Special Needs | Feature

Flipping the Classroom for Special Needs Students

Technology is playing a key role in keeping students with physical and learning disabilities stay engaged in class and at home.

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In Cornwall-Lebanon School District (PA), there was a time when students who suffered from severe disabilities and were unable to speak had to use a DynaVox speech communication solution to talk to teachers and collaborate with classmates. The bulky, clunky equipment wasn’t portable, said Jason Murray, the district’s technology coordinator, which meant that it certainly couldn’t play a part in a flipped classroom.

Making the situation even more challenging was the fact that each DynaVox unit cost roughly $6,000 — a hefty price tag for any public school district struggling to keep up with the newest classroom technology options. “They were both large and expensive,” said Murray, “but at the time, that was all we had to work with.” Fast forward to 2014, and the district has found a more workable solution by combining iPads with the Proloquo2 app, which sells for $219.99.

According to the developer’s website, the app allows students without vocal capabilities to “speak” by tapping buttons that represent words or phrases, access grammar with verb and noun inflections, and transition to literacy with word prediction in “typing” view. And because students use the app on their lightweight, portable devices, they can do their flipped classroom “pre-work” from home and come to class the next day prepared to tackle their lessons.

“Students set up pictures in a matrix format and then, when they touch a picture, the iPad speaks for them,” Murray explained. “By moving over to this technology, we’ve not only saved money but we’ve also introduced more mobility and flexibility for our students — both of which are ‘must-haves’ in the flipped learning environment.”

Another tool that Cornwall-Lebanon’s teachers use when working with students who have disabilities is Panopto, a video platform used to record, webcast, manage and search. Teachers record their lectures, instructions or other types of content and then upload the videos to the district’s LMS. Accessing the content from remote locations — such as their own homes — students can replay the information, watch videos made especially for them and view screen captures and PowerPoint presentations. 

According to Murray, “Panopto lets teachers take ownership of the flipped environment by providing individualized attention to students who are dealing with disadvantages and/or disabilities. The platform supports both audio and video, so depending on the impairment, the software really helps the student work through his or her challenges and learn the material.”

Flipping the Switch
Melissa Hausser, a diverse learning teacher at National Teachers Academy in Chicago, is very familiar with the challenges of working with non-traditional students in the flipped classroom. The fact that 90 percent of the school’s population is eligible for free or reduced lunch — and as such, doesn’t always have access to technology outside of school — makes the flipping the classroom all the more difficult.

To offset these challenges, Hausser teaches in small-group settings of about five students while the remainder of the class uses iPads to watch the lesson from a different center within the physical classroom. All students can interact with Hausser on a rotational basis — a tactic she uses to keep her diverse learners engaged and on task.

In addition to the basic classroom tools, Hausser recently began using Zaption to teach both social studies and science. The app, which allows her to create, add elements to, and publish videos, is particularly useful when working with middle-school students who are not reading at grade level. Hausser creates videos that include pop-up quiz questions. Students can then stop the clips, write out their answers and annotate using iPads.

Hausser also uses a document camera to record herself teaching math lessons — completing a worksheet, for example, or walking through a word problem — and then shares those videos with students. Pupils can hit pause, work through the problems and rewind the clips to gain a better understanding of the material. “It’s basically like I’m cloning myself,” Hausser said. “My students get direct instruction and they can stop and go at their own paces. As a result, they get a lot more out of the experience than they would from a worksheet.”

When using technology in her flipped classroom, Hausser says her biggest challenge is getting middle school students to focus on the lesson at hand rather than the cool tech tools that they’re using. To overcome that issue, she’ll sometimes block the Internet and/or camera rolls on her classroom iPads — but she says selfies remain an ongoing obstacle. “For some reason, students want to take a ton of pictures of themselves when they aren’t supposed to,” she said, laughing. “It’s just those little hiccups that you have to work through.”

Assistive Technology Moves Into the Mainstream
Where classroom technology can usually be used by a wide swath of learners, assistive technology for the flipped classroom needs to be more individualized, according to Tracy Gray, managing director for PowerUp WHAT WORKS!, a product of the Center for Technology Implementation. “You really have to look at what works for whom and under what conditions,” said Gray. “We have the technology tools to personalize the instruction, but now we need to focus on the individual needs of students at the rates at which they acquire information and knowledge.”

Gray said that captioning applications, video platforms, text-to-speech software and other assistive technologies have progressed significantly over the last few years and have made the flipped environment more accessible to non-traditional learners. As both Murray and Hausser illustrated, this “bucket” of accessible technologies goes a long way toward supporting students with special needs who don’t always have the luxury of going home, turning on an iPad and absorbing a 10-minute instructional video independently.

Patricia Wright, vice president of professional services for New York-based Rethink, which provides educational treatment solutions for children with autism, sees the flipped classroom as particularly relevant for autistic students who may require more enrichment and interaction with teachers. She sees video — and a student’s ability to watch, stop and re-watch clips — as a particularly vital technology tool for such environments. “The flipped learning concept also allows students with autism to benefit from that extra preparation time,” said Wright, “and to be able to engage more successfully in those social interactions” than they could in a class where a teacher lectures and students shout out questions and answers.

The rapid advancement of touch technology has also put more power in the non-traditional students’ hands, said Wright, and made the flipped classroom more accessible than it was when highly specialized technology like the DynaVox was the only option. Finally, Wright said that the proliferation of mobile apps is bringing special needs functionality into the mainstream. “Tools that we would have historically called ‘assistive technology’ are now available on iTunes,” said Wright. “As more of this technology bleeds into the commercial realm, it’s making the flipped classroom even more accessible.”