Future of Learning

Designing accessible ed tech can be costly, but demand is on the rise

Schools are putting more pressure on developers to think about access

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

The people designing educational technologies are far removed from the students who end up using them. Perhaps most obviously, they’re adults, often many years away from their own time in a classroom. But the differences don’t end there. These designers almost always work in cities, and about 70 percent of U.S. students go to school outside cities. Designers also don’t have the range of language abilities represented in U.S. classrooms or all of the disabilities represented among students.

This matters when it comes to designing educational technologies because it’s hard to assume what very different people need from a piece of technology or understand the ramifications of ignoring certain things. If someone designs a program full of pictures and the pictures aren’t labeled, blind users effectively have no idea they’re there. If a learning platform uses videos to explain concepts, and a designer doesn’t think about the effect of slow internet, students with spotty access are shortchanged.

Sean Oakes, the founder of Backpack Interactive, a design company that focuses on educational technology, said if developers test their products at all, they generally do so remotely, gaining insights into the user experience by watching screen captures of students using their products or by simply soliciting survey responses.

But real insight, Oakes said, comes from observing in the classroom.

“Being in a real environment and not just running a virtual test, it’s a big deal,” Oakes said. “The physical environment is often something that gets left out.”

For example, the Boys and Girls Club spent months testing a learning platform for science, technology, engineering and math that Oakes’ firm had designed. They sent people all over the country to visit clubs and see how actual students used the program. And it gave them important insights about internet connectivity, the logistics of getting a group of rowdy students to sit down and log into their respective computers and the realities of hardware limitations. Also, Oakes said, the in-person visits gleaned a lot of insights about what kids are interested in, design-wise.

But those types of visits are much more expensive than doing user testing remotely. And they are often sacrificed in the design process.

The ed-tech industry is facing pressure to change that, though. Perkins Solutions, a consulting firm for digital accessibility run out of the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, has a front-row seat to the impact. More ed-tech organizations now use what is called universal or human-centered design to make sure their products are accessible to the range of people who might try them, according to Luiza Aguiar, executive director. And more of them do this work from the beginning of the design process. That’s what Perkins Solutions recommends.

Related: Learning technology once reserved for special needs students is now in everyone’s hands. Can teachers figure out how to use it?

“Our philosophy is, if you design products and services for people with a range of ability, it’s going to be better for everybody,” Aguiar said.

Perkins Solutions helps ed-tech companies and others think about users with vision impairment, mobility issues and even temporary accessibility challenges, such as when a person has a cast and can’t use a mouse. User testing helps identify what challenges people have using a product and then Perkins Solutions’ accessibility experts offer potential fixes.

Public schools must make their websites accessible or they open themselves up to legal action. And many colleges and universities are trying to make accessibility part of their brand – in an attempt to attract more students and build a reputation around such efforts. It’s not just a liability issue, but an ethical one.

Aguiar said Perkins Solutions has also been conducting a number of trainings with K-12 schools about how to make their online documents and content more accessible, as schools move even more of their academic operations online.

At both ends of the education spectrum, educators and administrators are making new demands.

“They’re putting pressure on ed-tech companies to be more accessible,” Aguiar said.

This story about accessible education technology was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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