Assistive Technology

4 Ways Teachers Are Learning To Use Technology To Benefit Students with Special Needs

Assistive and accessible technology can help students with special needs overcome a wide variety of challenges. Nonverbal students can communicate using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technology; students with physical disabilities can take advantage of special keyboards and monitors; and the accessibility features of iPads and Google Apps for Education can helps students with learning disabilities or other challenges. Although some tech-savvy teachers are confident figuring out these technologies on their own, many others need training on how to implement assistive and accessible technology effectively to benefit their students. In some cases, formal training is available, but for time-strapped teachers and cash-strapped districts, attending a course or conference might not be an option. Fortunately, when it comes to technology-related professional development for teachers of students with special needs, a wide variety of options are available.

Statewide Initiatives
Teachers in the state of Indiana have access to a one-stop shop for all of their assistive and accessible technology needs. The PATINS Project is a statewide initiative that helps public K-12 schools in the state of Indiana increase accessibility of curriculum for all students. They loan assistive technology and accessible materials and provide universal design for learning (UDL) and professional development services to districts at no charge.

The PATINS Project sometimes hosts traditional training events at schools, where state director Daniel McNulty or one of his staff members gives a presentation on a particular topic to group of educators and other professionals. However, McNulty said they are trying to get away from that lecture style of training and are putting more emphasis on individualized training in the classroom, where a member of the PATINS Project visits a classroom in person and provides suggestions based on their observations and conversations with the teacher.

"I want our efforts to be on quality rather than quantity," said McNulty. "So when we go into the classroom, it tends to be because there may be one or two difficult situations in that classroom where the teacher just can't figure out a solution and it's hard to describe over an email."

In other cases, a teacher might call them up for help because the school just dropped off 15 iPads in the classroom, and the teacher doesn't have any training on how to use them. McNulty or another staff member can then go into the classroom and show the teacher how to enable the accessibility features of the iPad and add or create content for it, and they can suggest specific apps for particular students with special needs. "So it looks like working with the teacher and the students at the same time, or just working with the students sometimes and sort of modeling some things for the teacher," said McNulty.

In addition to traditional training events and individualized classroom training, the PATINS Project also hosts between two and four big statewide assistive technology conferences each year, as well as online training, webinars and recorded video tutorials. Recently, however, McNulty hired a new staff member for outreach and social media. It's her job to try to find those teachers who need their help but aren't necessarily coming to PATINS for help, and she's also responsible for the project's various social media outlets, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and iTunes, and the team is planning to start hosting monthly Twitter chats in the near future.

Social Media
Social media has become an important professional development resource for teachers of students with special needs. Sharon Alterman, a special education teacher at the Charms Collaborative in Stoughton, MA, turns to Twitter to find out about new technology tools for her classroom.

"That's where I find out about tools and technology," she said. "Because I hear teachers saying, I'm using X, and I say, 'Ooh, tell me about that. I've never used that. What is it? How are you using it? Tell me how that works.'"

Twitter seems to be the social media tool of choice for many people when it comes to technology-related questions, and teachers can use it for quick, informal one-on-one conversations or for larger, more organized Twitter chat events. Sharon Plante, a teacher and director of technology for Eagle Hill Southport School in Southport, CT, is active on Twitter and occasionally fields questions from other educators.

"People that I have connected with otherwise who know what I do will just message me and say, 'Hey, I have this child who is dyslexic or dysgraphic and needs some support. Can you suggest some tools or ideas?'" said Plante. "For a person who has a question and doesn't have somebody in their district or school to answer, it's a quick and easy way to get an answer. They can quickly put it out there, and then maybe somebody will know somebody who will pass it along. It's a quick, great way to get a question answered. And I know if I don't know the answer, I know people who do."

Various individuals and organizations also host organized Twitter chats, such as the Assistive Technology Chat (#ATchat) and the new monthly Twitter chats the PATINS Project is planning.

"Clearly the conversations that are now occurring on Twitter are expanding the reach with which the assistive technology people, the educational technology people and then general as well as special educators are communicating," said Plante. "I'm hoping to really reach a broader audience and get those conversations going so people can realize what is out there."

Conferences and Online Training
But Twitter chats are fast and furious online events, so they can be intimidating or overwhelming. For those teachers, more traditional professional development opportunities might still be an option. If they have the time and money to attend courses and conferences, Plante recommends the Assistive Technology Industry Association's (ATIA) annual conference in Orlando, FL. For those who can't afford the time or money to attend a large event, the ATIA also offers webinars, as do other organizations such as, Learning Ally and Presence Learning.

Thomas Mokua is a special education teacher at Crispus Attucks Charter School in York, PA, and he has attended multiple webinars from Presence Learning. He said he thinks technology and related professional development are essential to teaching students with special needs.

"I watch the webinars and try to use them because I understand that I cannot be effective if I'm not continuously learning," he said. "I just came out of school less than five years ago, so I'm well versed in a lot of this information and technology, but that doesn't stop me from making sure that I keep up with what is going on. It's always changing, and you can be left behind."

The Indiana Department of Education, in collaboration with Public Consulting Group (PCG), runs another program called Project Success. The program supports teachers who assess their students with special needs using the alternate state assessment. At Avon Community School Corporation in Avon, IN, a middle school life-skills teacher and the speech therapist for the middle and high schools attended a training program through Project Success about an AAC iPad app called Lamp Words for Life. "They came back and they were ready to go," said Amy Roberts, assistant director of special education for the district. "They started using this program with many of our nonverbal students, and now they are communicating. They are able to tell us their wants and needs. It's amazing what these kids are able to communicate. They just needed that voice."

Informal or Peer Training
Many teachers are learning from their colleagues within their home school or district. Roberts conducts informal training sessions with a group of teachers throughout the year. "When we meet for a half-day session, I've just been building in discussion about iPads and iPad apps during this time. It's really more of a we-all-learn-from-each-other environment," she said. "We just learn from each other to find out what everyone else is doing with iPads and what other apps everyone else has found that have been helpful for students."

Educators at Katherine R. Smith Elementary School in San Jose, CA also use an informal approach to technology-related professional development for students with special needs. Sergio Hernandez is a special education teacher at the school, and he also happens to be a member of the school's tech leadership team, which is in charge of instructional technology. "They're tasked with leading our school to make sure we're embedding technology in our instruction and that we're using it as a tool," said Aaron Brengard, principal of the school.

Katherine R. Smith Elementary has a 1-to-1 device-to-student ratio with Chromebooks, as well as a mobile cart full of iPads for any classroom to use. Hernandez has discovered various Google Chrome apps or extensions that can help some of his students with special needs. For example, some students use the Voice Typing tool in Google Docs, which lets them speak to the computer and converts their speech to text. Another one is Read&Write for Google Chrome, which reads aloud words, passages or whole documents in Google Chrome to assist students with special needs such as dyslexia.

"I've got some teachers who figured things out, and then they were leading professional development as staff meetings," said Brengard. "And then we decided we needed to go a little bit further with it, and so we were able to find a resource at our county office, and they came in and did training with us for one day. From there it kind of went right back to the team, and that team is continually working on implementing it, and then leading other teachers and getting things into their classrooms. So it's a just-in-time support system."