Assistive Technology: Meeting the Needs of Learners with Disabilities

Article excerpt

Assistive technology devices offer powerful possibilities for improving students' learning, particularly students with disabilities. The teacher, however, will make the difference in the integration of assistive technology into the learning process. It is essential that, as a guide for learning, teachers examine assistive technology in the context of instruction and its potential impact on student outcomes (Heinich, Molenda, Russell, & Smaldino, 1999).

A number of assistive technology devices and software are available that, with careful planning and guidance, can play a multifaceted role in the instructional process. These include telecommunication devices for the deaf, high-resolution monitors, speech digitizers and synthesizers, and electronic communication aids. Any of these can be used to implement the following methods: presentation, demonstration, discussion, drill-and practice, cooperative learning groups, simulation, discovery, and problem solving (Forcier, 1999; Heinich, et al., 1999; Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999; Morrison, Lowther, & DeMeulle, 1999).

Assistive technology can play an important role in the education of students with disabilities because many of these students need special instructional treatment. For example, students with mental retardation benefit from very organized learning situations because of their limited cognitive abilities. Students who are hearing impaired, blind, or visually impaired may need differentiated pedagogical materials. More emphasis should be placed on visual materials for students with hearing impairments than for other students. Modifying instruction for all students, especially exceptional students, requires strong dependence on media, materials and technology and the right choice of these components to fit particular ends (Heinich et al., 1999). Moreover, research has indicated that technology not only can be adapted for use with students with disabilities, but when used can enhance students' educational achievement and self-image (Kober, 1991).

Given the potential of assistive technology devices and software for improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities, this paper discusses learning theories and their impact on the integration of technology in learning. The paper also presents various assistive technology devices and software and highlights their role in the learning process of students with disabilities.

LEARNING THEORIES AND THE INTEGRATION OF TECHNOLOGY

The computer can become a powerful tool if used conjointly with teaching strategies with a solid theoretical basis. Two kinds of theories that are currently of interest to educators are behaviorism and constructivism. Behaviorist and constructivist theories of learning can be used to demonstrate that the computer can be a useful tool in teaching and learning.

Behaviorists believe that the teacher is the manipulator of the environment that is experienced by the learner, and that by tightly structuring the environment, the student's behavior can be shaped to achieve learning. In the behaviorist approach to learning the learner recapitulates the teacher's interpretation of the world (Jonassen, 1996). In contrast to the behaviorist perspective, is the constructivist viewpoint that perceives that how learners construct knowledge depends on what they already know (Forcier, 1999; Jonassen, 1996). Constructivists believe that teachers try to create classrooms in which learners actively construct their own learning (Jonassen, 1996; Jonassen, et al., 1999). Meaning making is at the heart of constructivism (Jonassen, et al., 1999).

Summarized from Roblyer and Edwards (2000), major differences between the behaviorist and constructivist perspectives are presented in Figure 1. Although the tendency in schools is toward constructivism, most classrooms use elements of both. We believe that each of these elements and the technology uses matched to them can be beneficial to students. …