Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Assistive technology: an important trend in special education

Technology is invaluable for everyone, but it is especially important for students with disabilities. According to Marino, Sameshima, and Beecher (2009), education is the key for people with disabilities to realize enhanced academic, social, and employment opportunities (p. 187). When I refer to “assistive technology", I am referring to the computers and technology that assist people with disabilities to participate alongside their peers and overcome their barriers. For example, a person who is unable to read normal print, due to a visual or physical impairment, might rely on a computer to read their textbooks aloud in a human-sounding voice; while a student with a learning disability might use literacy software to assist with spelling and structuring ideas. This post will describe a definite, desirable trend to integrate assistive technology and, more importantly, the students who need it, into learning environments, despite the challenges with implementing complex technology.
TPACK (technology, pedagogy, content, and knowledge) (tpack.org) is one general model describing how educators should think about technology in the classroom. Essentially, this model, which can be represented as a Venn diagram, addresses “the complex interplay of three primary forms of knowledge: Content (CK), Pedagogy (PK), and Technology (TK)” (tpack.org). If desired, the Venn diagram can be viewed by visiting http://www.tpack.org,  but essentially, the model emphasizes that technology, content, and pedagogy cannot be viewed in isolation; rather, instructors must learn “the new kinds of knowledge that lie at the intersections between them” (tpack.org). Throughout my experience attending mainstream, public schools in British Columbia, I noticed rather playful, overly relaxed technology policies: ostensibly set up to integrate powerful technologies into the classroom, but often seeming like an afterthought—often a brief bi-weekly trip to the computer lab to work on research, but little more than that. Yet the myriad of models such as these illustrates that technology must be integrated deeply into the classroom for students to get the most out of the pedagogy. For instance, where technology and pedagogy intersect, one must search for ways to deeply intertwine technology use with the pedagogy, rather than adding it on as an after-thought.

As I’ve said, special education technology is even more empowering: for students with disabilities, who use it to open whole new vistas of opportunity. In “Enhancing TPACK with assistive technology: Promoting inclusive practices in pre-service teacher education“ (2009), Marino, Sameshima, and Beecher define assistive technology quite a bit more specifically: “devices meant to scaffold students' cognitive processes in order to enhance each individual student's unique processing abilities and maximize learning outcomes“(p. 188). They expand upon the TPCAK model to “[add] assistive technology as a means to promote inclusive educational practice for preservice teachers” (p. 186). In essence, the authors argue that instructors should have a fundamental knowledge of assistive technology alongside mainstream technology so that they have a better idea of how to adapt learning environments to make them more inclusive, as well as how to advocate for students to help them realize their full potential. This knowledge should be gained throughout normal preservice training.

The authors give an example of a fictitious student who has an IQ of 120 and a learning disability in reading who wishes to graduate from a four-year university (p. 189). It has been determined that he excels when chemistry and other complex, expository texts can be listened to verbally rather than read (p. 189). With some basic disability-related training, an informed teacher would be able to advocate for the disability resource center to have the students’ textbooks recorded in alternate format (p. 189).

At the moment, the authors indicate my own view based on my experience throughout the education system: that the goals in the adoption and implementation of assistive technology have not been realized; this is partly due to lack of instructor training, but also, deplorably, due to instructor resistance (p. 188). The authors state that teachers should be willing to assist professionals with coming up with a plan to accommodate students in class, and should document students' progress and technology usage (p. 190).
In truth, at first blush the authors’ position seems a bit strong; I certainly don’t expect mainstream teachers to be intimately familiar with the workings of all manner of assistive technologies. On the other hand, I certainly understand the position of bringing your very best case scenario forward and being willing to compromise. As a student with a disability myself, I am extremely respectful of the kinds of accommodations that my students may require. Whether a student requires my Power Point presentations in advance due to not being able to see the overhead projector; wants me to wear a special microphone so that he can hear my lectures despite his hearing impairment; or needs to discuss accommodations for a piece of work that presents a disability-related challenge, I would of course be eager to assist. It is incumbent upon educational institutions to provide reasonable accommodations along these lines, and I would defer to professionals hired by the school or institution for accommodations I may not be familiar with, such as those required by low-incidence disability groups. On the other hand, as an instructor, one is in a unique position of being able to pass knowledge along to as many students as possible, and to do the best job one can to make sure their students are successful in their studies. Therefore, I do believe instructors should have at least some knowledge of the various disabilities that they may encounter in the field, and the mindset to be empowered to think about what accommodations they might be able to make around the classroom. Needless to say, of course, instructor resistance or purposeful or willful exclusion is not something I would ever have in my classroom.
On a personal note, I would say two things to people who don't believe they have any duty to provide disability-related accommodations. Firstly, assistive technology often blends into the mainstream more than you might think. For example, as a blind student, I had portable audio players and tablet-sized productivity devices way before those devices found their way into the mainstream. Word prediction is an accessibility feature which has been around for a while; Apple says it "can help students who have dyslexia or cognitive challenges" (Word Prediction, n.d.). Low and behold, this feature, marketed as QuickType, is making its way into the mainstream; watch for it on iPhones, iPads and iPod touches in the fall. So, you see, assistive technology often benefits everyone. Finally, AT empowers everyone to receive the educational credentials they need to participate in society on as equal grounds as possible. The benefit for them is great, and the net gain of society is too—and in the end, that's what education is all about.
Apple (n.d.). iOS 8 - QuickType. https://www.apple.com/ios/ios8/quicktype/

Apple (Canada) (n.d.). Education - Special Education. https://www.apple.com/ca/education/special-education/ios/

Marino, M. T., Sameshima, P., & Beecher, C. C. (2009). Enhancing TPACK with assistive technology: Promoting inclusive practices in preservice teacher education. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(2), 186-207. Retrieved from http://www.citejournal.org/vol9/iss2/general/article1.cfm

TPACK.org (n.d.). What is TPACK?. http://www.tpack.org

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