Teachers and school administrators want more tech support to meet the needs of students with disabilities, according to a survey from digital learning platform Clever.
Sixty-eight percent of teachers and 51 percent of administrators said they would like more tech support for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans, which provides accommodations and other services to eligible students with disabilities. Those findings are from an online survey conducted between April and June of about 1,000 teachers and 500 administrators who are Clever users.
The survey also found that 56 percent of teachers and 59 percent of administrators are concerned about the availability of products that effectively serve diverse learners.
The survey findings come as the percentage of students in special education is increasing. In the 2021-22 school year, the percentage of students receiving special education supports reached an all-time high for the 46 years since the federal Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was implemented, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
At the same time, there’s also been a shortage of special education teachers nationwide. One of the most in-demand teaching areas is for special education, and NCES data shows that many schools with open positions in that area are finding it difficult to find fully certified candidates.
“There is a huge need in this area, now more than ever, because of the [staffing] shortages,” said Lindsay Jones, the CEO of CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization that created the Universal Design for Learning framework, a teaching approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners. Educators need support that allows them “to engage students and integrate them into the classrooms and design the environments to be flexible.”
At the most fundamental level, educators want and need basic accessibility features in ed-tech tools for students, especially those with disabilities, experts say. That could mean ensuring that captions are available in videos or that any digital text is accessible to screen readers.
“Even if [students] don’t have an IEP or a 504, the tools have to work for every student,” said Jamie Reffell, the head of product and design for Clever. “There’s just a baseline of accessibility that is super important that not every tool is meeting incredibly well.”
Educators also need ed-tech tools that provide inclusive curriculum materials and actionable data so they can better support students with IEPs or 504 plans, experts say.
Having these tools can save educators a lot of time, Jones said: “One major advantage of well-designed ed-tech systems can be allowing teachers to spend more instructional time with students, which has historically been a concern for educators who work with students with disabilities, because there’s a big administrative component to their job, which needs to be there—it’s required by the law—but it is time taking away from direct, explicit instruction.”
What can district leaders do?
District leaders should ensure that the ed-tech tools they purchase for their educators and students are accessible, experts say.
“[School] systems need to help educators understand whether the technology they’re using is accessible for students with disabilities, and how they can best maximize it to create a dynamic and flexible learning environment,” Jones said.
One way to do that is to require that all digital materials and tools that are going to be purchased are accessible, Jones said. CAST’s National Center on Accessible Education Materials for Learning has sample contract language that districts can use.
It is critical that the procurement process include feedback from the teachers and students who will be using the digital tools, according to CAST’s guidelines. For instance, districts could recruit teachers and students to try the different tools being considered before purchasing those products.
In addition, districts need to provide adequate professional development for educators so they know how to use the tools effectively for students with IEPs or 504 plans, Jones said, and make sure they educate parents about the benefits of those ed-tech products.
Lastly, educational technology companies should include teachers and students during the design process of products they plan to sell to schools, Reffell said. “I would never paper over how much work it is to have those voices be present, but it’s a really important piece.”