In considering the role that a course instructor plays with respect to assistive technology, it is clear that technology is only a means to an end, and definitely does not replace course instructors. What I see is that it affords instructors the opportunity for students to take a self-directed learning approach to their usage and application of assistive technology throughout their course work. The reality is that assistive technology is not an exact science; each student has individual hurdles to overcome, and would respond best to a different set of accommodations.
In “Assessing Adult Student Reactions to Assistive Technology in Writing Instruction” (2009), Julie Mueller, Eileen Wood, Jen Hunt, and Jacqueline Specht, beautifully illustrate these claims in describing a writing study that was conducted for individuals who wanted to improve their writing but whose disabilities formerly stood in the way. For example, the participants were individuals suspected of having learning disabilities and for whom remedial writing programs were only marginally successful (p. 14). Throughout the study, it was clear that individual students responded very differently to the myriad assistive technologies that were offered. There were eleven technologies offered in the computer lab, including text magnifiers, word predictors, software to read text aloud, and voice dictation software (p. 16). Trained tutors were available to teach people to use the software, as well as to assist with technical difficulties (p. 16). The participants’ goals were varied: some wished to improve their personal writing while others wished to write professional letters (e.g. to their landlords).
Throughout the study, participants gravitated towards the software that helped them the most, and concentrated on using it (p. 16). Also, students’ reliance on instructor assistance varied greatly as well. In the beginning, tutors were viewed as the experts and had to assist with even the most rudimentary tasks, such as opening the programs (p. 19). By the end of the study, many participants became much more independent and often did not require help from the tutors (p. 19). Students were sometimes able to act as peer tutors, using techniques learned from their peers (p. 19).
Technology is the toolbox that allows students who need it to build and shape their learning environment so as to get the most out of it. Ultimately, within reason, students should be able to select which tools suit them best. I believe the role for an instructor with respect to technology is to offer their expertise or enforce specific requirements where they are deemed to be necessary, but otherwise allow students to integrate technology into their learning environment as they desire. In other words, a self-directed learning approach works best, allowing students to use technology as it makes sense to them. In my own school days, groups of students were often taken to well-intentioned training programs to be shown how best to use their assistive technology. These one size fits all approaches always seemed very inefficient to me. The power users usually figured out the material long before the sessions began, and, occasionally, had more knowledge than the trainers themselves; meanwhile, they were taken out of class to attend these sessions, and would have probably benefitted more by skipping the training. Others struggled to keep up with the pace of the class, and would have appreciated more one-on-one support.
This is why I believe teachers and experts alike should provide extremely wide discretion to students about technology use in the classroom. Of course, teachers have specific learning outcomes that need to be met and rules to be enforced. Technology is as much an art as a science, however, and instructors need to recognize that all students will use it very differently.
Mueller, Julie; Wood, Eileen; Hunt, Jen; Specht, Jacqueline (2009). Assessing Adult Student Reactions to Assistive Technology in Writing Instruction. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal Spring 2009, Vol. 3 Issue 1, 13-23. Retrieved from http://cclsw2.vcc.ca:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=38216954&site=ehost-live