Accessibility | May 2013 Digital Edition

The Surprising Ways BYOD, Flipped Classrooms, and 1-to-1 Are Being Used in the Special Ed Classroom

As schools shift to mobile device usage and new forms of technology-inspired instruction, such as flipping the classroom, special ed is adopting mainstream approaches for its assistive technologies.

special needs students using technology in classroom

This article, with an exclusive video interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's May 2013 digital edition.

The latest compilation from the US Department of Education (from 2010-2011) reports that about 13 percent of public school enrollment consists of students served by special education programs. That count has pretty much stayed the same for the last 13 years. What's different now is that, as technology pervades all aspects of the classroom, special education teachers need to make a decision about whether they're going to stay on track with specialized assistive technologies or adopt some of the mainstream ones that general education students are using.

The latter approach appears to be winning right now. In many situations the mobile devices, apps, cloud-based computing, and flipped classroom approaches that are finding wide acceptance in general education are also finding a home among the tools used by special ed experts to help their students succeed. Whereas assistive technologies used to be considered a highly specialized field, "Now assistive technology is blurring with educational technology," says Andrea Prupas, who heads up inov8 Educational Consulting, a firm that does consulting in special education and technology.

As special education adopts and adapts mainstream products, it's the students that win--now and in the future. Prupas says, "We're thrilled, because we see our students succeed. These are tools that adults are using, that our students will be using for the rest of their lives."

Here are ways that special ed experts are leveraging mainstream ed tech initiatives to benefit special needs students.

Bring Your Own
When Forsyth County Schools started its bring-your-own-technology program across the district, Chris Swaim, assistive technology facilitator for the Georgia district, considered BYOT a "tremendously positive thing" for her special ed students. The reasons are similar to what any teacher at the district might say: For one, ownership makes students take the devices more seriously. "Anytime a student owns something, there's a little bit more responsibility," she explains. For another, she's seeing students more "engaged" in their schoolwork.

Plus, since the devices don't always have to be specialized now, special ed learners don't stand out as using something different. On the contrary, outfitted with the latest version of hardware, they could even experience the novel sensation of being envied by their peers. "When a student is using something really cool, the other kids go, 'Wow!'" notes Swaim.

While Swaim is "thrilled" to support students' decisions to bring their own devices to school, there's still a potential disconnect between what's been recommended by her individualized education plan or program (IEP) team and what the parents have chosen. "They might buy an iPad or a tablet and put a specific communication app on it that they've heard about, that the hype is about. Sometimes it's not the best selection for the student." When that happens, she says, "We make a good faith effort to support what our parents want students to use; but we feel the responsibility of identifying what is the best thing for the student."

When there's a fundamental disagreement, Swaim lets the data talk. "We go through a consideration process and determine what tools are the best for that child," she explains. "We'll show them, 'This is what we determine. This is the data that shows your child's ability to perform the task using the tools we have recommended.' Sometimes when we show this to the parent, the lightbulb comes on. The main thing we all want is for that child to improve his skills."

Software in the Cloud
BYOT plays well into what Swaim identifies as the biggest push in assistive technologies right now: the move to cloud-based and web-based software. The earliest special ed software was usually installed on a single computer. "Then the student was stuck on that one computer," she notes. From there, the move was to networked software. "We would install it on a school network, and it would be available on the network system--but not at home. Then we had to figure out how to provide software that they needed at home."

Moving to cloud- or web-based software, she says, "is going to be a huge improvement for our students. They can access it anywhere, at any time--home, out in the community, at the library, at school, in any classroom in the building--as long as they have a computer or some sort of device to access the software. I think that's going to have a huge positive impact on our students."

The wrinkle here is that as schools adopt cloud-based software across the student population, they need to consider how it works for special needs students too. "Google is becoming huge, especially in schools," notes Mary Allard, vice president of marketing operations for the literacy company Texthelp. "But one of the biggest issues right now is accessibility. You can have Google Docs all you want, but if you have kids who can't read the Google Docs, then you have a real problem."

To cater to special ed students in schools that have adopted Google Apps for Education, the company recently released Read&Write for Google Docs, which becomes part of the Google Chrome browser for the PC or Mac. This free tool reads documents aloud with dual-color highlight, provides access to a text or picture dictionary, and allows students to highlight, then place highlighted text into a separate document to build vocabulary lists. A future paid version will add the ability to read any kind of document that might be stored on Google Drive.

Mobile Learning and 1-to-1
Valeska Gioia, an assistive technology specialist and autism consultant for the South Carolina Department of Education, says that mobile devices and the programs they run can save schools "thousands" in equipment. "The vision programs and equipment that was so expensive can be changed in a way that's more accessible for a child just using an iPad or an Android tablet," she explains.

Generic devices can quickly be customized for special needs through the use of built-in apps and features such as text-to-speech, magnification, and high-contrast functions. Starting with the release of iOS 6, Apple added "guided access" to its mobile operating system, which allows the teacher to restrict what works on a given device. Those new controls can be useful for keeping students with disabilities such as autism or ADHD on task.

Educators can also switch out specialized equipment for commodity mobile devices. For example, students with autism or speech disorders have traditionally used communication boards: The student would point to a picture and the board would "speak" it. Now special ed teachers can outfit students with a tablet computer running any one of many voice output or communication board apps.

The impact of 1-to-1 in the special ed setting can be dramatic. For students who are dyslexic or who have trouble "decoding" text, digital books or text-to-speech programs can read text to them while highlighting each word as it's read--in essence acting as a virtual special education aide. As Gioia explains, students with trouble decoding text might take "hours to read even just a paragraph or chapter. Using these types of tools, they can just listen and comprehend as much as possible," she notes. "It's been a game changer for many students."

For students who can't write, speech recognition programs from Microsoft, Nuance, and others allow them to transcribe anything with their words. "If they never could write a word down and [now] they can transcribe, it changes everything," marvels Gioia. "They feel success; and, of course, success breeds success. They can go on to college and do other things. We're talking about children who would have dropped out otherwise."

To help educators and parents decide which mobile device might best suit a child with a special need, the state's Assistive Technology Program runs a "Resource, Demonstration, Equipment Loan Center" where people can borrow a specific piece of equipment for two to four weeks.

When it comes to the 1-to-1 promise of student-centered personalized learning, special ed instructors are ahead of the game, Forsyth County's Swaim points out. "We're so individualized anyway in our instruction, I don't think for special ed it's been such a shift. That's what we're all about: individualizing the instruction."

Flipping the Classroom
The kinds of activities that go on in the "flipped" classroom--in which students watch instructional videos at home and come prepared for more hands-on work in the classroom--can benefit students with special needs too, according to Prupas. Special educators have told her that the flipped model is "great" because their students can watch the recorded content "over and over," which is particularly helpful to students with special needs who "might need a lot of extra time to learn the concepts." But Prupas sees benefits in flipping instruction that go far beyond reteaching.

"We argue that the benefit is really for the collaborative and active learning aspects in the classroom," Prupas says. "The teacher is more of a facilitator." For example, if a student with autism needs to work on social skills specifically, a flipped model allows the teacher to focus on those skills in the classroom by setting up activities that are team-oriented and collaborative. In that case, the instructional videos might show social skills such as taking a phone call or performing a transaction in a store. Then, in class the students would work on the skills together.

The most effective approach for flipping the classroom for special ed students isn't, in fact, all that different from doing it for general ed students. Instead of "doing things differently," Prupas points out, "we really have to do different things." A truly flipped approach, she says, starts by looking at student needs. "It's very personalized. I think most educators today would agree that's the way things should be done," she notes. Any specific approach needs to grow out of pedagogical intent, she says, "Is the teacher using understanding by design, differentiated instruction, or using a specific math or reading program?" Within that framework, the instructor can settle on the best way to present content through the flipped model.

As an example, Prupas offers screencasting--a recording that includes some combination of audio, slides, and video. "When you look at it from the perspective of a student in a regular classroom, you'd say, 'Okay. I'm going to use that for content delivery.'" The instructor might use it to create her own instructional videos for the students to watch before coming into class. But for students with special needs, "You really have to go one step further," she says. "Screencasting can be a great tool for language development. As students do their [own] screencasts, they're also speaking at the same time. It can also be a great tool for visual concepts and ideas."

If this approach to assistive technologies seems like great pedagogy for mainstream education as well, that's not a coincidence. As Gioia says: "Every child learns differently. Every classroom is going to have a struggling student. Every classroom can benefit from assistive technologies." Even--especially--when those technologies are mainstream.

Advice to IT From Special Ed

Push instructors to learn a single app. Rather than overwhelming teachers with the number of apps that are potentially useful, inov8's Andrea Prupas recommends that each teacher in the school or teaching team become expert in a single app. "Essentially, have three or four teachers become very, very qualified to use three or four different tools. Then you have your set. You're good to go. Those teachers can teach others in the school and they'll feel very competent in the classroom."

Don't go for the most expensive tool or a site-wide rollout. "Some of the best tools we use are free," says Prupas. Before adopting a new app broadly, recommend that teachers try it in a test run in a couple of classrooms.

Visit the classrooms. Teachers should not be the technical experts, Prupas insists. "They need to be the pedagogical experts. IT really needs to support the pedagogy." She suggests that a member of the IT team should go into the classroom to "see how the teacher is working with students with the tool."

Consider special applications for mainstream technologies. According to assistive technology facilitator Chris Swaim, the prevalence of smartphones with video capabilities at Forsyth County Schools allows instructors to record evidence of learning as it happens by taking "right-there-in-the-moment videos to send home to parents."

Don't forget the basics. Swaim believes the most important aspect of running a successful bring-your-own program for special ed students is maintaining a safe network. That includes putting web filters in place "so your students can be protected when they're on the network at school."

The Challenge of Common Core Assessments

As schools integrate Common Core learning standards in their curriculum, the burden could be particularly heavy for special needs learners, warns Ruth Ziolkowski, president of Don Johnston, a developer and reseller of assistive technologies and special needs in the area of literacy. "I see huge benefits to the Common Core in the way the standards build on each other. These are really nice and tightly aligned. The students touch them year after year." And "right from the start, they were thinking about a wide range of students." Those are the positives, she notes.

"At the same time, the stakes have been raised. Our students are still struggling to read the text they have in front of them. As the text becomes more complex, it becomes a challenge. There's a lot more inferential comprehension, a lot more vocabulary required. Those are all things that hang up our students." Spelling is another obstacle, she adds. Students might have "great words in their head, but they can't 'get access' to them."

For that situation, programs and apps can come to the rescue. For example, the company's Snap&Read toolbar provides an intervention that helps students keep pace in reading. The utility floats over applications on the screen and reads any text that appears there and is selected. It can decipher HTML, Word docs, PDFs, e-mail, web-based tests, images, dialog boxes, and Flash websites. Because it's so simple to use, says Ziolkowski, teachers don't have to get involved and "students can truly be independent."

However, even a plethora of useful apps won't solve every problem. As a special ed teacher in New York City, Vicki Windman works with the lowest functioning students, including those with autism, Down syndrome, and neurological impairments. Although her students may be in the same age range as high school students, their learning is closer to grade school level. What would progress look like over the course of the school year? "Let's say, going from five sight words to 10 sight words; I would be elated by that. Or being able to identify the difference between a penny, nickel, dime, and quarter."

Although Windman tries to stay on top of Common Core discussions that may have repercussions for her students, she has yet to hear anything that applies to their situation. And she says that frightens her. Why? "Because now they're testing teachers. So if my kids can't [work at grade level], how am I going to be judged?"

Windman would prefer to assess learning among special ed students by using digital portfolios. Since she has enough iPads in her classroom for all of her students, she can keep and share reports about what each child has done. "Then when an annual review comes around, I could say, 'Look at Johnny. At the beginning of the year, he was doing x, y, and z, and this is what he could do at the middle of the year and at the end of the year.'" The advantage of using iPads in that process, she adds, is that the apps she's running "do data tracking. That saves me a ton of work, because that works with my IEP goals."