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Technology

How Assistive Learning Technology Is Making Online Learning Inclusive

How Assistive Learning Technology Is Making Online Learning Inclusive 1

By Sandra Goger is Learning Technology Analyst at Iflexion, Denver-based software development company.

The global online learning market is expected to reach a total size of $319.2 billion in 2025. As education is evolving from the teacher-centric, traditional chalk-and-talk delivery methods into highly adaptive learner-focused hybrid learning.

We at Iflexion are seeing an intensified interest in e-learning solutions. Online education services have gained a distinctive boost, especially in the past few months, as a result of the global pandemic. The forced lockdown has spurred a sudden shift away from the physical classroom, but it has also brutally exposed the inefficiencies in delivering remote learning to struggling students.

The Strife to Accommodate Underprivileged Students

Students and teachers alike find it hard to get their minds around the new normal, what with the connectivity issues, lack of face-to-face interaction, limited access to class resources, and the uphill battle to keep their focus, to name just a few hurdles. But adapting to the remote mode is even more difficult for those who had already struggled with learning before the outbreak.

For financially underprivileged students just accessing an online course may be a problem. Those less well-off learners often lack the basic equipment or sufficient internet connection simply because their families can’t afford it. This, in turn, leads to increased absence from online classes — for some teachers working in poor neighborhood schools, it’s not uncommon to see less than half of the group attend online meetings on a regular basis.

Another barrier is the technical aspect of online classes, which usually need to be additionally adapted to accommodate the needs of the challenged students. Without subtitling or sign-language rendition, it’s almost impossible for those with hearing difficulties to participate in Zoom calls, and the speech recognition systems that are built in the most popular video call apps are usually far from perfect. “Such captioning is generally subpar and would be a disservice to those who rely on accurate captioning to understand and follow their college classes,” says Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.

The sight-impaired are unable to work with text-based tasks that are incompatible with screen reader devices or otherwise inaccessible, and those with other disorders often struggle with operating e-learning platforms. “I have challenges with coordinating and I find using the online portals unfriendly,” admits a Kingston University student with dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Sandra Goger

Sandra Goger

And it doesn’t end just there. Even if software and resources are tailored for the underprivileged learners and easy-to-use, it’s the new learning environment itself that can be the problem. Autistic students, for example, often find themselves overwhelmed by the change. And no matter in what way the students are challenged, all of them face the anxiety and fear that they may not be able to keep up with their peers. “It’s stressful because you feel like you’re falling behind,” says Tiffany Anderson, a blind student at Bowling Green State University. It goes without saying that such pressure is anything but encouraging.

Can struggling students be spared many of those limitations and the resulting stress? The answer is yes — and that’s where assistive technology steps in.

Assistive Learning Technology: Working around Student Challenges

Assistive technology refers to any tool designed to help people offset their impairments. The term is broad and may be misleading, as it also incorporates a variety of low-tech devices — think pencil grips, printed graphic organizers, or even inflatable cushion seats for children with sensory processing disabilities. Assistive tech also includes software, such as text-to-speech (TTS) programs, apps, or built-in accessibility functions of mobile devices. There’s plenty to choose from, and many of these aids can be leveraged for free.

With some creativity, teachers can use assistive technology to bring their e-courses to the next level. If teachers want to simulate real-life events in the virtual classroom or feel that their students could use some healthy competition for extra motivation, incorporating game elements can be the way to go. Electronic worksheets allow teachers to present information in a clear and concise way, which is incredibly helpful for learners with reading and concentration disabilities. These e-worksheets can also be a great way to diversify assignments and keep the entire group engaged.

It can’t be stressed enough that all these aids require a degree of empathy and far-sighted planning on the part of the teacher in order to achieve the best possible effect. For example, instructors should refrain from including texts in any graphic form, such as screenshots, book scans, and photos in school materials in order to avoid text readers’ compatibility issues. Recording lectures and distributing them later will be particularly useful for those who struggle with multitasking and taking notes. Apps that facilitate the communication between the teacher and class members are perfect for note sharing, ensuring that no one is behind as well as making up for limited social interactions.

It’s also worth remembering that in some cases even the simplest solutions can do the job. Some may consider keeping classes on the short side to account for students who find it hard to concentrate for an extended period of time, while learners with reading disorders will greatly appreciate larger, easy-to-read fonts. Inclusiveness is the keyword here.

Conclusion

E-learning solutions continue to build up and transform. Choosing the best tool from the entire array of available software, and hardware may seem overwhelming. Moreover, it’s easy to generalize and assume that two people with the same challenges will equally benefit from one particular aid. That’s why, in the end, it all comes down to asking students what works best for them — after all, it’s them who know their own challenges and it’s them who will use the assistive technology. With that knowledge, picking the right teaching aid will be much easier. Think about what students really need, and that little effort will go a long way.

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