Technology is often heralded for personalizing learning. But what has edtech done for students with disabilities, who may need personalized education the most?
One Classroom for All
Technology has made leaps in terms of bringing special education students into the general education classroom, according to Shannon McCord, an augmentative and alternative communication specialist with the Pajaro Valley School District in Watsonville, Calif.
“Recent technologies mean you don’t have to single kids out,” says McCord, who has worked to integrate technology into classrooms for over 25 years. She explains that by using tools for special needs students in a general education classroom, educators can help all students learn--together.
One tool that has made a difference is the soundfield system, in which students can better hear teachers through classroom speakers and a microphone for the educator.
“Soundfield systems were originally created with students with hearing impairments, tied directly to the hearing aid, which would help a child know who to listen to,” she explains. Now, the Pajaro Valley School District can build soundfield systems directly into classrooms. “Having it in the classroom makes it so the hearing impaired student isn’t different, but instead everybody can focus more--kids with ADD, or just distractible kids, know who to tune into,” she says.
The Power of Everyday Tools
According to McCord, the most successful assistive technologies for special education students in the general classroom largely involve innovative uses of everyday tools, especially in a district like Pajaro Valley, where many students qualify for free lunch and are from migrant families. These tools can be as simple as changing the background color on a browser or cursor size, McCord describes.
“Over the years, I’ve shifted from [using] alternative curriculum to making existing technology work for me,” says McCord. She recounts one student with cerebral palsy, who often lost her place while reading due to problems with ocular movement. McCord got ahold of an old iPod from another educator in the district and installed Read2Go, an app which reads text aloud. “By using existing tech in this more alternative way, she can use the book like everybody else, but with an earbud in,” McCord explains. “She’s able to get through the book faster that way without losing her place--it really increases comprehension.”
This creative approach to individual problems is especially important for students with disabilities. As Phyllis Wolfram, Special Education Director at the R-VI School District in Ozark, Missouri explains, her students are “very unique.” Wolfram says, “If you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism--tech allows us to explore so many different options, and enable each of those children to have an amount of independence, and an ability to express themselves.”
The Pressing Need: Tech Support
Wolfram and McCord are both confident that teachers will come up with more and more ways that tech can help students with special needs learn in a general classroom. “As general education teachers are more familiar with technology in general, they’ll be able to use it to assist special education students,” says McCord. “For students now, [technology] can just be part of the classroom, rather than a lot of equipment in the back of the room.”
But to be comfortable using more technologies, teachers need more comprehensive tech support. “Technology has the potential to provide a bridge and a support to provide student-specific material and direct instruction to students,” explains Patricia Wright, VP of Professional Services at Rethink, which designs technologies to support special needs students. In order for tech to serve as a bridge, “the meat is localized implementation support,” says Wright, emphasizing its importance in making tech successful in special education classrooms.