accessibility is Driving The Top EdTech Trends


Technology is evolving faster than most of us can keep up. It’s hard to believe that the iPad made its debut a mere nine years ago. 15 years ago, who could fathom that we could keep a computer in our back pockets? Yet a few years later, the first iPhone made its debut and that is exactly what we do.

Keeping with this trend, educational technology is also progressing at a rapid pace. Even though the first online courses were launched in the 90s, the technology required to make the experience equivalent to an in-person learning experience has only blossomed in the past ten years.

One of the most exciting parts of the educational technology boom is that it provides access to all learners, including those with disabilities. Looking at 5 edtech trends for 2019, we can see how accessibility is fueling the technology development and benefiting everyone in the process.

Interactive Whiteboards

The SMARTboard has the distinction of being the first interactive whiteboard (IWB) introduced to the education scene back in 1991. In 1992, Intel invested in the company, propelling them to become a well-known brand name. Unfortunately, they were very expensive, making it a prohibitive cost for most school budgets. As the years progressed, more companies jumped on board, providing consumers with more options at competitive prices. However, only about half of US classrooms are using IWBs as of 2018 due to high costs, as per the National Science Foundation. Today, many schools are adding or switching over to interactive displays, which retain many of the same functions as a SMARTboard, for a fraction of the cost of an IWB.

IWBs benefit many different learning styles by appealing to auditory, visual and tactile senses. They are helping to make learning more accessible and enjoyable by enhancing education for individuals with hearing impairments or learning disabilities. IWBs have also become a great learning tool for students who are blind or visually impaired. Through integrations with other assistive technologies, the text on the screen can be read aloud and instructors can connect Braille displays with compatible software.

IWBs also provide students with physical impairments with different ways to interact with educational content. For example, adjustable heights help accommodate students who are wheelchair-bound. Students who are incapable of holding a pen or stylus can use their fingers, while instructors can use the hand over hand technique to guide them. IWBs also benefit students with learning disabilities. Their interactive and engaging capabilities can increase attention, which in turn boosts learning retention.

Artificial Intelligence

In 2018, Microsoft announced a grant program to increase the development of AI-driven accessibility technology in 3 key focus areas: employment, daily life, and human connection/communication.

An exciting area of AI development for accessibility is in Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology. In the higher education context, many colleges and universities are experiencing a backlog of AI transcription and captioning services, as the demand and necessity are higher than the capability for humans to get it done in a timely manner. Enter AI. For example, at BYU Idaho, Verbit’s AI-enhanced ASR technology cut their media captioning backlog, reducing wait time from weeks or months to days, often delivering in under 24 hours. The technology made YouTube clips, TEDtalks, movies, lectures, and other audiovisual content accessible to their deaf and hard of hearing students.

Augmented/Virtual Reality

Augmented reality (AR) has been around for decades but really began to surge in the last five years. Major developments in the market like Google Glass, the onslaught of 3D and 4D movies, and games like the worldwide phenomenon Pokemon GO have made AR part of daily life. Once again, accessibility is enhancing the development of cutting-edge AR/VR technology.

AR can now be used to help individuals with disabilities explore new areas or places. For example, an individual with a visual impairment may not be able to read the small lettering of signs on campus. With an application that uses a phone camera, signs can be expanded for easier readability. Many AR applications are also adding auditory and haptic feedback to accommodate those with visual impairments. Smart glasses now provide a feature to display captions in the field of vision for people with hearing impairments, so they can get the most out of events like concerts and theater performances.

AR is influencing the world of education by enhancing academic topics like the sciences and humanities. Areas like STEM medicine are being made increasingly accessible through AR, providing more disabled students with the opportunity to study these subjects.

AR technologies enhance the learning process for all students, not just those with disabilities. However, for those who do have a disability, it’s a game-changer. Ruth Richards-Hill says it best in her blog post on AR. “Big tech and the trimmings that come with it have “imagineered” my existence into one of relative normalcy so much so that few notice that I am any different.”

Learning Analytics

Consumer analytics have been around for a few years. How many times have you seen an ad pop up on your Facebook feed for the very product you searched for on Google just minutes earlier? A similar trend is occurring in higher education. The 2016 Horizon Report describes learning analytics as “an educational application of web analytics aimed at learner profiling, a process of gathering and analyzing details of individual student interactions in online learning activities.” These tools allow teachers to monitor their students’ digital activity, understand how they are learning, and tailor learning experiences to match.

Learning analytics powers the prediction of student behavior, curriculum design, and learning interventions. Although it is a relatively new concept, expect to see increases throughout 2019. Analytics can even reveal a learning deficit that a student wasn’t aware of, and help educators devise an individualized learning plan to help the student succeed. This will not only help map out strategies for learners with various disabilities but will improve overall student success and retention rates.

Adaptive Learning

When all these trends come together, they result in adaptive learning, providing the ability to creating more personalized learning experiences and guide students through the curriculum. This type of approach would be almost impossible for a teacher to implement in a traditional classroom, but with educational technology, the somewhat impossible becomes a reality.

With adaptive technology, teachers can more effectively adapt coursework for all students. Educators can track how each student is progressing, and effectively monitor and analyze the information collected. The benefits extend to the students themselves as well. According to Educause, adaptive learning provides students with greater control over their learning, higher engagement, better information retention, more confidence, and higher graduation rates. Adaptive learning levels the playing field for all students, which makes for an overall better learning environment for everyone.

With seemingly endless possibilities, it’s clear that exciting times lie ahead in the field of higher education for both instructors and learners alike. As technology develops further and understanding of different learning styles and strategies grows, the gap between the abled and disabled learner will shrink, eventually disappearing altogether.

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Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities Benefits All Learners

The makeup of the American student population is changing. According to a report by the United States Department of Education, approximately 11% of all undergraduates in American colleges report having a disability – up from 6% almost two decades prior. But, while more students with disabilities are enrolling in college programs, the graduation rate of this population remains lower. 41% of students with disabilities complete college once they begin, compared with 52% of the general population.

This difference often referred to as the disability gap, is a result of a failure of many educational institutions to provide adequate resources to support differently-abled learners. To mitigate this crisis, it’s critical to find a way to provide equal opportunities to students with disabilities. Assistive learning technology in the classroom represents an ideal solution.

Technology for students with disabilities also benefit the schools themselves by appealing to more applicants, diversifying the student body, and enabling compliance with regulations such as sections 508 and 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, both of which prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in any form.

Advancements in technology have brought on a surge of possibilities for learners with various disabilities. Whether a student is grappling with a physical, sensory, or cognitive disability, assistive technology in the classroom allows all learners to thrive in higher education and take advantage of the same opportunities for success as their peers.

Here are three examples of assistive technology devices for students that are making a positive impact:

1. Transcription and captioning

The emergence of video-based lectures and eLearning platforms have revolutionized the modern approach to higher education by embodying efficiency, flexibility, and accessibility for all. Studying online provides a way for anyone to learn on-demand for a lower cost, without being tied to a specific course schedule.

The increasing popularity of this video-driven medium has generated a need to convert multimedia files into text, making an academic transcription and captioning solution a necessity. Incorporating a speech to text solution brings many advantages, including better comprehension of materials and higher student engagement.

One of the most significant advantages of providing transcript and captions is accessibility for all learners, particularly those with auditory disabilities. Providing transcripts helps individuals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing engage with video-based lessons. With around 20,000 deaf and hard of hearing students attending post-secondary educational institutions each year, it’s estimated that there are close to 500,000 deaf and hard of hearing college students in the United States. Providing text accompaniment to video-based academic content ensures that these students are not left behind. Transcripts are also a useful support tool for individuals who are not native speakers of the language of instruction.


2. Academic Proofreading software

Proofreading software is a kind of assistive technology for students that takes the typical proofreading features found in most word processing systems to the next level. It is particularly helpful for learners with dyslexia by offering the capability to correct frequently misspelled words. Other features include:

  • Grammar checker that analyzes context to make more accurate corrections
  • Word prediction and sentence rephrasing tools
  • Adaptive ability to learn from past errors and personalize spelling and grammar suggestions
  • Text-to-speech technology

Although primarily geared towards individuals with dyslexia, proofreading software can be helpful for students with any type of learning disability that makes reading and writing a challenging task. It is also helpful for students who are non-native English speakers to help them hone their writing skills.

3. Electronic Worksheets

Electronic worksheets are software programs that help students organize, align, and work through math problems on a screen. This is helpful for learners who may be unable to properly align math problems using pencil and paper. Many electronic worksheets also include a text-to-speech capability, specifically designed for mathematics voice recognition, so that numbers that appear onscreen can also be read aloud via a speech synthesizer.


Innovation for All Students

By being developed to address complex needs, assistive technology for students with disabilities end up benefiting everyone. As is often the case, many of the technologies that were initially developed for people with disabilities have gone on to become widely used by the general population. Innovations such as image recognition, speech-to-text, chatbots, and self-driving vehicles are technologies that benefit all individuals, as well as society as a whole. This same principle applies to tools developed specifically for academic purposes. Designing with accessibility in mind means creating a product that is more intuitive and feature-rich, meaning everybody wins.

New developments in assistive technologies in education offer almost limitless flexibility, making them versatile and adaptable to all varieties of disability. By leveling the academic playing field and offering equal opportunity, these tools represent the essence of the concept of democratization of education, empowering all learners to reach their maximum potential and achieve their academic goals.

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