Accessibility in Digital Learning

What Educators Need to Know About Assistive Tech Tools: Q&A with Texthelp CEO

Are plummeting literacy skills the new pandemic among young learners?

Dozens of studies over the past year have shown alarming drops in the percentage of students meeting reading benchmarks at the beginning of the current school year, particularly among grades K–2, where 50% or more of students are already behind on foundational literacy skills. The learning loss in math is similarly significant and persistent, those same studies show.

Technology-based solutions are more available and capable than ever before, particularly for the estimated 20% of students with language-based disabilities.

One ed tech provider focused on making digital learning more accessible is Texthelp; its products — including literacy and math instruction software — are built around Texthelp’s core accessibility tools such as text-to-speech, speech input, text prediction, picture dictionaries, and translation.

THE Journal recently asked Texthelp CEO Martin McKay about the growing need for assistive technology, what such features schools should look for when choosing learning platforms, and how accessibility tech helps everyone — not just the one student in five with a language-based disability.

THE Journal: How did the pandemic push digital accessibility tools into the mainstream?

Martin McKay: The pandemic forced remote learning — and suddenly teachers had to deliver instruction remotely and digitally. Students in special education need their math content to be read aloud, so remote learning pushed to the forefront the need for accessible math-instruction technology and text-reading assistive tools that can read math content, for example. During the pandemic, Texthelp saw the usage of our math-instruction solution Equatio grow ten-fold.

Not only do accessibility tools provide the functionality so students can succeed academically, but they help empower students, too, when the right tool is designed to effectively support English learners as well as students with disabilities. So the students with disabilities are not the only ones who benefit.

THE Journal: Approximately how many K–12 students would benefit from currently available assistive tech tools?

McKay: There are 50 million students in public schools in the United States, and about 12% are enrolled in special education, equaling about 6 million students. And there are another 5 million who are English Language Learners.

THE Journal: Do most of U.S. students have access to assistive technology tools now?

McKay: There is still a large gap; we estimate that 70% of K–12 public school students are without district-wide provision of assistive tools.

THE Journal: What are some examples of the types of assistive technology tools now available for K–12 schools?

McKay: There are a broad range of disabilities, and accordingly, a broad range of learning and access difficulties that assistive technology can help with. Just considering students with dyslexia — since that is the largest group among students who can benefit from assistive tech tools — the main problems they have are around reading comprehension and writing. Assistive technology can provide text-to-speech, talking dictionaries, picture dictionaries, and text simplification tools to help with comprehension.

It’s important that these tools need to work everywhere — not just in their word processor. Assistive technology must work in their learning management systems, and must work in their online assessment environment, so that the student can use the assistive tech tools not only in class, but at home as they work on their homework, and perhaps most importantly on test day when they are using a secure assessment environment.

For writing support, the best tools offer word prediction, which helps dyslexic students form words and sentences more confidently. Schools should also look for a spelling and grammar checker specifically designed for dyslexic errors; most normal spelling and grammar tools are not good at fixing dyslexic errors. Think ‘lefant’ = ‘elephant’ or ‘fizix’ = ‘physics’ for example.

There are many more examples — I could fill a five-page article just on this!

THE Journal: What is UDL and how does it impact digital accessibility for students?

McKay: UDL stands for Universal Design for Learning, and it’s an extension of the Universal Design concept that came from architecture. A “universally designed” building is accessible to everyone. Disability access was thought about during the building design — not retrofitted. A ramp outside a hotel, which is there for wheelchair users, is much more often used by guests with rolling luggage, parents with strollers, or the FedEx guy with a cart.

Universal Design for Learning means designing learning experiences and content in the same way. If you design an e-book with built-in literacy support tools, you will certainly help kids with dyslexia, but you’ll also help non-dyslexic kids who are living in a house where no one speaks English. Thoughtful, inclusive design makes the world easier for everyone.

THE Journal: What assistive technology functions or tools should schools require for student accessibility, at a minimum, when they are making ed tech purchasing decisions?

McKay: Text-to-speech that works reliably everywhere: word processor, presentations, PDF, web browsers, the LMS, at home and school, cross-platform (Windows and ChromeOS), and in the students’ assessment environment.

Word prediction that is specifically designed for dyslexic users — not merely like the standard word prediction on iPhones, which is designed to help people type with thumbs on a small device or a tablet. The prediction tool needs to work everywhere, and it needs to work with math: 100% of dyslexic students study math, and they all need to write math notation.

A good user experience that is consistent and easy wherever the student is working.

Customizable tools enabling the teacher or student to configure their tools to provide the support that is needed. Most kids in special education courses, for example, need only 3 to 5 assistive tech features, but the range of features available in our solutions is quite broad: speech, dyslexic spelling, dyslexic grammar, talking dictionaries, picture dictionaries, text and page layout simplification tools, screen masking, study skills tools, OCR to scan, convert inaccessible content, and speech input that works for writing and math.

THE Journal: What new or projected developments in assistive technology do you foresee as becoming more widely available and/or necessary in K–12 schools over the next five years?

McKay: I predict that machine-learning tools that identify dyslexic writing and recommend to students or teachers what type of tools they can benefit from are coming soon.

About the Author

Kristal Kuykendall is editor, 1105 Media Education Group. She can be reached at [email protected].