GUEST BLOGGER Susan Botts is an Inclusion Coordinator at Northaven Elementary. She has taught students with special needs in the Greater Clark County School System for 22 years. Susan is married with two children who are both seniors this year. Kassandra is a senior at Indiana University majoring in Telecommunications and her son is a senior at Silver Creek and plans to attend IU in the fall.
I have taught students with special needs for more than twenty years, but within the past two years my job in meeting those needs has changed dramatically – and for the better. Why? Technology.
The advent of 1 to 1 technology through Chromebooks, as well as the availability of Interactive Whiteboards, has suddenly made my job of ensuring students with special needs can access grade level curriculum much easier. It is like any other technology – I could accomplish this goal before – the technology just makes it easier. One could wash dishes by hand before dishwashers were available, but using the dishwasher certainly makes the job quicker and easier.
Beyond the obvious advantages it offers, educational technology offers another perk that stands out to me. Teach any skill by using some type of technology, and it seems you have achieved automatic engagement. This fact – that technology seems to make learning any skill more engaging – probably makes instruction ten times more effective than what could be accomplished without the technology. As we all know, engagement is key to learning.
Now I am certainly not an expert in educational technology. I have been trying to keep up with all the changes and advancements. I finally had to give in and realize that it is an impossible feat, because technology is constantly growing and changing. A vast amount of assistive and educational technologies already exist, with new technologies continually being developed.
You may wonder what exactly the difference is between assistive and educational technology. There is a fine line between the two, and they are often interrelated. One way of looking at the difference is that assistive technology is more personal to the student, whereas educational technology is more classroom-based.
Whether assistive or educational, we know that technologies available today will quickly be replaced by more advanced technologies tomorrow. As there will always be newer, more advanced technologies, I have learned to not focus on the technology itself, but rather on how to effectively integrate available technologies within sound instructional and educational practices.
As with all interventions, the success of technology for increasing student achievement still lies largely in the way it is implemented and utilized in the classroom. Most people think of assistive technology for more severe needs, but technology itself is assistive to learning for all students. If teachers approach their instruction considering a universal design for learning, in the same way as architects must consider a universal design so that buildings can be used by virtually everyone, regardless of their level of ability or disability, then all students benefit. Likewise, building access features benefit more people than just those with disabilities (for example, curb cuts help people with shopping carts and baby strollers as well as people in wheelchairs), assistive technology or educational technology access features help students with many different learning styles or needs.
I became fascinated with the universal design for learning when I read about this approach last summer. Many years of working in the inclusive setting has shown me that the plans we implement for students with special needs tend to help more than just those students. We all learn differently and have different learning needs, so the idea of using a universal design for learning greatly appealed to me. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was developed by David Rose and the Center for Applied Special Technology to create an instructional model in which all students had “access” to learning. UDL uses three principles that focus on eliminating barriers to learning. These three principles are: providing students with multiple means of representation; providing multiple means of action and expression; and providing multiple means of engagement. The basic idea is that by structuring our curriculum to accommodate for learner differences from the beginning, we design a curriculum that allows access for all students. Technology offers the diverse solutions necessary to achieve this goal.
Technology is the key component within an effective UDL Framework. This is because technology helps students with disabilities on so many different levels. Through the technology we now have available at our fingertips, we can easily provide multiple means of representation (visual, auditory, etc.) to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge. Technology enables students to access grade-level content by providing it in an accessible format. For example, students can work towards grade-level reading skills by the computer either reading the text digitally, or presenting it at a lower grade level for students with reading disabilities.
Technology can also provide for multiple means of action and expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know. For example, students could create a video or a PowToon about what they have learned. Technology can enable students with learning disabilities to do such things as develop a concept map for a research paper and write using grade-level vocabulary, or words they otherwise wouldn’t use without a computer due to poor spelling skills. There are speech to text apps which improve note-taking skills for students with disabilities that have difficulty taking notes in longhand because of poor spelling, writing, and/or eye-hand coordination skills.
The third principle of UDL is to provide multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation. Interactive Whiteboards engage students in multiple ways, as shown in the chart below:
Cross, Kelly, M.S. CCC-SLP, and Lynn Marentette, M.A. “The Special Needs Classroom and Interactive Whiteboards.” The Special Needs Classroom and Interactive Whiteboards. Union County Schools, N.C., 22 Dec. 2013. Presentation from the 2010 S.U.C.C.E.S.S. Conference, Retrieved from: http://www.slideshare.net/lynnmarentette/interactivewhiteboardsandspecialneeds
Computer-based instruction supports engagement in many ways as well. There are many educational websites with activities that give immediate and positive feedback. This helps increase motivation and persistence for many students. There are many educational activities that can be presented in a game-like format. By having Chromebooks for students and the 1-to-1 technology this provides, it is easier than ever to offer diverse assignments at a student’s level to appropriately challenge them –whether through remediation or enrichment of a particular skill or standard.
The use of Smartboards to support student engagement is just one example of utilizing technology in a way that provides students with multiple means of representation; multiple means of action and expression; and multiple means of engagement. As teachers, we must continually predict possible barriers to learning and provide solutions for these barriers. Technology provides us many avenues to accomplish this.
In closing, I would like to leave you with one thought – are we utilizing the technology that has been afforded to us with student needs in mind? Technology should not be about making our jobs easier, though it certainly may achieve this effect. It is ultimately about our students, and making learning more engaging and successful for them. Technology provides a valuable avenue through which we can reduce academic barriers before they occur. We need to utilize technological resources to the fullest extent possible to provide resources and supports to help increase student success and help ALL students learn.
In part two of this blog, I will discuss many of the features and apps available in chrome that support various learning needs and help reduce academic barriers.