We've got all our children online? No, there's some way to go on accessibility, warns John Galloway
The use of the internet for learning in British schools is ubiquitous, and with more than 90 per cent of UK secondary schools, and more than two-thirds of primary schools now using their own learning platforms, they are moving beyond YouTube and the Khan Academy to create their own web-based resources for students.

For many this brings rich educational experiences out of the classroom and into their homes, or wherever they happen to be studying, but for some there are barriers that deny them this opportunity. And that could be as many as 20 per cent of our children.

At any one time the best part of 20 per cent of British schoolchildren will be considered to have some kind of special educational need or disability (SEND). These can range from sensory impairments, such as being deaf or blind, to physical disabilities, or to a specific learning difficulty like dyslexia. Without additional consideration or provision this can mean that they are inhibited in learning with the range of digital resources found both online and in schools.

Learning is a lifelong activity, so it is not only school age children who face this problem, but older students and adults, too. In fact, as disabilities develop with age, so increasing numbers of people need support to access digital information.

According to recent research by Vodafone, across key markets covering 1.76 billion people, roughly 11 oer cent of users (136 million people) will have some kind of special need or disability. In Europe it is reckoned to be about 80 million people. These are figures that are difficult to overlook, and that have prompted action across the continent.

Universal design improves access for all

In the UK the Department for Culture Media and Sport has issued the e-Accessibility Action Plan, which lays out the arguments for improving accessibility, and promoting the concept of "universal design", the idea that ensuring improved access for the widest possible audience actually makes things better for everyone.

There has also been the issuing of guidance from the British Standards Institute, the much heralded BS8878 Web Accessibility Code of Practice, which in non-technical terms helps those creating web pages through the process of design and procurement.

There are similar approaches across Europe, with the EU due to issue it's own standards for accessibility and mobiles phones later this year. Given that for many people, particularly those among the more vulnerable groups, smartphones are their main means of getting online. These are being welcomed by advocates and industry alike.

A further impetus is given by the Equalities Act of 2010 and its requirement that providers of services make reasonable adjustments to ensure that anyone with a disability can use that service, a provision that to a large degree now covers schools.

There are many things schools can do. They can start by ensuring the design of the pages they post, whether on the school website or learning platform, are well designed, clean and uncluttered with straightforward navigation, using colour schemes that are easy to read, and graphics for those who might struggle with reading. The BS8878 standard is a good guide for this, and while the £100 price tag may seem expensive, lost educational opportunities can be even more costly.

With the development of ebooks, and the ease of use that tablets offer, there are some obvious ways in which technology can improve learning for all sorts of learners. They can also look at the auxiliary aids they can provide, such as screen readers to bolt-on and give support whenever students need it.

John GallowayJohn Galloway works as advisory teacher for ICT/SEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, London, and as a freelance writer and consultant.  He is the author of Harnessing Technology for Every Child Matters and Personalised Learning and runs his own blog.

 

BETT logoJohn Galloway is speaking at BETT 2012 along with Marcella Turner-Cmuchal from the European Agency for Special Education Needs Development. To find out more about how guidance, standards and available resources can improve access to electronic information for learners of all ages, with the breadth of special needs and disabilities, here and abroad, come along to "Online accessibility – UK and European approaches to meeting the challenge" at 1.30pm 13.30 on Friday January 13 in the SEN Theatre.


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