Society cannot afford to leave children with learning difficulties behind

Flashy Soup Can, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Flashy Soup Can, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Christian Vögeli, founder of ed-tech startup Dybuster, talks about how ed-tech individualizes learning for children with dyslexia or dyscalculia.

Aisha Schnellmann: How can ed-tech help children who have learning difficulties grasp concepts better, and how does this complement in-person education?

Christian Vögeli: Children with learning difficulties often find it hard to complete simple arithmetic and reading tasks by means of automation and direct retrieval from their long-term memory. This lack of automation contributes towards the children’s inability to read or complete math problems correctly and at a faster pace.

This is where ed-tech can really make a difference. It is able to ask many questions quickly, give immediate feedback and present similar questions to learners slightly differently each time. These features help learners develop automation by reinforcing concepts and training the brain not only to commit these to long-term memory but also to repeatedly retrieve them when completing related problem-solving tasks.

“Ed-tech’s role complements in-person education and is a tool that helps teachers be more effective with their time in the classroom.”

Ed-tech is also able to display concepts and tasks in ways that would not only be difficult to achieve but also time-consuming otherwise. For example, with the use of 3D modeling, the software of my company Dybuster is able to enhance the visual and spatial perception of learners, which is especially important in math.

AS: Will ed-tech eventually replace teachers?

CV: Ed-tech cannot and should not replace teachers. Much of a child’s ability to learn is dependent on his learning environment and teachers are an important part of this context. They are able to motivate struggling students, and give them the confidence they need to achieve their learning goals. Ed-tech’s role complements in-person education and is a tool that helps teachers be more effective with their time in the classroom.

AS: How do you create a learning platform that works for children with difficulties in learning?

CV: Firstly, you need to understand the underlying causes of the learning difficulty. At Dybuster, we looked at neuropsychological research and how neuropsychological development differs in children with dyslexia or dyscalculia. We looked at the current hypotheses, and how ed-tech could trigger similar development as it occurs in children without these learning difficulties.

“A platform for children with difficulties in learning has to be encouraging, allows the learners to train on their own, and does not require input or corrections from teachers all the time.”

Secondly, you need to create an environment where the children can escape the anxiety that they build up towards their learning difficulties. The learning platform should remove the social pressure they face daily and give them ownership of their learning.

On the learning platform, the children should be able to correct themselves, get feedback, and, more importantly, find the right solutions by themselves. Introducing gamification also can have positive motivational aspects because it gives the children the feeling that they advance and profit from the learning, shows them the progress they have made, and lets them experience their own success.

So to be effective, a learning platform for children with difficulties in learning has to be encouraging, allows the learners to train on their own, and does not require input or corrections from teachers all the time.

“Achieving inclusivity means achieving individualized learning in a classroom. This means ensuring that the different levels of strengths and weaknesses of learners are covered.”

AS: How do you think ed-tech for learning difficulties will increase inclusivity in the education system and level the playing field for all learners?

CV: Achieving inclusivity means achieving individualized learning in a classroom. This means ensuring that the different levels of strengths and weaknesses of learners are covered. To achieve this individualization, it is necessary that the children be provided with tools to train individually.

Ed-tech supports the education system by enabling this individualized learning. By developing automation in children with learning difficulties, ed-tech increases their learning speed, and reduces the amount of energy and concentration they have to invest in mastering foundational learning skills, which affects how well they grasp other related subjects.

“Helping children with dyslexia improve their basic skills of reading and writing gives them a better chance at performing in other subjects that use written language.”

Children who are better at reading and writing would likely perform well in language-based subjects. Therefore, helping children with dyslexia improve their basic skills of reading and writing gives them a better chance at performing in other subjects that use written language. And because written language is used in almost every subject to ask questions and provide information, virtually every subject is affected.

AS: Do you think ed-tech for learning difficulties will eventually become a part of the education system?

CV: I think the education systems in many countries are still not ready for it because even on a fundamental level, they unfortunately have not yet begun to address the issue of learning difficulties. Inclusive schooling is not practiced and the resources needed to support it are not provided. A lot of experience and allocation of resources are needed for inclusive education systems to be successful.

“I think the education systems in many countries are still not ready for it because even on a fundamental level, they unfortunately have not yet begun to address the issue of learning difficulties.”

Only when sufficient resources have been allocated will people be able to start thinking about the possible solutions they need to better support children with learning difficulties. Then they will realize they can profit from using ed-tech for training these children to develop automation.

Switzerland, where Dybuster is based, has been doing a good job with inclusive education for the past 20 years, so there is plenty of knowledge and sufficient resources allocated to support children with learning difficulties. In the city of Zurich, two-thirds of all schools use Dybuster products to support special educators in their teaching. Students are able to supplement their learning with the ed-tech in school and at home as supervised homework that can be completed online.

Technology ultimately cannot solve all the problems faced by children with learning difficulties. It can however support education systems that provide resources to help these children achieve academic success. As a society, we cannot afford to leave children with learning difficulties behind.

Christian Vögeli is the managing director of the ed-tech startup Dybuster. He studied computer science at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zürich), where he obtained a distinction for his Master’s degree. His Master’s thesis focused on the information-theoretic model behind Dybuster.