By Betsy Beaumon
When I was 12, I broke my leg and was forced to engage in school from home for several weeks. In that pre-Internet era, that meant the school district supplying connectivity (a phone line) and specialized equipment that I was able to use to communicate in writing, as well as voice, with a special teacher and other home-bound students. That experience opened up a whole set of possibilities in my mind — that technology could make distance learning and socializing possible, and that my school system was there to support me even when I couldn’t be in a classroom.
Fast forward to 2020, as every student, teacher, and parent in the United States has been forced to carry out education remotely.
Today, students are returning to school in some form, but as predicted in a New America study, most of the 2020-21 scenarios include distance learning in varying degrees, and the situation has shifted back to fully remote rapidly where there have been new outbreaks. It’s not so much the new normal, as it is the “Now Normal,” where things keep changing. This is reshaping education, and that makes it an opportune time to innovate — to use this unprecedented, and unfortunate, national experiment to update our education system to better serve all students, and better support educators and parents.
While educators are struggling to accommodate students in special education, where many students require in person accommodations, I believe there are also lessons from special education to guide our thinking. The personalized and thoughtful approach that is required in special education to accommodate students with a wide variety of needs, the dependence on technology, and the concept of inclusive learning are now more critical than ever to serve all students. The entire system of education in America is struggling but it is special education that may have both the largest challenges and the most innovative ideas to help use this crisis as a transformative opportunity.
Personalized learning is an Opportunity
While online learning or blended learning may be the REQUIREMENT, personalized learning is the OPPORTUNITY.
It turns out there are personalized learning experts in our midst — they are special educators. These heroes work out which methods and tools are needed for each student – exactly what is needed for today’s remote learning situation. Maybe a student with dyslexia needs ebooks that can speak the words as they are highlighted, using a mobile device?
From assessment to provisioning to integrating this capability into lesson planning, this is done every day in special ed. Now, many students need their books and materials electronically, through a mobile device, because that’s their only available option. Some Bookshare users report feeling like they are now on a level playing field with all of their peers because the technology options allow them independence and to go at their own pace based on their learning style.
States, districts and classrooms need to form their learning strategies with inclusion as a baseline requirement. This is not only important in accommodating students with disabilities; it will pay dividends in Personalized Learning serving all students. Inclusive materials and tools enable personalization in instruction, providing students with a variety of ways to access the curriculum.
Luckily, educational materials that are born digital can also be Born Accessible, and certified as such, allowing a wide range of students to access the same books or courseware.
Tech Support for Teachers and Parents
Like so many things, COVID-19 has made longstanding problems more clear, and such is the case with training on technology tools for education. This is now an imperative across the board; from pre-service to in-service, and from special ed to general ed.
Policy needs to catch up with the growing reality that educators need technology training in their credentialing programs so that they can support students in the classroom, and now, remotely. There must also be serious focus on increasing district resources to help deal with the new demands of virtual learning for students, educators and parents.
Broadband Access is 21st-Century Plumbing
When pandemic learning began, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimated that 9 million US students are lacking internet access or devices to access online learning.
The Federal government should outline minimum requirements to protect all students, just as IDEA protects the baseline needs of students with disabilities, and mandates measurements of success. In the digital learning world, there must be baseline requirements for connectivity and device availability, while allowing particular products and standards to change over time as technology advances. Federal officials can and should do more in future legislation to close the connectivity gap and expand access to online learning so that every student has an equal opportunity to learn and succeed in school.
Technology and virtual learning tools have improved tremendously since I engaged in remote learning as a 12-year old child with a broken leg before the internet existed. Despite this progress, our experience with COVID has revealed the gaps and shortcomings we still need to remedy as well as the opportunity we have to improve learning for all students if we align technology and policy the right way. We are all in this together and will emerge on the other side of the pandemic even stronger if we all do our part.
Betsy Beaumon is the CEO of Benetech, a nonprofit that empowers communities with software for social good in education, poverty alleviation, and human rights. Betsy has been advocating for ethical and inclusive technology for over a decade. She is focused on innovating around the immense potential of technology to drive inclusion, equity, and justice to positively impact marginalized communities across the globe.