Universal access to education refers to the ability of anyone to have equal opportunity in education regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, or mental and physical disabilities. 

While already a growing trend, the current environment of COVID-19 and resulting distance learning has made equality of access in education a pressing issue.

Most schools and educational institutions around the world have temporarily closed in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

These closures are impacting over 72% of the world’s student population (1), and other localized closures impact millions of additional learners, such as corporate or continuing education students.

In order to mitigate these closures, institutions are moving en masse to online education. Unesco has called for governments and educational institutions to provide appropriate distance education for all learners in their #LearningNeverStops campaign as part of Unesco’s COVID-19 Education Response

But what does COVID-19 and the resulting move to online learning mean for those students who are particularly vulnerable?  

The current pandemic has had an impact on all students. But some individuals are affected more than others, and the crisis is hitting the most vulnerable groups the hardest: people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and rural communities. This is especially true for education institutions where staff is grappling with remote teaching and distance learning and parents are unprepared for distance and home schooling. The European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) is calling on local education authorities and governments to ensure the inclusion of all students and staff so that the COVID-19 situation does not magnify existing social inequalities.

In reality, the Coronavirus pandemic is a moment to educate institutions and students alike about the importance of equality and anti-discrimination. In the US, the Department of Education’s Civil Rights guidance to educators states “Schools that have educational programming online should ensure that students with disabilities and with Individualized Education Plans (IEP) have access to the same information and enjoy the same programming as their nondisabled peers.” (2) In an effort to educate and support educational institutions to meet this directive, the United States Department of Education has published directives on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak and an introductory webinar on Online education and website accessibility. 

The effects of distance learning and online education

The online nature of remote learning brings the question of web accessibility to the forefront, while highlighting the various available online tools that assist in making content accessible. With practically all students now doing their schoolwork online and through distance learning, the ability for learners to not only have physical access to the work, but be able to understand the content itself is paramount.

Learning institutions are challenged with making sure that all online content is accessible to everyone, even those with learning difficulties, dyslexia, literacy needs, or those that need support getting through all of their content, not to mention those learning in a second language. 

Accessibility for a diverse population is more important than ever in the current pandemic situation and will be even more so in the post COVID-19 world.

So, how can over-solicited educational institutions respond to these demands in a timely and efficient manner, while facing IT challenges, juggling getting students and courses online, educating parents, dealing with falling revenues, and a myriad of other challenges currently facing them?  

Education technology as a basis of equal access content

Education technology and the richness of online tools is the anchor for these institutions. Resources like Khan Academy, Google Classroom, Duolingua, and a myriad of other distance learning solutions will help institutions provide the necessary content and instruction to their student populations. However additional education technology tools and assistive technology are needed in order for certain individuals to be able to fully exploit these resources. 

Where does text-to-speech technology fit in with equal access?  

Text to speech is a fairly simple and efficient way for educational institutions to begin providing accessible content to the students as well as addressing WCAG web accessibility requirements. Text-to-speech tools read text out loud, and many of these tools are accompanied by highlighting and other speech-enabled tools such as dictionary, dictation, pronunciation guides, page mask, enlarged text, dyslexia guides, etc. which help a wide variety of diverse students access and engage with educational content. Traditionally used as an assistive technology tool for those with learning disabilities, dyslexia, and literacy challenges, text to speech is now seen to support a diverse population of students such as linguistic minorities, refugees, and anyone that can benefit from text that is read out loud. 

Silver lining for the future of education post COVID-19

There are silver linings to every crisis and there will be positive outcomes in education. It will be difficult to return to the past status quo, and as distance learning takes on a growing role in education, accessibility to content, web accessibility, and individual learning will become even more important issues. 

As Paul Reville says in the Harvard Gazette, “There are things we can learn in the messiness of adapting through this crisis, which has revealed profound disparities in children’s access to support and opportunities. We should be asking: How do we make our school, education, and child-development systems more individually responsive to the needs of our students? Let’s take this opportunity to end the “one size fits all” factory model of education.”(3)

In the post COVID-19 world, equality of access in education will have increasing importance, both as institutions begin to be aware of its importance, but also in order to help fragile students catch up and maintain their educational level.

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(1) https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/
(2) United States Department of Education
(3) Paul Reville, Harvard Gazette, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/04/the-pandemics-impact-on-education