How Can Assistive Technologies Increase Learning? An EduTech Debate

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shades of inclusion -- and exclusion | image attribution at bottomThe excellent EduTech Debate (ETD) site is wrapping up a month of online discussions around the topic of assistive technologies.

For those of you who haven't visited the site: ETD seeks to promote a substantive discussion of how low-cost information and communication technology (ICT) device initiatives for educational systems in developing countries are relevant to the very groups they purport to serve – the students, teachers, and their surrounding communities.

'Discussants' in this month-long debate included Cliff Schmidt, Fernando Botelho, Mike Dawson, Paul Lamb, Tom Babinszki, and Yasmina Sekkat (with Wayan Vota moderating).

To dig deeper into this monthly discussion (or to browse archived past 'debates'), head over to the ETD web site. Here's a flavor of how the discussion has gone so far:

Many of the comments include calls for a re-examination of the way we frame discussions about 'assistive technologies', especially in the context of communities and individuals in developing countries. Cliff notes that 

Children who are challenged by disability and extreme poverty face the greatest danger of being deprived of their right to education and freedom of expression. For this population, technology must not only be accessible; it must also fit within a context of severe limitations in infrastructure and income. The right solution will address the presence of numerous languages within the same region and will empower local people, disabled or otherwise, to contribute to their own knowledge and culture repository.

In We Need an Assistive Technology Strategy not Devices, Fernando argues that the technology focus of many initiatives in this area, while certainly well intentioned, is not enough.

The biggest challenge in bringing access to the digital realm to kids with disabilities in developing countries, and with it access to education and eventually employment, is the adoption of public policy and NGO strategies that are truly scalable. Traditional strategies have no chance of fundamentally changing the horrible statistics that prevail among persons with disabilities given the relatively minuscule resources available to help this community.

Right now, some initiatives run by departments of education and most initiatives run by NGOs spend some of their very limited resources on software-based assistive technologies such as screen readers or virtual keyboards that are extremely expensive. As a result, a very small minority of kids with disabilities get access to technology and then they do, they become dependent on software that they, their families, and future prospective employers cannot afford. Such an approach is just as ineffective whether one is talking about software that runs on PCs, netbooks, or cell phones since the best-known cell phone assistive technologies are extremely expensive.

Finally. Yasmina points out that

When most think of disability, they think of it in terms of extremes. To be disabled is to be in a wheelchair or being unable to see light. They don’t think of the spectrum on which your impairment can reside. While the nuances of ability are better delineated in North America, they don’t always seem to be applied in technology. It’s great to have accessible technology designed for learning, but if the accessibility options aren’t integrated on basic products, than who will use them? Never mind that much of the technology is unaffordable (even in Western terms), the cultural barriers won’t help the implementation.

For more of this discussion, please visit the ETD site

The next EduTech Debate is on the promise of e-learning.   Here's a teaser:

Improving access to education is one of the best investments that donor agencies and governments can make. Now what if it were possible to nearly double the number of secondary and university seats in a developing country overnight and with relatively little investment from the public sector?  eLearning – the provision of educational opportunities via information and communication technologies – could have that kind of scale with recent advances in electronic content creation and the proliferation of technology devices. Agree? Disagree?  Join the conversation & submit your own thoughts (as a comment or post) at

Some previous recent topics addressed on the EduTech Debate site (note that 'ICT4E' is an abbreviation for 'information and communication technologies for education'):

Please note: The image used at the top of this blog entry, representing the mathematical principles of inclusion and exclusion, comes from Wikipedian Collette via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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