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Edtech equalizers in special education

Apps provide cost-effective alternatives in special ed technology while advanced devices open new possibilities
TOUCH POINTS—Apps have provided new, more nimble learning alternatives at Kent Intermediate School District in Michigan.
TOUCH POINTS—Apps have provided new, more nimble learning alternatives at Kent Intermediate School District in Michigan.

Ware County School District in Georgia has downsized its inventory of assistive technology. Thanks to a slew of technological advances, many of the specialized tools their special education students had used to communicate and learn are now redundant.


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“We don’t need portable keyboards or word processors anymore,” says Barbara Sonnier, the district’s assistive technology coordinator. That’s good news for district administrators providing services to a growing number of students at a time when special education budgets have stagnated.


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Voice-to-text is now a common feature on smartphones, computers and tablets. And with the addition of a few apps or extensions, an iPad or Chromebook meets the needs of many special education students.


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“A few years ago, the technology looked much different and it made students stand out,” says Daniel Bettis, executive director of special services at Vancouver Public Schools in Washington. “Now the technology allows them to integrate much easier into the everyday—they look like every other student.”


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More elaborate technology has opened up even more possibilities for students with a range of needs. In some schools, robots now help children develop social-emotional skills. Eye-gaze technology allows non-verbal, physically impaired teenagers to express themselves. And virtual reality is leading to real-world gains.

Robots build relationships

With backing from a state computer science grant, the Vancouver district in 2017-18 piloted a coding program for elementary-age students with special needs in five classrooms at three schools.

The students, who were on the autism spectrum or who had been identified with emotional-behavioral deficits, programmed small robots after learning the basics of coding.

The activities built skills such as problem-solving, perseverance and communication, says Meagan Williams, the special services instructional technology coordinator who led the district’s program.

Parents have also reported improved behavior at home, she adds. “We’re seeing them blossom in the classroom—they’re becoming classroom leaders,” Williams says. “They’re sharing and collaborating, they’re excited and they’re pushing through frustration points they maybe wouldn’t have before.”

Robots—some of which act like small humanoids while others resemble BB8 from the current Star Wars trilogy—can mimic human emotions with facial expressions and voice inflection, while others can be programmed by students to act out specific behaviors.

As autism diagnoses increase, educators have turned to robots when standard interventions fail to help students manage emotions, set and achieve goals, and navigate relationships.

“Students can actually code these robots for social interaction—that can be everything from a greeting to telling jokes or saying goodbye,” says Dan Phillips, director of the Technology Resource Center at the Marin County Office of Education in Northern California.

“We then switch to having students ‘code’ each other,” he says, adding that, over time, students adapt the behaviors they have taught to their robots.  

Apps offer alternatives

Apps and browser extensions can tailor existing technology to the needs of students in special education. They are cheaper than standalone assistive hardware, and some say they also improve learning.

“We get better outcomes when students are using the same tools their peers are using,” says Kindy Segovia, assistive technology coordinator for Kent Intermediate School District in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This is likely due to a combination of factors, including the fact that most students would rather carry around an iPad or a laptop than a bulky device that immediately signals “special needs.”

Various apps—including one that turns images chosen by students into text messages—can replace standalone communication devices used by children who are nonverbal. While specialized communication tools can cost thousands of dollars, these apps retail for less than $300.

Visually impaired students can use apps that scan and enlarge text, and they can surf the internet with help from browser extensions that read content from any website. A 1-to-1 laptop program at Las Virgenes USD in Southern California has shifted technology from being only a part of a student’s day to an embedded component of the curriculum.

This gives special ed students full-time access to assistive extensions and plugins.

“Students in special ed don’t need to qualify for some of the things that they previously would have had to assert a need for,” says Derek Ihori, Las Virgenes USD’s director of pupil services. “They already have access to them with the laptops that are with them all the time. It allows them to be much more independent.”

What do students like?

The number of apps now available can overwhelm educators searching for the right classroom tool. District tech leaders must find ways to help teachers vet products, including the growing number of open education resources, says Leila Nuland, managing research director for K12 at the consulting firm Hanover Research.

Because advances in technology often outpace academic research, schools and districts should communicate with one another about the most effective new apps.

Guidance can also be offered to teachers in professional development sessions. Some districts (such as Vancouver schools) have created catalogs of education apps for educators to use, Nuland says. The apps in Vancouver’s repository, which has a section for students on IEPs, have been vetted by the tech team and suggested by teachers.

At Las Virgenes USD, the tech team sends out a weekly newsletter with suggested apps and plugins.

“It’s wonderful to have so many resources at your fingertips,” Nuland says. “But it comes back to the fundamental question of ‘How do you prepare teachers?’ Do your teachers understand how to translate student needs into selecting the appropriate resources?”

With all these new tools, administrators must also make sure they can connect the technology to student achievement—and that can be done with more than just test scores and assessments, Nuland adds.

“Look at it from it from all angles—it might be surveying parents, it might be classroom observations, it might be teachers observing students,” she says. “And depending on students’ skills, it might be their ability to articulate how they’re using the devices, whether they like them and whether they find them helpful.” 


Freelance writer Jennifer Fink contributed reporting.