Designing Accessible Ed Tech Can Be Costly, But Demand is on the Rise

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The people designing educational technologies are far removed from the students who end up using them. Perhaps most obviously, they’re adults, often many years away from their own time in a classroom. But the differences don’t end there. These designers almost always work in cities, and about 70 percent of U.S. students go to school outside cities. Designers also don’t have the range of language abilities represented in U.S. classrooms or all of the disabilities represented among students.

This matters when it comes to designing educational technologies because it’s hard to assume what very different people need from a piece of technology or understand the ramifications of ignoring certain things. If someone designs a program full of pictures and the pictures aren’t labeled, blind users effectively have no idea they’re there. If a learning platform uses videos to explain concepts, and a designer doesn’t think about the effect of slow internet, students with spotty access are shortchanged.

Sean Oakes, the founder of Backpack Interactive, a design company that focuses on educational technology, said if developers test their products at all, they generally do so remotely, gaining insights into the user experience by watching screen captures of students using their products or by simply soliciting survey responses.

But real insight, Oakes said, comes from observing in the classroom.

“Being in a real environment and not just running a virtual test, it’s a big deal,” Oakes said. “The physical environment is often something that gets left out.”

For example, the Boys and Girls Club spent months testing a learning platform for science, technology, engineering and math that Oakes’ firm had designed. They sent people all over the country to visit clubs and see how actual students used the program. And it gave them important insights about internet connectivity, the logistics of getting a group of rowdy students to sit down and log into their respective computers and the realities of hardware limitations. Also, Oakes said, the in-person visits gleaned a lot of insights about what kids are interested in, design-wise.

But those types of visits are much more expensive than doing user testing remotely. And they are often sacrificed in the design process.

The ed-tech industry is facing pressure to change that, though. Perkins Solutions, a consulting firm for digital accessibility run out of the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, has a front-row seat to the impact. More ed-tech organizations now use what is called universal or human-centered design to make sure their products are accessible to the range of people who might try them, according to Luiza Aguiar, executive director. And more of them do this work from the beginning of the design process. That’s what Perkins Solutions recommends.



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