Interactive Whiteboards Keep Special Ed Students Engaged in Their Learning - 03/03/2005

T.H.E. Focus

By Neal Starkman

Susan Cooper is using the book Holes with her eighth-grade language arts class. At one point in the book, a character named Stanley is carrying a character named Zero up a hill. Cooper's not much of an artist, but she turns to her SMART Board interactive whiteboard and draws two stick people on an incline — one stick person cradling the other. She turns back to the class and asks, “Where did Stanley carry Zero? Show me.” A girl comes up, places her finger on the stick people, and moves the figures up the hill by exerting some pressure.

The girl, like all the other students in the class, is deaf, and Cooper is using a teaching tool of the 21st century to make her curriculum come alive.

The school is the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind (FSDB) in St. Augustine, Fla., and Cooper is in her ninth year of teaching language arts here. In 1999, she and eighth-grade math teacher Sue Clark

co-authored a grant application to the SMARTer Kids Foundation to use SMART Board interactive whiteboards in a “Manguage” class they were co-teaching (their students created the name from a combination of the MAth and laNGUAGE classes). They received the interactive whiteboards, and teaching has never been the same since. FSDB currently has SMART Boards in 14 of its 17 middle school classrooms. The school also has 64 interactive whiteboards throughout all of its departments: the elementary, middle and high school departments for deaf students; the special needs department (for students with sensory and additional impairments); the physical education department; the reading labs; the math specialist's classroom; and the department for students who are legally blind but have some vision remaining.

Founded in 1885, FDSB ( is supported by the state and teaches 750 hearing-impaired and visually impaired students from preschool through 12th grade — all housed on a 70-acre campus. Altogether, three-quarters of the graduating class continue their education at colleges, universities and technical training centers. To say that the SMART Board interactive whiteboards have benefited the students is a gross underappreciation of what has happened there over the last five or six years.

Imagine what it means when a visually impaired student sees text from a book enlarged on the whiteboard for the first time. Imagine what it means when teachers can use the whiteboard and simultaneously sign to their deaf students. And imagine what it means when students who have previously been denied the full advantages of the educational system can now see atoms bonding in front of them, drag state names to the appropriate state on a map, make PowerPoint presentations, and search the Internet for both research and entertainment purposes.

When teachers at FDSB now ask for the SMART Boards, they agree to participate in 8 to 10 hours of training. However, when Cooper and Clark first got the interactive whiteboards, they were constantly running between classrooms, excitedly telling each other what new function they'd just discovered. And soon the students were as excited as the teachers. “They love to come up to the board and solve problems,” says Clark. And classroom behavior? “It is so much better over the last five years because they're engaged in their learning.” Cooper sums it up: “Sue and I use our SMART Boards daily — as do most teachers on our campus. It has become an integral part of our teaching.”

The SMART Board interactive whiteboard is a product of SMART Technologies Inc. (, a private Canadian company founded in 1987, with headquarters in Calgary, Alberta. The SMART Board interactive whiteboard first came out in

1991, and is now used in more than 75 countries. When you connect it to a computer and digital projector, you can write notes on the board; draw diagrams; move things around; save what you want and bring it back later; as well as access and control any computer application or multimedia platform, including the Internet, CD-ROMs and DVDs. And you don't even need a pen because your finger will work with the technology just as well. The boards are both front- and rear-projected, and they're used in both business and educational settings.

But it's in the realm of assistive technology — technology used by and for students with special needs and disabilities — that interactive whiteboards can be of enormous significance. They offer benefits such as:

  • Enabling students with motor disabilities to write on the interactive whiteboards using either their fingers or other instruments, with touches that don't have to be precise to get the intended effect.
  • Allowing visually impaired students to take advantage of an interactive whiteboard's enhanced visibility, as well as an integrated handwriting recognition feature that converts annotated notes into typewritten text for easy reading.
  • Providing a platform for lessons that are visual, interactive and challenging for students with behavioral disorders such as ADD/ADHD.
  • Promoting focused interactivity as well as multisensory experiences for students with learning disabilities.

Interactive whiteboards are only one type of assistive technology; there are journals dedicated to the topic. One is the Journal of Special Education Technology (JSET). According to its Web site (, JSET presents “information and opinions about issues, research, policy and practice related to the use of technology in the field of special education.” A recent issue contained articles on “Using Word Prediction Software to Increase Typing Fluency with Students with Physical Disabilities,” “Exploration of Unknown Spaces by People Who Are Blind Using a Multisensory Virtual Environment,” and “Live, Interactive Paraprofessional Training Using Internet Technology.”

Closing The Gap Inc. ( is a company that focuses on computer technology for people with special needs. It publishes a newspaper, holds an annual conference (the next one is in Minneapolis from Oct. 20-22, 2005), and provides information on assistive technology products, procedures and best practices. It boasts a product guide of nearly 2,000 products (with more added weekly) that includes prices, descriptions and technical specifications.

Finally, DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) is a remarkable program out of the University of Washington that has served primarily teenage students with disabilities since 1992. According to the DO-IT Web site (, the program “promotes the use of computer and networking technologies to increase independence, productivity and participation

in education and employment.” The Web site also features many resources for people with disabilities, including training, publications and links. The program has several components, including:
  • DO-IT Scholars are loaned computers, software and adaptive technology to use at home. They attend live-in summer study programs at the university and participate in work-based learning experiences.
  • DO-IT Pals provide their own computer systems and Internet access; they participate in an electronic community to support their academic and career goals.
  • DO-IT Ambassadors are high school graduates who continue to participate in the program.
  • DO-IT Campers participate in summer camps for children and youth with disabilities where they teach Internet, college and career transition skills.
  • DO-IT Mentors include college students, faculty and professionals.

Sheryl Burgstahler is the director of DO-IT. She notes that DO-IT students use a variety of technologies because they have a variety of disabilities. For example, blind or near-blind students use text-to-speech programs in which the computer “reads aloud” to them. And deaf or near-deaf students communicate through e-mail, without the need of interpreters or signing. Burgstahler remembers that when the Internet was introduced it was criticized because people thought that “it would never be a communication tool.” Nonetheless, it was perfect for visually impaired students since they could type in commands and use various programs to get information. A big obstacle these days, says Burgstahler, is that people often design Web sites that aren't accessible to the blind. For example, designers embed content in graphics by using PDF files instead of HTML files. Burgstahler points out that Section 508 in the Americans with Disabilities Act delineates standards for electronic communication and resources, but she still struggles to get the message out.

Burgstahler makes another telling argument, one with which representatives from SMART Technologies Inc. would no doubt concur: assistive technology really isn't that expensive. The number of devices that help students with disabilities has exploded into the thousands, and the key is to communicate the information about these devices clearly and accurately.

The technology is obviously much more significant to those who directly benefit from it. Thus, consider the following affirmation from Lloyd Gibson, a DO-IT graduate with severe hearing impairment:

“When I started my current job, I was worried. It was a customer-based business, and that meant I had to be able to communicate with customers. Thanks to the advances in cell phones with high volumes and being able to work with hearing aids, I no longer have that concern. I have been with my company for almost a year now and just got a promotion. Through e-mail, hearing aids and cell phone technology, I am able to communicate with the customers very well. Taking this job was very scary for me. But I now realize I don't have to worry about that anymore.”

The importance of technologies such as the SMART Board interactive whiteboards must be measured by testimonials like these.

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