Five Things District Leaders Need to Know About Inclusive Technology Systems
Considerations for expanding inclusive technology for teaching and learning in K-12 technology systems are rooted in a vision for equitable education. The two previous articles in this three-part series explored educational and assistive technologies as core components of equity. This final article spotlights a district’s leadership role in implementing inclusive technology systems that promote equity in education.
In his opening remarks at the U.S. Department of Education’s Educational Equity Summit, Secretary Miguel Cardona noted that equity work is a “continuous effort.” As the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) shifts its focus to equity, with funding for these efforts from the American Rescue Plan, districts ready themselves to do the hard, continuous work of striving for equity.
A foundational component of equity is a functional definition of accessibility. The following definition has been shared across this series to set a common understanding of accessibility for this essential work. The definition was outlined in a joint “Dear Colleague” letter in 2010 from the USDOE and the U.S. Department of Justice. The definition states that to afford people with disabilities the opportunity to “acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as people who do not have disabilities in an equally integrated and equally effective manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use,” there are systemic considerations, and they are a matter of civil rights.
“Equity in education is about providing all students, from all backgrounds and all parts of the country, with the resources and supports that they need to succeed and thrive in our society. It’s about providing them pathways to contribute to their communities, and to make the world a better place. Equity is not a passing buzzword, but an ongoing, continuous effort to make sure that every student feels supported in their classrooms and in every educational environment.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona
Department of Education’s Educational Equity Summit
June 22, 2021
The Center on Inclusive Technology & Education Systems (CITES) at CAST, working closely with seven partner districts across the nation, has set out to discover what it takes to create and sustain inclusive technology systems as part of ongoing equity efforts. The result is the CITES Framework, a tool to support district leaders on their equity journey.
School cultures value strength and innovation, but what about being inclusive and equitable? District leaders need to shape and mold beliefs and actions to cultivate a culture of inclusion and equity. Actions speak louder than words when shifting school- and district-culture. This shift to an inclusive mindset requires modeling those inclusive practices during professional learning opportunities.
One way to ensure that staff encounter these demonstrations of inclusiveness is by intentionally planning for and implementing them as part of a professional learning (PL) plan. Clearly defining the outcomes of a PL plan allows district and building leaders to ensure educators have the space to build empathy. Educators build empathy toward the end-users (the learners) of inclusive teaching by being learners themselves. Clearly defined PL outcomes also offer building teams an opportunity to construct a shared understanding and gain consensus on the practices well before any formal training or expectations are established. But, “inclusive” professional learning isn’t just for those staff supporting marginalized populations, it’s an “all ed” effort.
An essential role of leadership in education is to work with staff, students, families, and the community to create a vision that ultimately helps all students reach their potential. Technology has become a foundational part of this vision leveraged in teaching and learning, as well as in district infrastructure. Without the use of technology, educators and learners are at a disadvantage. Technology, for some, is not just about increased access. It’s about access, period. Students with disabilities and other marginalized populations of learners continue to be at a disadvantage due to a lack of equity of access to technology and the usability of that technology. (Learn more about equity of access and equity of use in “Five Things AT Leaders Need to Know About Inclusive Technology”)
Technology implementation impacts the entire system from the district office, to the learner and their families. But barriers arise consistently and often arise due to silos of implementation and systemic challenges. A shared vision for inclusive practices, supported by technology, can curb and eliminate such inequities. First, by employing the input of an “all ed” team to inform the work ahead, leaders can identify current technology barriers. This team should reflect the population served in the district; students and families of various backgrounds and cultures offer voice to a shared vision. The team should also include key district personnel across assistive technology, educational technology, and information technology. Second, districts can use these barriers to inform goal areas. The cross-discipline team and additional personnel can then actively engage in work to dismantle technology implementation barriers. Finally, communicate the work system-wide. Leaders ensure that students and educators understand how the plan works for them. When the vision, words, and actions of district- and building-leaders promote inclusiveness, these silos begin to diffuse.
Assistive, Information, Educational: It’s all Technology
Technology implementation decisions and considerations are robust and multi-faceted. Information technology specialists consider privacy and security, data collection, and integration. Teaching with technology requires educational technologists to consider instructional strategies, tools, and navigation to support student-centered learning. Additionally, helping learners with disabilities and their families to engage with technology as a support to living, learning, and working is the essential function and ultimate consideration of assistive technology professionals. Decisions made in one of these areas of technology implementation have a ripple effect across the other areas. When made in haste or with no regard to integration, technology implementation can negatively impact student privacy or learning.
Teamwork makes the dream work. To prevent the unintended consequence of siloed implementation, district technology services can join forces. Teaming allows for the shared ownership of technology infrastructure. Shared decision-making requires input, alignment, and accountability across departments. Working through a continuous improvement process to identify barriers and problem-solve, the access to learning remains cohesive. Shared ownership also ensures that decisions are made that pursue and meet the guidelines set out in federal statute regarding accessibility of learning materials and technologies. (Learn more about accessible materials and technologies for learning in “Five Things EdTech Leaders Need to Know About Inclusive Technology” and at the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials)
When promoting accessibility, web designers refer to content that is built with accessibility in mind as “born accessible.” In other words, the content doesn’t require retrofitting because it was universally designed from the outset. In fact, if education leaders were to adopt this notion of “born accessible,” across school environments, even physical settings — libraries, cafeterias, restrooms, and playgrounds — would be designed for use by the widest range of individuals. When applied to the usability and accessibility of the technology, resources, materials, and activities of teaching and learning, born accessible can support Universal Design for Learning in powerful ways. Districts can even go as far as to consider those direct interactions, strategies, and delivery of learning as “born accessible.” Ultimately, every aspect of our education system, including teaching, learning, assessment, leadership, and infrastructure has implications that require considerations for inclusion. To achieve equity, accessibility and usability must be at the heart of district decision-making.
The unique context of our current educational system (post-pandemic, mid-technological revolution) presents an opportunity for districts to reconsider the system with the “born accessible” notion in mind. Whether discussing the new elementary school building, the adoption of a new advanced calculus curriculum, which instructional framework to select, which device to purchase, or even your special education service-delivery model, the need to consider inclusive practices and accessibility is essential for ensuring equity. By employing a continuous improvement process to refine technology implementation to support inclusion, district leaders can ensure the vision and plan is working.
Delegate Authority but Not Responsibility
Developing a strategic plan allows districts to get clear on district decision-making that requires consideration for accessibility and usability to promote true inclusion. A strategic plan identifies goals and benchmarks toward improvement. This notion of accessibility is not new; however, the role of accessibility as a leadership role is. Which professionals have the knowledge, skills, and expertise to support this critical work?
Ultimately, district leaders are responsible for what happens in a district. These are big concepts — life-changing concepts. Each concept is as important as the next when creating inclusive systems, especially technology systems. The responsibility of implementation belongs to district leaders, however, the depth of knowledge and decision-making can be delegated and dispersed across roles and responsibilities.
Establishing expectations in job categories can serve as a sustainability measure for the implementation of inclusive technology systems. Adding selection criteria to job descriptions can ensure that newly hired personnel are aware of, and present with, a skill set for this work. The professional learning plan that aligns with the goals and expectations of a district will support current staff to gain the resources necessary to build their toolkits. Eventually, this work will become systematic across roles.
For example, in the selection and responsibilities of their role, digital learning or educational technology specialists are required to coordinate with assistive technology specialists to provide professional learning opportunities that include, but are not limited to, Universal Design for Learning, accessible materials and technologies, and inclusive instructional technology strategies.
Educators across the system are selected and evaluated on skills in inclusive learning design that proactively address learner variability, with the expectation of promoting the use of accessible materials, technologies, and assistive technologies to support learner autonomy and agency. Additional selection criteria include understanding accessibility laws that impact educational services and supports under IDEA and Section 504 including, but not limited to, the consideration and provision of accessible materials and technologies as assistive technologies. This understanding allows for co-planning between general educators, special educators, direct service providers, and/or assistive technology specialists to design inclusive learning experiences.
The roles and responsibilities of the leadership team and staff across the district are essential. An inclusive mindset is everyone’s job, but to truly create an inclusive technology ecosystem, more comprehensive roles and responsibilities toward assistive technology, accessibility, and technology integration are required.