Higher Education: Why digitisation is key to widening accessibility to underserved groups

With online and remote learning now 'the new normal' industry expert Dave Sherwood, CEO and founder at BibliU discusses why digitisation is key to widening access to education

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Online learning - a more inclusive education
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Dave Sherwood
On 5 March 2021 21:53

If you were to ask most people about their idea of a utopia, I’m willing to bet that “fairness” would feature heavily in the majority of answers. Most Governments strive to create a “fair” society, and for many, this would mean ensuring individuals are not limited by their economic or social considerations.

A university education can be key to accessing many opportunities, and as such, much effort has been put into widening student populations to include a number of underserved groups.

To this end, much progress has been made, but to truly widen access it is imperative that we remove all barriers to higher education. When we look at how we can effect real change, particularly in the light of COVID-19 accelerating the growth in inequality, technology has a huge role to play.

Digitisation is the key to unlocking access for all.

Technology will allow us to achieve new levels of inclusion – let’s unpack how.

Pricing out the widening of access

Upon entering higher education, students are faced with a torrent of non-tuition-related financial barriers. Take the example of educational resources – where the average student is expected to spend anywhere between £450 and £1070 a year.

Most courses will require usage of many separate materials in order to facilitate effective learning, but many students will have no awareness of the high cost of these resources before entering a faculty. These are not insignificant figures, meaning those from disadvantaged backgrounds may find themselves forced to forgo textbooks, unable to afford them.

This creates a two-tiered system, with those coming from more stable financial backgrounds more likely to succeed while studying. These disparities have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

With libraries remaining shut to help inhibit the spread of COVID-19, and education now being conducted digitally, those who would only have been able to access learning materials by borrowing books from libraries will be hit the hardest.

Again, this disproportionately affects those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

To ensure that there is no long-term impact on their studies, it is important that universities implement a targeted intervention. Better use of technology can ensure equal opportunities for all students, no matter their social or economic background.

Institutional partnerships with integrated platforms are key to ensuring collaboration at scale, thus future proofing EdTech strategies.

Bringing highly detailed analytics at both a macro- and micro-level to provide a holistic overview of student accessibility and performance will open up greater opportunities to increase engagement. Without consistency across the entirety of an institution, digital integration will only go so far; it requires platforms that take into account the human element when collating new insights and functionality around this area.

How to drive inclusive learning

Technology provides a pathway to improve inclusion and engagement for all students regardless of background.

To maximise impact, the process for programme design and delivery must be accelerated and made available more widely. The most successful initiatives bring efficiency to online provision, connecting organisations which are working towards the same goal of tackling diversity, equality and inclusion.

Digital content tools make it easier for universities to adopt resources that make education more accessible for a diverse student population.

By reducing the complexity of providing digital course materials, including Open Education Resources and textbooks, universities will be more effectively empowered to make the switch, which is especially critical for BAME students who are disproportionately impacted by the cost of education.

Meeting the needs of different students

Individuals with disabilities may have been discouraged in their pursuit of higher education, with course materials failing to meet their needs. Assistive technology must now be leveraged to ensure that these students are given the same opportunities as others. For example, Good Feel converts musical scores into braille, and there are text-to-speech software for those with poor sight, as well as speed-readers for those with neurological disabilities.

Similarly, BibliU’s text-to-speech and speed-reader, alongside synchronised online annotations, mean students who learn differently have access to the assistive technology they need.

A higher education can be the key to improved life outcomes, and as such it is important that as many as possible are afforded the opportunity to study. While there have traditionally been many barriers to widening accessibility, these can now be surmounted by leveraging innovative technologies.

These need to be appropriately implemented to ensure that they meet the needs of today’s student. Only by doing this will we be able to improve outcomes for all.

Dave Sherwood is CEO and founder at BibliU

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