Education Technology Services

Understanding the costs of accessible edutech solutions for learners with disabilities

We have made incredible strides in supporting learners with disabilities. From an era where they had no aids or opportunities to learn, we have traversed through limited support via speech therapy, braille readers and the like to the present-day scenario where mature technologies such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text sustain learners with visual and motor difficulties.

Yet, the glass is not even half full. Accessibility is a mantra that many edutech providers chant, but funding, scaling and last-mile reach remains a far-off dream for many, especially in third-world countries.

It is undeniably an uphill task catering to the spectrum of disabilities, from learning and cognitive disabilities to supporting people with motor and congenital issues. But technology, when deployed adeptly, can be a great leveller. So why is it not happening here?

One of the key factors that inhibits scaling and adoption is the cost of making accessibility part of edutech solutions, whether they include resources or assistive technologies such as hardware, software, pedagogy, or support.

Several organisations have been making concentrated efforts to understand these costs in a data-driven manner – the first step towards addressing the costs and mitigating them. The World Bank’s 2022 report “A Landscape Review of ICT for Disability-inclusive Education” is a pioneering effort in this endeavour. The report details how despite the catalytic effect information and communication technology (ICT) tools can have on accessibility and learning outcomes, there is a definite gap between technology solutions and their applications in low- and middle-income countries.

Comprising country studies in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and other countries, the report examines the results of surveys, observations and interviews with learners and enablers using ICT and assistive technologies such as interactive whiteboards, mobile phones and tablets, multi-language support software and other reading and writing equipment. Up to 81% of the technologies were in place before the COVID pandemic of 2020, ensuring that disruptions during that year were not a confounding factor in the results. The technologies had been deployed with a variety of learning goals, including improving communication and social skills, accessing curriculum materials and more.

  • The cost of the technologies was reported as a major barrier of access. About 35.9% of the technologies cost $100 or more - a significant amount in local currencies of low-income countries, with only 15.1% being free of charge.
  • The technologies deployed were possibly improperly deployed, leading to inadequate adoption which could affect further funding downstream, in turn leading to increased costs. Assistive technologies or educational technology solutions with about 10% of learners were not assessed for usability or appropriateness.
  • The families or schools of disabled learners comprised a significant share of buyers of edtech for inclusive education. The purchases were made via private sellers or manufacturers without any mediation by the government. Cost was therefore an important barrier for these buyer categories to access the technologies.

Similarly in their 2021 report titled “Cost-Effectiveness and EdTech Considerations and case studies'', authors Rachel Chuang, Nicholas Burnett and Elizabeth Robinson posit that edtech providers and enablers must take an important consideration into account when planning to deploy cost-effective solutions: to define the costs in detail. This is vital because the cost detail informs future evidence-based decisions. Chuang et al state that the “cost data is often not disaggregated, calculated incorrectly, or missing”. Costs must be real-time, transparent, and accurate. Costs may occur after the lifetime of a project, in hardware maintenance, subscriptions and tech support.

Here are some of the typical inclusive edtech solution costs that must be accounted for teaching and learning:

  • Network equipment and server hardware costs, including repairs and replacements during outages and maintenance runs
  • Licensing fees for curriculum
  • Software costs
  • Vendor or technology lock-in costs
  • Pilot and test bed costs
  • Energy usage related costs
  • Connectivity costs
  • Infrastructure costs such as buildings, infrastructure to house new equipment securely
  • Salaries for teachers, technical support staff and labour costs for device, system or network issue resolution
  • Parental engagement costs.

As per the report, other factors that impact cost-effectiveness in edtech solutions include:

  • Comparing the impact across interventions
  • Promoting intersections of equity and cost-effectiveness
  • Conducting short- and long-term analysis
  • Designing for the present as well as the future
  • Keeping sustainability and financing in mind.

Such factors are pushed all the more to the front and centre when it comes to learners with disabilities. Their needs in terms of technology may not be catered for with standard equipment. Learners with disabilities will need specialised hardware and software as well as teachers and support staff trained to support the learners through the intervention.

Making edtech-supported learning accessible and inclusive for all learners, including those with disabilities, needs to be a carefully planned exercise, taking all stakeholders into confidence and understanding the gamut of associated costs.

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