Building inclusive education with SMART and The University of Melbourne

Primary aged students gathered around, and looking up at an interactive display. In the center of the image, a young boy looking amazed at the content on the screen.

Technology is as diverse as the humans that use it.  When it comes to building inclusive classrooms, it’s critical to ensure the tech selected meets the needs of all students — including students with neurodevelopmental differences like autism and ADHD. This is why SMART is dedicated to a research initiative with The University of Melbourne to determine the tools, environments and technologies that best support neurodiverse students.

Why inclusivity in technology matters

Traditional classrooms aren’t often designed with the needs of neurodivergent learners in mind, leading to a mismatch between the environment and the needs of the learner.

Dr. Matthew Harrison, senior lecturer and lead researcher at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, part of the University of Melbourne, is on a mission to reinvent the learning experience for all students.

Researching what neurodivergent students need

To begin, Dr. Harrison believes in listening first. He knows that too often, neurodiverse students are not heard when it comes to technology decisions.

The fix? Go to the people with neurodiverse needs and learn from them.

“There is currently limited research that shares the voices of young students, as well as the challenges and barriers they face at school and in classrooms, whether they have a diagnosed disability or not,” said Dr Harrison.

Both in his Ph.D. and his work with Next Level Collaboration alongside Co-founder Jess Rowlings, Dr. Harrison is relentlessly committed to creating spaces for neurodiverse students to learn, play, and thrive.

“Our understanding of neurodiversity has changed and deepened so much over time,” says Jess Rowlings, a researcher and neurodiverse person herself. “Now, as educators and leaders, we can take that knowledge and learn about the students’ experiences so that education is an opportunity everyone can access.”

How to remove barriers for neurodivergent students

Given the demands on teachers and the varied needs of students, many wonder how a sometimes dizzying array of new classroom technology can truly help support differentiated learning.

For this reason, SMART intentionally uses the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach when designing its products so that technology benefits everyone, whether or not they have disabilities.

In collaboration with SMART, Dr. Harrison and his team will take this commitment to the next level by thoughtfully and intentionally listening to the lived experiences of students with ADHD and autism so that the findings drive the conversation and selection of technology in the classroom. By using the UDL framework, the team can follow an evidence-based approach to using their findings to make the best technology choices.

This process allows the team to anchor their process in the mission: to remove barriers so the technology we create and use is purpose-built for the current needs of our neurodivergent population in Australia and around the world.

After carefully selecting five different school populations to research, the team will take different technologies that address accessibility and neurodiversity to the students; then, they’ll test and assess what works and what doesn’t, with the primary goal of identifying what impacts students’ academic outcomes the most.

Research goals rooted in inclusive education

Together with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, our goal will always be to keep neurodivergent learners at the center of our work.  The findings of this research project will directly inform what students need most from technology so that education is an opportunity all students can access.

As Dr. Harrison says, “We hope that the research will help build out practices that schools can put in place to improve student outcomes both academically and socially. We also hope that the research provides insights to teachers to gain a better understanding of student needs and help to eradicate some longstanding challenges in education by providing an outlook into the future of teaching.”

The research is intended to identify the right technology for schools to select for neurodivergent populations, but the bigger goal is to create accessible learning environments in Australia and around the globe.

Jeff Lowe, Chief Commercial Officer at SMART Technologies, visited the University of Melbourne to announce the research collaboration and said, “We focus on building connections that matter for schools, students, and teachers – and it’s so important that inclusive learning environments are at the heart of that.”

With the theme of connection in mind, barriers begin to fade away, and each student’s unique skills can shine.

Let’s keep connected — we can’t wait to share more insights into neurodivergent learners and technology innovations from SMART.