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Commentary COVID-19 in Maryland Education

Opinion: As Tech in Schools Becomes the Norm, a Holistic Approach to Accessibility Is Critical

Digital Divide
Photo from Unsplash.com.

By Dan Cogan-Drew

The writer is cofounder and chief academic officer of Newsela, a tech company that provides content for educators.

Now that the second full school year since the start of the pandemic is over, it is clear that K-12 education has changed — permanently. The increasing use of technology and online resources was already underway, but the disruptions brought on by the pandemic greatly accelerated the trend and there is no going back. It is a shift that has great potential to benefit students, but we must take proactive steps to ensure all students have the tools and supports they need to succeed no matter where they are learning.

These changes are good and even overdue — using tech whether in the classroom or while learning remotely has the potential to keep today’s students engaged. It makes it easier to collaborate and imparts 21st century skills that make students college and career ready — but it also has the potential to vastly increase existing inequities in education.

To ensure these new tools work for everyone, we must take a holistic approach to accessibility that takes into account three factors: Access to the internet; access to online resources that are optimized for all students regardless of ability or disability; and access to lessons and content that are relevant to students’ lives and experiences.

At the most basic level, all students need to have computers and stable internet connections. Programs that offer free laptops or tablets can provide the hardware students need, but we also have to make sure students have access to a stable internet connection in a safe environment that is conducive to learning.

Everyone remembers the image of the little girls who sat in their local Taco Bell parking lot in California to attend remote school because they didn’t have internet access at home. While those girls’ commitment to education is inspiring, no student should have to choose between a safe environment and access to the tools they need to learn. After school programs are important for helping students access the internet outside of school hours, and public WiFi projects that allow people to connect to the internet at libraries and public parks are also important to closing this accessibility gap. But more needs to be done.

Of course, the job isn’t done when students connect to the internet. Once students are online, they must be able to use the resources they have access to. Ensuring materials are available in languages other than English, utilizing text-to-speech technology, and providing screen readers for students with difficulty seeing are all important steps that make online tools more accessible.

Maryland took a big step ahead of many states when it enacted the Equivalent and Nonvisual Access Accountability Act for K-12 Education this spring. This important legislation requires local school districts to ensure their vendors provide materials that comply with the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a uniform standard for accessibility that makes online content more accessible to people with disabilities.

Maryland’s bill goes farther than similar laws in other states by providing clear and meaningful enforcement mechanisms for districts to ensure compliance. This is a critical step toward increasing equity and accessibility in learning for students with disabilities such as blindness and low vision, deafness and hearing loss, and limited movement.

Finally, once we’ve ensured students are connected to the internet and able to use the tools available online, we need to develop lessons that are relevant to students’ lives and resonate with their lived experiences. Our research shows that students learn better when they can see themselves represented in their lessons. Teachers using content that reflects the diversity in our classrooms is critical to keeping students engaged and achieving the best learning outcomes.

The Maryland Association of Boards of Education’s (MABE) Leading For Educational Equity Through School Board Governance Workbook is a valuable resource that guides teachers and administrators through step-by-step exercises to define clear diversity goals and prepare lesson plans that will resonate with all students. School leaders need to use this and other tools to develop materials that are accessible to students of all backgrounds.

My company Newsela, an ed tech supplemental curriculum provider that takes real world content from trusted sources and makes it instruction-ready for K-12 classrooms, was proud to sponsor MABE’s workbook, which aligns closely with our philosophy of offering highly relevant content to students of all backgrounds including content by BIPOC authors, African American and Latinx history collections, and others.

The past three years of pandemic-disrupted schooling have shown us the potential of technology to make education more flexible, engaging, and timely. However, with these advantages come new challenges, especially around equity and accessibility. Maryland is leading the way with legislation like the Access Accountability Act, but to truly achieve equity in our schools, we need to close all of the accessibility gaps. We must ensure all students have access to the tools to make learning fun and engaging, as well as content that makes them want to learn and that prepares them for the world as it is today.