It is 23 years since I first attended the Bett educational technology exhibition and, with the exceptions of a few misses due to babies and Covid, I have been to the show for most of those years. Each year a dominant theme emerges with previous examples being massive touch screens, iPads, robots, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Reality. In 2024 it wouldn’t be hard to guess that the emergent theme was AI. Almost every technology company had found a way to integrate AI into their product and a large proportion of the theatre presentations promised teacher time saving alongside learner opportunities and cautionary messages.
Whilst AI has massive potential to enable and engage disabled learners it was apparent that many of the teachers, tutors and learning support staff attending had not yet employed some of the accessiblity tools which are built into the devices learners use every day. Despite being integrated into Microsoft products for 8 years, many educators still don’t know about the Immersive Reader and Dictate your documents tools. Similar options are available on Chrome and Apple platforms. Much of my time at Bett was devoted to talking to attendees about this much more basic aspect of digital accessibility, or introducing speakers who were. In parallel to the multitude of AI-enabled solutions on display, it was obvious that a basic knowledge of how technology could be more accessible is not commonplace. It was a privilege to be part of a panel also featuring inclusion and accessibility legends Nic Ponsford, Carol Allen, Becki Bawler and Myles Pilling. We had 30 minutes to get the messages of “you have some solutions already” and “leave no learner behind” across. Hopefully we succeeded.
Many people I spoke to noted that there were very few exhibition stands at Bett which are targeted at learners with additional support needs. It is often a task for those working in specialist education or as inclusion specialists to seek out the products which contain accessible features, or can be adapted to meet specific requirements. It could be argued that this is reflective of greater inclusion and the old model of a “Special Needs Zone” is just that, an outdated model. To truly ensure that digital tools are inclusive or can, through use, enhance access educators need to ask the right questions. Some examples of these questions are: Has the product been designed to enable inclusion of all learners? How would a blind, deaf, dyslexic or physically disabled learner access this product? How will this product work for a learner who needs all the text to be read out, or needs text in a different format, or needs to speak rather than typing? These questions and others are featured in the (independently produced) Bett buyer’s guide and I truly hope attendees had read this guide before making decisions about which technologies were right for their school or college.
Much like hedges are often the most nutritious and interesting part of a farmer’s field, the interesting stuff is often found by wandering the edges of exhibitions. Should you choose to attend Bett, or other large shows of this kind, one of my top tips is to stick to the edges. Companies that have only managed to rent a 3×3 metre stand often have great solutions. Even if these weren’t designed with your learners in mind, the companies are often flexible enough to talk about how they might be adapted to meet the requirements of your learners.
As I was leaving Bett, a conversation with Professor Mark Martin (aka @Urban_Teacher) summed up many of my thoughts above. He asked me, “What is the accessibility tool you recommend the most?” Of course I referred to the accessibility tools built into Windows, iPad, Chrome, Mac. He smiled, waved an arm to take in the expanse of the exhibition and said, “Oh, rather than all these shiny toys…”
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