Sunday, November 23, 2014

Free Doesn't Mean Barrier Free

Source: Flickr user Sybren Stüvel
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Last week I had an interesting conversation with a parent that illuminated an issue that I think is important to those of us who are using, or advocating the use of digital tools in the classroom: Free tools aren’t necessarily barrier free. In this case, her concerns arose not from how tools were being used in the classroom, but the expectations around students and parents using these tools at home. This parent wanted to be involved in her child’s education, and had made several attempts to the issues her family was experiencing addressed by the school. To be specific, this parent was experiencing issues with using Google Apps for Education and the chosen home/school communication tool while on the family computer at home and on mobile devices.

As teachers, I believe our responsibility is to ensure that all areas of our practice are as barrier-free as possible. While we want to provide an engaging experience for our students and their families, we first need to make sure they can access those experiences at school, at home, and anywhere else they might need to. If our students and families can’t access learning experiences and communications with the resources they have at hand, then it is our responsibility to meet their needs, not their responsibility to purchase the newest, latest and greatest hardware or software.

Here are a few thoughts that I had based my conversation that should be considered for tools that you are going to place a heavy reliance on in your classroom.

Know your community

One of the first things that I did each year was to survey my students and their families to find out what kind of internet access was available in their homes, and how much access they had to a computer or other networked devices (tablets, phones, etc.). This informed many of my other decisions around integrating educational technology in the classroom.

Passwords and Accounts are Barriers

With regard to home/school communication tools, passwords and accounts are barriers. I think that our responsibility as teachers is to make our classrooms as accessible and transparent as possible, so it is my responsibility to ensure that parents can access that information without having one more account or one more password to remember. In addition, my own experience has been that when you require a parent to enter a password to view information about their child’s class, they are much less likely to visit the website or resource. 

Most parents want to know the following things on a regular basis:

  • What did my child’s class do today? (*Notice the wording - “my child’s class” not “my child”. Specific information about any child should be communicated confidentially to a parent via another means)
  • Do they have any homework?
  • What can I do to help them?
  • Is there anything coming up that I need to be aware of (field trips, assessments, school celebrations, etc.)

None of this information is confidential and parents and students can only benefit when they have access to this information. When we choose a tool that means a parent needs to sign up for a new account, or enter a password to receive this information, we have put a barrier in place. If you have things that demand greater security, you can put them in password protected locations such as Google Drive or a learning management system such as Desire2Learn or Moodle.

It is specifically for this reason that I have advocated for classroom teachers to use public blogs to communicate with families. Blogger and Wordpress are my favourite tools and both offer easy options to have parents subscribe by email. Blogs are also easy to push into Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms if you have a community who uses these social networks. The reality is that most parents aren’t on Twitter, but most have email, so at the bare minimum, you need to choose a platform that parents can sign up for easy email updates.

Responsibility to Understand the Tools we Use

One of the concerns raised by the parent that I was speaking to was that her child had a great deal of difficulty accessing Google Apps for Education (GAFE) on their home computer and mobile devices. Their home computer was a little bit older, and as regular users know, GAFE works best with an up to date version of Chrome (and works well with up to date versions of any of the other major browsers). The experience on mobile devices is best on Android, decent on iOS, but sorely lacking for Blackberry users. 

If we are using GAFE, we should be prepared to help students and their families understand how to effectively use these tools on any device. We should not assume that just because it is free, that it is easily used by all students and families. Luckily, Google has built in features that make it easy to download Google Docs that make it easy for students to save their work to a USB key in a variety of formats including the OpenDocument format, which can be opened and edited with the free office editing suite OpenOffice (you can even get a portable version that can be run off of a USB key). 


In some cases, you may have a student or parent who has absolutely no internet access, and no computer or other networked devices. In this case, feel free to print! Blogs and Google Docs can both be easily printed. One of the easiest ways to print a blog for easy reading is to use the Clearly extension for Chrome. It removes all of the sidebar elements from your blog, just leaving the posts. If you’re printing a Google Doc, be sure to double or triple space it, so that the student has room edit the document.

Building Digital Literacy for Parents

Another option for teachers is to work with parents to build their digital literacy skills. Most parents want to be involved in their children’s education, so consider sending home “cheat sheets” that are personalized with their child’s username/password for the tools you will be using on a regular basis. You might also consider offering evening learning opportunities for parents where you and your students teach parents about the tools you are using in class.

Obviously I sincerely believe that teachers should be offering their students engaging learning experience that leverage the power of digital learning tools and resources. We need to remember that we can’t let our own enthusiasm for a certain tool overwhelm the need to ensure it is accessible to our students and their families.

I’d love to hear other suggestions for ensure your digital learning experiences are accessible to all students and their families in the comment section.

Steps to download a Google Doc
File menu --> Download As --> Choose a format