FETC 2013 | Feature

How Technology Is Building on Math's Foundation

Ted Hasselbring sees a fundamental problem with the way we teach math, not just to special needs students, but to all students. "Historically we've focused more on procedural learning, where kids get an algorithm and they plug in numbers and calculate an answer, yet they don't have that basic foundational understanding of what it is they're doing," says Hasselbring, who serves as a professor of special education at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University's school of education.

Hasselbring is researching the use of technology to deliver the foundational knowledge behind mathematical concepts. "One of the projects we're currently working on uses virtual manipulatives to build a conceptual understanding of fractions," he explains. "Teachers have been using physical manipulatives for years, but they often are hesitant to use them because kids lose them or throw them--it becomes a behavior-management issue. By having students work with virtual manipulatives on an iPad, that behavioral problem goes away. From our data that we've been collecting, it looks like teachers are more likely to use the iPads to implement this instruction that we know is good. It's incredibly powerful."

The use of technology to deliver sound instruction has been a key component of Hasselbring's work. Over the past 30 years, Hasselbring has conducted research on the impact of technology on special needs students, and he realized very early in his career how technology can be best used to teach. "There was an article back in 1982 or 1983 that really made me think about what technology does, not just for kids with special needs but for all kids," recalls Hasselbring. "It said that technology really is a delivery system. What we really need to look at is human learning, how people learn, and how technology can deliver to make that more effective."

As technology has evolved, Hasselbring has watched that delivery system become seamless and powerful so quickly that education now has to catch up. "A lot of the stuff that we were doing back in the 80's--using video for supporting kids around reading--was done on video disk and it was a very, very clunky source of technology," recalls Hasselbring. "Today, it's so simple to do that, yet the instructional methodology that we're using hasn't changed that much. Just the technology has made what we're doing so much easier than it was 20 years ago. We can put all of the materials on the cloud, and kids can access it 24/7."

Ted Hasselbring, a professor of special education at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University, has spent more than 20 years conducting research on how technology-based programs help struggling students. His presentation at FETC 2013 is titled Achieving Math Fluency: Mobile Apps and Adaptive Technology.

A Journey Through Technology
As technology becomes more ubiquitous, Hasselbring looks forward to the day when computers, tablets, and mobile devices will be considered a natural part of everyday learning, both inside and out of the classroom. "I don't think kids think of technology as a separate thing now," remarks Hasselbring. "I was recently at a family function and there was an 18-month-old there. I have this great video of her sitting with an iPhone, and she could select the apps that she wanted, she could scroll, she could do all these things, and I'm thinking, 'This is not something that you have to teach these kids, they just do it.' She will never know not having that kind of access to information. It's going to be part of her life."

The road that led Hasselbring towards a career researching the impact of technology on special needs students was filled with twists and turns, yet that he arrived at this destination seems almost inevitable.

"From the time I was a little kid, I've always been fascinated by technology, and in different forms of technology," recalls Hasselbring. "It started with bicycles. I'd take them apart, put them back together. And then, of course, when I found computers, it was a natural match for me."

This interest in how technology works is part of his DNA: Hasselbring comes from a family of engineers. "My father, my cousins, my uncles--everybody went into engineering." The eight years Hasselbring spent during high school and college working for his father's firm, though, left him eager to find another avenues beyond engineering that would put his skills to work.

Hasselbring majored in biology while attending Indiana University as an undergraduate; it was during this time that he became interested in research and education. "I had a psychology professor who I found to be one of the most engaging teachers I'd ever experienced in my life," he recalls. "I volunteered to work with him on his research, and as a part of that I learned to do data analysis. This was back in the days of punch cards--it was pretty clunky--but I developed some strong data-analysis skills."

In 1971, while earning his masters in biology at the same university, Hasselbring used those data-analysis skills to get a job at the school's Center for Innovations in Teaching the Handicapped. "I needed a job, so I found this job that allowed me to use my data-analysis skills, but because of this job I became very, very interested in disabilities and educational research," he explains. "It was kind of an accident that I ended up there, but I was really inspired by what they were doing. I realized I could spend my life in a lab, or I could go work with kids with special needs. It was an easy choice."

In the years since, Hasselbring has spent countless hours inside classrooms conducting research on the impact of various instructional tools on special needs students. One of his biggest successes has been Read 180, a computer-intervention program for struggling readers that is now distributed through Scholastic. "I've had lots of opportunities to talk with kids who say, 'My life is different now because I've learned to read,'" remarks Hasselbring.

"All you need is to hear that once and it's pretty exciting, and I've been lucky enough to hear that time and time again from students. Read 180 is in every state. There's more than a million kids who get on that program every day, so you know that there are lots of those stories out there and lots of kids are learning to read as a result of that program. So it's pretty gratifying to know that you've had a hand in changing the lives of so many kids. That's probably the best part of what I do: talking to the kids and knowing that these programs really have changed their lives in a more positive way."

But Hasselbring is quick to point out that the evolution of technology and its use in special education don't stop with tablets and cloud-based content. "We're only scratching the surface, especially around neurology, human learning, and the role of technology," he says. "We're nowhere near to the point where we really understand the human brain and all that it does and how technology might support human learning, especially for kids who are struggling learners. There's a lot more we need to learn, and I would say, boy, we need more really bright people in this field working on these problems. I would encourage anybody with an interest in these topics to look at special ed and technology and jump into this field, because there's a lot we need to learn."

About the Author

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.