The Evolution of Educational Technology in Inclusive Learning Spaces from Pre to Post Pandemic

Niki Perrin Bucci


Cape Breton University



Educational technology has had a significant impact on both learning and teaching since its existence. This is particularly relevant for students across grade level with learning, cognitive and physical disabilities. The adoption of assistive technology tools to aid students has, according to literature, had a profound impact on the quality of life for students with disabilities and their families. However as designers continue to aid the implementation of accessibility tools and platforms, there has been notable obstacles for students with disabilities and their families.  This has included the lack of resources, staff training and concrete digital equity policies (Botelho, 2021, p. 88-93).  Assistive technology (AT) has undergone a transformation since its conception in both communities and schools.  As designers become increasingly cognizant of the needs of students with disabilities, assistive technology continues to evolve. The impact of COVID-19 and the resultant transition to elearning was particularly challenging, literature has shown, for this population of students and their families (Barrett, 2021, p.114). Digital equity, parental involvement and socio-emotional issues influenced learning experiences for many students worldwide. As stakeholders examine the lessons learned post pandemic, educational technology for all learners continues to evolve within schools. Literature suggests that a shift to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) model has promise when addressing digital equity issues specifically for students with special needs (Bialka, 2022, p. 1). Future research focusing on local demographics (provincial and national) including concrete accessibility plans for communities and schools, learning theories specifically on students with special needs and technology integration, and next steps for instructional designers when solving the lack of digital socio-emotional connection would be beneficial in order to facilitate inclusivity in public schools.


Educational technology, special needs, disabilities, Assistive Technology (AT), elearning, instructional designers, pandemic, equity, inclusion, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), COVID-19


The presence of educational technology, including assistive technology, in primary to grade twelve schools has escalated worldwide. In Canadian schools, even at the lower elementary level, it is common place for students to engage with Chrome books, iPads, spheros and raspberry pis throughout the regular school day (ICTC, 2020, p. 10-16). Innovative digital devices, tools and platforms can facilitate student engagement across grade level and curriculum. In order to do so, teacher and staff training, communication between educators and designers and access to funding must be given priority.  As schools continue to transform due to influential world events, assistive technology (AT) also evolves within inclusive learning settings. Assistive technology (AT) are devices, platforms and tools specifically designed and implemented to “increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (Ohashi & Zallio, 2022, p. 85). Assistive technology (AT) has undergone a significant evolution over the last three decades. As schools have shifted to inclusive learning models, assistive technology (AT) has enabled learners to particulate more fully using accessibility features and platforms that support individualized instruction (Bowser & DeCoste, 2020, p.95). Even with the growing infusion of technology for students with special needs into learning environments, the impact of elearning and resultant challenges for students with disabilities have been documented repeatedly in literature.  According to the reports authored by The Information and Communication Technology Council (2021), “Early in the switch to online learning research identified that students with disabilities were most vulnerable to feeling disconnected from their peers and insufficiently supported” (p.29). The demands of remote learning due to COVID-19 has had notable ramifications on the role of technology and students with learning, cognitive and physical disabilities. Synthesizing the literature pre, amid and post pandemic has unveiled the constant technological evolution within inclusive school models in an effort to move towards greater digital equity. In order to maintain this digital evolution to meet the needs of all learners, stakeholders must address the challenges documented in literature including the growing role of instructional designers.

Literature Review

Educational Technology Pre Pandemic

Technology tools and equipment have been designed and modified for hundreds of years to assist individuals with disabilities. Literature has documented evidence centuries back to the development of assistive devices including eyeglasses and wheelchairs in both Italy and China (Ohashi & Zallio, 2022, p.86). Since this time, the evolution of technology has continued within communities, schools, and work spaces. The infusion of technological tools, devices and software in the United States has been heavily influenced by the 1988 Tech Act, the 1997 Individuals with Disabilities Act and the 2019 No Child Left Behind initiative (Gatchalian, 2019, p.3). The demand for assistive devices within schools to support children with disabilities was felt beyond the United States and across the globe. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 2007 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for example, advocated internationally the need for policies to mandate digital inclusion especially for individuals with special needs. Assistive technology (AT) has been specifically designed for those with disabilities and has been deemed essential for school and community inclusion at both international human rights conventions (Botelho, 2021, p. 87).

As the awareness of the potential benefits of technology in the classroom has increased, so has the presence of assistive devices and software. In an effort to accommodate all learners, designers at this time began to work with both education and technology professionals to design, develop, implement and evaluate accessibility tools. These included closed captioning for those that have hearing considerations and speech recognition software for those that have physical limitations (Ohashi & Zallio, 2022, p. 86-87). Magnification, text-to-speech, word prediction and speech-to-text, research literature has proven, has had a positive impact on learning especially when made available in classrooms (Bowser & DeCoste, 2020, p. 96).

Although literature has revealed that pre pandemic educational technology was evolving in attempts to meet the needs of students, notable obstacles have been documented. According to Botelho (2021), “Assistive technology is instrumental for the development is instrumental for the developmental and participation of children with disabilities by enabling their communication, mobility, and self-care” (p. 87). The same literature reveals the lack of general awareness of technology aids, lack of services and limited training of school staff and the absence of affordable assistive technology devices.

Upon evaluation of relevant literature, gaps in research and documentation are apparent. First, there is a noticeable lack of literature focusing on local (Nova Scotia) and national (Canada) demographics. Without local and national perspective, a technology needs assessment or analysis within communities is nearly impossible. Further, without applying a concrete method to gather information on needs, such as Dick and Carey’s Systematic Model, crucial information cannot be gathered, analyzed and used to create an action plan. Examining available literature unveiled a second area with a significant shortfall. Current literature does not appear to investigate the link between technology, learning theory and specifically students with special needs. Without extensive research in this domain, it is unlikely that solutions to promote digital inclusion can be properly made.  And, finally, although literature appeared to consistently report the lack of staff training, concrete solutions to this deficit are also seemingly absent. Multiple publications present the need to make available professional learning opportunities for educators specifically in the area of assistive devices and platforms. Literature on this topic consistently revealed that teachers felt ill equipped to implement technology aids to assist students with special needs but further research and recommendations are needed. Future research, for example, on how technology specialists and designers could utilize Vygotsky’s More Knowledgeable Other and Zone of Proximal Development theories to address this competency gap would be beneficial to both teachers and students. Vygotsky’s theory explains that individuals learn when instructed, guided and have collaborated with others who have superior knowledge and skills in a particular area (Abtahi, 2007, p.35). Vygotsky’s approach to learning may bridge the competencies between technology specialists/designers and educators leading to more inclusive learning environments. The synthesis of literature pre pandemic demonstrates the shortage of research on learning theory and students with special needs, the lack of communication between educators and instructional designers and the absence of professional development opportunities for teachers and staff.

Educational Technology Amid Pandemic

COVID-19 had an unprecedented impact across the world on communities, families and individuals. This disruption continues to have long-lasting influences on business, recreation, healthcare and, of course, education. The aftermath in educational settings, literature indicates, has included the evolving role of educational technology in both online and blended learning settings (Rice, 2022, p. 311-312). Students with disabilities, according to The Information and Community Technology Council (ICTC), have encountered more severe obstacles related to elearning as compared to classmates deemed less at risk. Ivus et al (2021), state “Early in the switch to online learning, research identified that students with disabilities were most vulnerable to feeling disconnected from their peers and insufficiently supported” (p.29). Although educational technology continued to have a key role in learning throughout remote learning, students with special needs and their families experienced significant challenges with its integration. Supplementary parent/family responsibilities, lack of teacher skill/training on inclusive digital tools and the challenge of creating online communities that fosters engagement all impacted students with special needs and have been documented in recent literature.

Tools and platforms such as Zoom, Brightspace and Read-and-Write Extension that designers and technology specialists developed were increasingly utilized in virtual learning environments internationally. However, literature has indicated that the burden to support these platforms were placed on parents and families (Ivus et al, 2021, p.30). At a distance, educators were unable to offer the direct assistance needed to navigate many technological sites and programs. Therefore, according to the 2020 OECD report, “Parents not only struggled with the learning platform and tools, but they also were anxious about not having access to good measures of their child’s learning” (p. 93). Similarly, literature indicates that educators across the globe were struggling with the sudden shift to virtual teaching and learning. In multiple self-reporting studies, teachers indicate they wanted to provide appropriate instruction but were not familiar with tools and platforms to support students with disabilities. Navigating innovative technology specifically for students with learning, cognitive and physical challenges had a notable impact on the “learning loss” for many students (Rice, 2022, p. 312). And, finally, using online platforms such as live video conferencing, Zoom and Google Meets did not lead to collaborative learning experiences for many students with challenges. According to Barrett (2021), teachers are particularly skilled at creating community with in-person instruction but lacked these skills in virtual classrooms (p. 103). To create a community of learning a sense of belonging, trust, shared interest and purposeful interactions are needed. For some students this connection was feasible but it was nearly impossible for many students with special needs. Barrett (2021) summarizes the social inequity many students felt by stating “No amount of success on the part of mainstream, more well-resourced students justifies allowing such inequity to continue. If community is what is required to make online learning successful for all, the infrastructure and resources need to be provided to make that community available for all” (p. 114).

When synthesizing and evaluating the literature focusing on the evolution of educational technology amid the pandemic, a definite theme emerged. Even with the aid of technology, a lack of connection among educators, parents, families and students with special needs have been documented. Teachers felt isolated from colleagues and felt ill-equipped to make decisions regarding digital tools and platforms. Parents and families felt overwhelmed with the demands of learning and supporting their child with unfamiliar online platforms. And students, unfortunately, lacked the authentic connection to peers that could not be replicated using video conferencing. Both cooperative and collaborative learning theorists agree that solving problems in a group as a common goal facilitates both academic and social well-being (Education Corner, 2012). Unfortunately, this relationship was a challenge to recreate virtually for educators, parents, families and students. Upon further evaluation of literature, absent from the research is how instructional designers can improve online experiences keeping this socio-emotional consideration in mind. There is limited evidence in literature containing examples of how elearning can be redesigned to be more personalized and authentic for users beyond current video conferencing platforms. As classrooms become more inclusive and infused with technology and online learning resources, it would be beneficial for designers to focus their attention in this domain.

Post Pandemic Applications

The evolution of educational technology in inclusive learning spaces from pre to post pandemic have significant applications in today’s schools. Literature published by Dickerson et al (2022) highlight the advances in inclusive platforms such at Kahoo! Mentimer, Padlet, Jamboard and Poll Everywhere in the post pandemic era (p. 1). Further, they suggest that assistive technology (AT) such as screen readers (VoiceOver, TalkBack, NVDA and JAWS) may be beneficial to students beyond those requiring learning accommodations (p. 3). The theory that assistive technology (AT) could and should be accessible to all learners opens a door for instructional designers. Research literature documented by Hasselbring et al (2005) suggests that the interaction between Assistive Technology (AT) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) frameworks benefits students with and without challenges in school settings (p. 510). Hasselbring et al outline in their research the difference between the two seemingly distinct theories. Assistive technology (AT) models focus on the individual’s needs and seek to solve challenges by utilizing technology. A common problem could be accommodating a student’s lack of reading skills. Whereas, the Universal for Design Learning (UDL) framework addresses the same need in a broader perspective. A student’s inability to read may be seen as an environmental issue whereby printed material is the barrier. Hasselbring et al suggest that assistive devices and tools such as speak aloud software, video conferencing, closed captions and adapted keyboards are educational supports for many learners based on a specific need at a specific time. Hasselbring et al, however, warn that a purely Universal for Design Learning (UDL) perspective may not address the more unique needs of those students with special needs. Built-in accessibility features for universal use need to be critiqued to ensure students with considerations are supported as needed. Therefore, the interaction between Assistive Technology (AT) and Universal for Design Learning (UDL) is crucial to create inclusive learning environments (p. 511).

As schools worldwide navigate inclusive learning practices post pandemic, literature reveals some contradictory views on the role of educational technology in schools. The supplementary parent/family responsibilities, lack of teacher skill/training on inclusive digital tools and the challenge of creating online communities that fosters engagement all impacted students with special needs. According to the research and literature by Joshi & Yassen (2021), remote learning provided many novel opportunities to students including the development of digital literacy skills, increased engagement, and equal learning opportunities. Additionally, teachers were able to adopt new technology competencies that can be used in the post pandemic classroom (p.183). Conversely, literature has also suggested that the pandemic has not lead to a positive evolution of technology in the classroom. Classrooms, some literature suggests, across the glove have reverted to pre pandemic states without the addition of innovative technological tools. Vegas (2022) explains this theory by stating, “What is perhaps the most troubling is that as countries are reopening schools, they are going back to how education was delivered before the pandemic, instead of seizing the opportunity of the disruption to transform education” (p. 1). Although some literature exists on post pandemic plans in both the business and healthcare worlds, limited exists in terms of education. The consistent application of the ADDIE framework used by instructional designers consisting of analysis, design, develop, implement and evaluate would undoubtedly be both relevant and beneficial in the education sector. As educational experiences become increasingly digital, the evaluation phase of this process is crucial. Further, the partnership and communication between educators and instructional designers is ideal in order to appropriately reflect on technology integration and plan next steps.


COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact across the world on communities, families and individuals. This disruption continues to have long-lasting influences on business, healthcare and, of course, education. The demands of remote learning due to COVID-19 has had notable ramifications on the role of technology and students with learning, cognitive and physical disabilities. In Canada, as many as one million children have diagnosed disabilities that impacts learning. This may include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), intellectual disability, learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia), brain injury, etc. (Beauchamp et al, 2021, p. 1696).  The evolution of assistive technology (AT) from pre to post pandemic has, according to literature, impacted inclusive learning opportunities for many students worldwide. Literature has documented that the supplementary parent/family responsibilities, lack of teacher skill/training on inclusive digital tools and the challenge of creating online communities that fosters engagement have been barriers to digital equity for many students with special needs. Literature focusing on post pandemic technology advancements vary but an acknowledgement of the value of inclusive digital access appears consistent. In Nova Scotia, a Digital Inclusion Policy was developed in 2017 to address the availability of assistive technology for individuals with disabilities in communities (p.1). However, this does not appear to directly address the challenges schools face with the lack of digital tools and training. Further, advocates for inclusion suggest a national strategy to address the need for assistive technology. Wang and Wilson (2022) state, “Beyond economic benefits for individuals, society benefits from individuals’ use of AT through improved health, well-being, and quality of life outcomes, and enhanced productivity, decreased direct/indirect health and social services costs, and a strengthened labour force” (p. 356). Again, there appears to be a lack of research literature that details the future plans and frameworks in provincial and national public schools to meet the needs of students with special needs. As schools continue to evolve due to both local and global events, inevitably educational technology will also continue to transform. In order to include all students, fusing Assistive Technology (AT) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) frameworks could improve educational and digital equity. Pilbeam (2020) suggests the role of instructional designers are paramount in the ever-changing digital landscape (p.1). Examining equality vs. equity practices, reviewing course materials, knowing/building community and investing in resources are all critical in the post pandemic world (p. 1-3). When stakeholders take the essential steps of creating digital policies and programs with proper funding and training, students of all abilities will meet their potential in post pandemic classrooms. Perhaps it will take the valuable work of modern instructional designers to lead the charge in the ever changing landscape of assistive technology within inclusive school settings.


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