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Designing for Equal Learning Access

In 1990 the U.S. Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). One possibly unforeseen side effect of the act is that those of us who do not have disabilities have also benefitted from safer and easier access to where we live, work, and spend our leisure time. As companies, institutions, and individuals started following the requirements to design products and services that work for a wide spectrum of users—including those with physical or cognitive challenges—those more able-bodied of us benefit as well.

The best learning software is starting to demonstrate that same revolution of benefits, but it is achieving success in an entirely different manner. Rather than designing a single static product that is accessible to the widest possible audience, the best learning products adapt themselves instant-by-instant to create highly personalized experiences tailored to each individual student.

To continue the ADA analogy, rather than a door handle being shaped and placed so that the great majority can use it with ease, the best personalized learning software constantly creates “handles” crafted to an individual’s specific hand shape and places them at the ideal height for that student to be able to easily open the door to a new world of learning possibilities.

However, it takes a lot of hard work to get to that point. And along the way, the conversation has often focused more on how the technology—or for some the potential of the technology—will improve education. Amongst the bits, bytes, and other “big data” buzzwords, the Person in Personalized Learning often seems to have been forgotten.


What each person needs is the right space to explore, learn, and grow. A welcoming, safe place uniquely tailored for them. Where they not only feel they can succeed, they do. A place where making mistakes is an expected part of that process of exploring and learning. Where instead of high-stakes tests, students benefit from continuous and seamless assessments that transparently drive moment-by-moment adaptations. And where the learner is free to choose between the different concepts and areas that they need to explore at that moment.

In short, a learning environment that meets you where you are and helps you get where you need to go.

Ironically, this uniquely personalized experience would be difficult, if not impossible, to create without computers and software. Even the best teachers don’t have the infinite memory and patience to observe and analyze each interaction by every student, and to then respond appropriately every time. Nor can they do it simultaneously for every student in their class.

When we started developing DreamBox Learning Math, we concentrated on creating a learning environment for students that had been largely overlooked by mainstream software developers—those with specific learning disabilities. This is part of what drew me so strongly to this company; my brother is one of that group of students with unique needs, and he went undiagnosed for many years.

It soon became clear, however, that to appropriately address the needs of even this subset of students—who might struggle in one area but excel in another—we would need a product that was not only rigorous academically but that was also highly adaptable to each student while remaining highly engaging. And wouldn’t such a product benefit every student? We realized that a carefully designed learning product would automatically adjust so it worked equally well for those with specific learning difficulties, those certified as “gifted,” and all those learners in between.

And that’s what teachers and parents are saying happens.

If you want to radically change the way the world learns, you need to ensure that learning is accessible to all, regardless of each individual’s strengths and limitations, or where they are in their learning. Or where they live.

I strongly believe that to best enable all learners you need to design your learning software not for the majority, not for the “average” learner, but for the few who may need some additional accommodation. If your design is valid, everyone benefits. Because everyone at some point in their life will be amongst those that need that additional assistance.