International Friendships for Students with Special Needs

Article excerpt

Harnessing Technology to Bridge an Ocean

Adolescents with multiple or severe disabilities often lack access to opportunities available to their typically developing peers, whose in-school friendships are often reinforced through other out-of-school, and sometimes interschool, activities. Limitations to these opportunities can be a result of attending a separate School designed to provide the specialized education needed in order for students with severe disabilities to be successful in life. Consequently, the very nature of the specialized school may create. a barrier to the development of peer relationships beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Given the extensive medical needs of this population, creating opportunities for students to participate in typical adolescent activities (e.g., making friends and participating in social groups both within and beyond the classroom) is challenging. Meeting new people and developing relationships require significant planning and coordination. Although families are essential in providing fliese opportunities, typically developing adolescents manage this independently; students with disabilities benefit from a coordinated approach.

We participated in a project that used technology to bring together adolescents with multiple or severe disabilities living in Northern Ireland and the United States. We were able to create a successful learning environment, due to not only the efforts of educators in both countries but also the highly motivated students eager to learn and interact with their peers across the ocean. Our goals of improving communication and technology skills were exceeded and friendships enriched students' lives and expanded their understanding of the world. (See box, "Technology Resources for International Videoconferencing," for an overview of the technologies used in this project.)

Background

This project grew out of years of collaboration and serendipitous connections that brought us together to attempt a unique learning experience. For the past decade, Carlow University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the Children's Institute of Pittsburgh have collaborated to improve the preparation of special education teachers for children with severe/profound disabilities. Using a professional development model with preservici teachers ensured a complex understanding of effective, specialized instructional practice by providing hands-on learning within a real-world environment. At the same time, Carlow began to develop ties with special needs educators in Northern Ireland. These relationships provided the opportunity for preservice teachers to complete a student teaching experience abroad in a special needs school, Foyle View School in Deny, County Cork. The notion of introducing students from the schools to each other sprang from the realization of the many similarities of practice between the two schools as well as an appreciation of differences in pedagogy and technologies.

The idea for the Foyle View/Children's Institute project was based on an earlier technology-mediated collaborative project between two schools in Northern Ireland for children with severe learning difficulties. This earlier project included a specially designed syllabus and installation of a virtual conferencing system (to permit both video and text conferencing) at both schools. This exploration of technology-mediated collaborative learning was very positive; videoconferencing in particular greatly improved students' social and communication skills and was their preferred technology, providing a safe zone in which to gradually get to know new people. The project also revealed that given sustained professional support, teachers could learn by doing and could adapt their pedagogy to maximize the benefits of new technologies in terms of enrichment and expansion of learning experiences. Classroom 2000 (C2k) , the agency responsible for the technology infrastructure in all Northern Ireland schools and for the integration of technologies in schools, and a sponsor of this earlier project, allocated to our project a special-needs educator experienced in technology integration. …