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EdTech for learners with disabilities: urgent need to focus on access, engagement and learning outcomes

Two children use sign language in a classroom
“Deaf School Sri Lanka” by izahorsky is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The current approaches to providing high quality learning experiences to learners with disabilities in low and middle-income (LMICs) countries requires radical rethinking. To date, significant numbers of learners with disabilities are not enjoying the benefits of barrier-free and meaningful engagement with the school curriculum in order to reach their potential. Appropriately matched technology to learner needs – in terms of good fit, safety and durability – is crucial to ensure learners with disabilities can actively engage with the curriculum and lead fulfilled and dignified lives.

In an effort to generate more robust insights into the current state of the area, EdTech Hub commissioned a systematic literature review to map out what is known about the use of EdTech to support the learning of children with disabilities (aged 6-12 years). The aim of this review was to answer one important question: What can we learn from existing evidence about how EdTech is being used to support learners with disabilities to inform future programme and policy-making?

This blog summarises key points in relation to the focus and quality of research that was analysed in the review, but, more importantly, argues that further robust and inclusive research of the use of EdTech for children with disabilities and their families in LMICs is urgently needed.

The systematic review included publications in international peer-reviewed English language journals, between 2007 and 2020.  Relevant studies were identified through automated searches using the electronic Searchable Publications Database (SPuD), which is a database developed internally by EdTech Hub that aggregates literature focused on the use of technology to support teaching and learning in LMICs spanning several disciplines. A total of 51 papers (43 journal articles and 8 conference papers) were finally deemed suitable for closer review. 

Key features of the studies:

  • Most studies were undertaken in Asia (n=27), followed by Africa (n=16), South America (n=6) and LMICs in Europe (n=2).
  • The majority of the studies were short (under 3 months) and had a small sample size (below 40). There was a higher number of studies on sensory impairments: deaf / hard-of-hearing and blind (n=20) / low-vision learners (n=15), with few studies of other disability or impairment groups. 
  • There was a dominance of studies that conducted testing and evaluation of software programs, particularly on sign language, with little or no engagement with pedagogy, learner engagement or learning outcomes. Despite significant efforts towards inclusive education, a significant number of papers were located in special schools. 
  • Few studies (n=6) investigated the knowledge and skills of teachers, while only a handful (n=3) specifically examined teachers’ attitudes towards using technology in their teaching. A similar small number (n=5) involved consultation and participation of parents or carers in the development and piloting of new software or assistive technology.

The review identified a small amount of evidence showing how learners with disabilities are embracing and benefiting from EdTech in various curriculum areas in different school settings. 

However, while we identified a few innovative examples, the review has highlighted large gaps in the evidence base and in the quality of the studies, which often lacked the involvement of learners and teachers and showed weaknesses in the design process. A number of studies focused mainly on issues of access with little attention to the specific learning needs of learners with disabilities. Additionally, many of the studies were not rigorous enough in matching the technology to the learner, environmental context, the curriculum and the students’ learning outcomes.  Furthermore, they did not consider the global commitments linked to human rights disability and sustainable development.

Taking the research field forward. 

1. Based on insights from these studies, we call for: Better alignment of EdTech research to global commitments set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Research that goes beyond the issue of access to focus on quality learning experiences for children with disabilities learning experiences for learners with disabilities is critical. There is an urgent need for research to take a multi-dimensional view of EdTech in the education of children with disabilities with a focus on entry, engagement and empowerment.

2. More robust research designs to evaluate the conceptualisation, design, testing, and impact of appropriate technology within different environmental conditions (such as gender, age, location — urban, peri-urban, and rural, public / private schools, curriculum area) to inform effective policy making decisions.

3. Greater involvement with user groups including learners with disabilities and their teachers in the design and implementation of EdTech studies (e.g. purpose of study, type of technology, integration into learning situation, and relevance to the curriculum) and EdTech initiatives. This includes discussions about the viability of specific types of EdTech in learning settings, which can form the basis of moving from small-scale, design-centred studies, to larger-scale, multi-country studies that measure the impact of technology on learning outcomes.

4. Work with key stakeholders in LMICs to ensure that research undertaken is sensitive to their needs and is applicable to the context of local realities. Funders need to allocate sufficient funding and time for the development of research capacity within institutions, particularly those in countries where evidence has been limited. Researchers working in this field should be encouraged by funding bodies to publish in recognised international, peer-reviewed journals through open-access routes. 

As a concluding reflection, we wish to emphasise that there are small but innovative EdTech projects taking place with learners with disabilities in LMICs, however the lack of published insights makes it impossible to open up conversations about the quality of this work, and the important learnings which could be shared between stakeholders and policy-makers. 

While research is not always a high priority for some donors or non-government organisations, there is a need to develop a culture of collaboration between these organisations and the international research community, so that reflecting and contributing to knowledge development is seen as an equally rewarding and important enterprise which can be meaningfully integrated into EdTech programmes. 

Read the full report: EdTech for Learners with Disabilities in Primary School Settings in LMICs: A Systematic Literature Review

You can also read our policy brief: How Can EdTech Support Primary School Learners with Disabilities in LMICs?

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