Posted by Paul Nisbet on the 3rd October, 2022
At the Dyslexia Scotland Conference on Saturday 1st October I asked "How can learners with dyslexia reach their potential with 1:1 technology?" and in the presentation I explored some challenges and hopefully, identified some solutions. I thought it might be helpful to write a few blog posts to unpick some of the issues I discussed. Today, we think about the accessibility of digital devices.
In March 2021 John Swinney pledged that every child in Scotland would receive a personal digital device by the end of the current Scottish parliament:
Just as in my day, the teacher handed out a jotter to all, so in this internet age, we will hand each child the device they need to learn and prosper.
Assistive digital technology can be very helpful for many children and young people with additional support needs. Dave Edyburn writes:
When a person finds the appropriate AT, they are able to complete tasks that they previously could not complete, did slowly, or did poorly. The right AT augments, bypasses, or compensates for a disability.
Curriculum for Excellence aspires to
enable all children to develop their capacities as successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society.
When the curriculum was first introduced, I wondered how you can become a
Assistive technology can give us positive answers to these questions.
A learner with dyslexia or visual impairment who has difficulty reading learning materials can use digital technology to change the font, size or colour of the text, or use text-to-speech with our Scottish voices to listen to it. A student who finds it hard to hold a textbook or turn the pages can access a digital version and use switches or even eye gaze to navigate it.
We want to help our young people to become confident, independent learners. If a student has difficulty reading, writing or talking, does having someone sitting next to them in class or in an examination reading to them or writing for them develop independent life skills and help them to become more confident? If we taught the student to use tools and strategies so they could overcome barriers to learning and access learning more independently, would they be more confident?
I'm absolutely not suggesting that technology can replace personal support from teachers, learning assistants, peers, parents and siblings - we all know that technology can be unreliable and frustrating and simply unhelpful. Sometimes it doesn't work and doesn't meet the needs of learners. And many of us have learned over Covid (including me) that we really need contact and to work side by side with real people. But we do want to promote and responsibility and avoid 'learned helplessness' and assistive technology can offer independence and foster responsibility for some learning tasks and contexts.
We work with children and young people who have additional support needs arising from physical, visual or cognitive challenges or from a learning difference. It's hard to contribute in class if you can't speak and a communication aid may help you. Contributing in writing is a challenge if you can't hold a pencil because of a physical disability, but if you can use a keyboard or tablet or other access technology, you may be able to write. Maybe you have a real challenge with spelling and you're finding that this prevents you from sharing your ideas and knowledge? Modern spellcheckers, word prediction, speech-to-text dictation or recording your ideas as voice notes might help you to contribute more effectively.
The Oxford Learner's dictionary defines 'potential' as
the possibility of something happening or being developed or used
and that's where we are with 1:1 technology in Scotland. It's a possibility, it hasn't happened yet and there are some actions that are needed before the potential can be realised. The theme of the Dyslexia Scotland Scotland conference was the "Dyslexia - the Learner Journey" and we need to chart a slightly difference course and improve our methods of transport if we are going to carry all our passengers on this journey.
In my keynote presentation I suggested we need to consider these factors to help us along.
In some parts of Scotland we have a problem with the accessibility of digital technology in schools. It isn't good enough.
On Windows devices there are accessibility settings so you can for example make the mouse pointer larger or increase the size of the text and content on the screen. This is really helpful for learners with visual impairment. You can slow down the key repeat and change the response of the keyboard, which can make life a lot less frustrating for some people with physical or motor challenges. You can press the Windows key and 'H' at the same time and dictate instead of typing, which can be helpful for everyone and especially learners who have difficulty with spelling. iPads and Chromebooks have similar tools.
Except that on many computers and laptops in Scottish schools, you can't, because the Ease of Access Settings aren't there - staff and learners can't get to the settings because access to Ease of Access is disabled. If you want to change settings, you have to contact technical support and (sometimes after a considerable delay) you can use the tools.
There are technical and security reasons (I think) why access to Ease of Access is switched off, but I've been complaining about this for decades and it's still a problem. It's not acceptable and it prevents learners with disabilities or additional support needs from accessing the digital technology and hence digital learning that are enjoyed by their peers. If we're going to give a device to every learner, they must all have equal access.
Disabling access to accessibility tools contravenes Scottish Government statutory guidance, which suggests that:
the full range of accessibility options within the operating system can be utilised, for example, to slow down mouse speed or keyboard repeat rate, or to enlarge screen fonts or reduce screen clutter, or to access context menus;
This is not only a problem with Windows devices - we see similar situations with Chromebooks and iPads.
Learners in some local authorities are being provided with personal Chromebooks. In one local authority, the voice typing dictation tool on the Chromebooks is switched off. In other areas staff report that it's very hard to get accessibility 'extensions' installed on the machines.
City of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Scottish Borders and Falkirk are giving iPads to every learner in P6 and above. The apps that are available for learners are (rightly) restricted, but in some of these local authorities, staff complain that it takes a very long time to get accessibility apps or apps that are needed for learners with additional support needs.
One teacher emailed to ask:
Within authority we have been trying hard to get Seeing AI installed on I-pads for our VI pupils however our learning team are currently encountering some hurdles regarding setting this up due to GDPR as it scans and stores information relating to individuals. Has anyone managed to overcome this?
Another teacher on our Inclusive Digital Technology course earlier this year said:
We are having big issues with the lack of apps we are able to download on ours and the pupils iPads, as from what I can see there are no communication apps approved by XXXXX council and getting approval is taking months. So I have lots of ideas about things I want to implement with my pupils and am not able to access them as yet. It is extremely frustrating!
I recently did some research investigating which technologies were used by students sitting SQA examinations last term and I found that hardly any students used Chromebooks or iPads in the exams - the teachers I spoke to said that almost all the students used a Windows device. Now there are several reasons for this, and one of them is that iPads and Chromebooks often don't have an app that can open an SQA Digital Question Paper. So we're giving digital devices to students, and encouraging them to develop skills to address any additional support needs (assuming we've sorted out the accessibility, see above) but the learners can't use these devices or tools in their external assessments. This can't be right.
OK Paul, I hear you say, stop complaining and start talking about what we do about it.
We need Accessibility Standards for the 1:1 technology programme.
It's not appropriate for Scottish Government to dictate how local authorities fulfil their legal obligations to provide an effective education for children and young people, how they address the needs of leaners of learners with additional support needs, or how they meet Equality legislation, but I suggest that it is appropriate for government to specify what should be provided in terms of access to digital learning.
The Accessibility Standards should update the statutory guidance issued in 2014 to reflect technology in 2022 and the 1:1 commitment.
The Accessibility Standards should require local authorities and responsible bodies to take steps to ensure that digital learning technologies are accessible for learners with disabilities or additional support needs and that digital learning is accessible for all our learners. This has to happen to meet education, ASL and Equality legislation.
We're offering to help draft these Standards.
Learners should be able to use the built-in accessibility tools and not have to fight their way through helpdesks and complex processes. Microsoft, Apple and Google have spent huge time and effort to provide us with these tools - let's not switch them off. It can't be right to give every learner a digital device and deliberately turn off the accessibility options and tools so that some learners can't use them. That must surely breach ASL, accessibility and equality legislation.
The built in tools on Windows, Chromebooks and iPads are good, but sometimes , as we've seen, learners with disabilities or additional support needs need an additional app or resource and so the standards should also require responsible bodies to provide pathways and processes where learners' needs can be identified and met in good time. Again, the 2014 Scottish Government checklist suggests that:
Specialist software required by learners with disabilities can be easily and quickly installed and used on school computers.
I have huge respect for everyone in national and local government and schools who is involved in making digital learning work and we certainly don’t want to make life harder. One of the challenges though is balancing accessibility and equality with security and protection and I'll explore this in the next blog in this series.
Using AI to Support Learners with Dyslexia