THE LATEST compilation from the US Department of Education (from 2010-2011) reports that about 13 percent of public school enrollment consists of students served by special education programs. That count has pretty much stayed the same for the last 13 years. What's different now is that, as technology pervades all aspects of the classroom, special education teachers need to make a decision about whether they're going to stay on track with specialized assistive technologies or adopt some of the mainstream ones that general education students are using.
The latter approach appears to be winning right now. In many situations the mobile devices, apps, cloud-based computing, and flipped classroom approaches that are finding wide acceptance in general education are also finding a home among the tools used by special ed experts to help their students succeed.
Whereas assistive technologies used to be considered a highly specialized field, "Now assistive technology is blurring with educational technology," says Andrea Prupas, who heads up inov8 Educational Consulting, a firm that does consulting in special education and technology.
As special education adopts and adapts mainstream products, it's the students that win--now and in the future. Prupas says, "We're thrilled, because we see our students succeed. These are tools that adults are using, that our students will be using for the rest of their lives."
Here are ways that special ed experts are levaraging mainstream ed tech initiatives to benefit special needs students.
Bring Your Own
When Forsyth County Schools started its bring-your-own-technology program across the district, Chris Swaim, assistive technology facilitator for the Georgia district, considered BYOT a "tremendously positive thing" for her special ed students. The reasons are similar to what any teacher at the district might say.
For one, ownership makes students take the devices more seriously. "Anytime a student owns something, there's a little bit more responsibility," she explains. For another, she's seeing students more "engaged" in their schoolwork.
Plus, since the devices don't always have to be specialized now, special ed learners don't stand out as using something different. On the contrary, outfitted with the latest version of hardware, they could even experience the novel sensation of being envied by their peers. "When a student Is using something really cool, the other kids go, 'Wow!'" notes Swaim.
While Swaim is "thrilled" to support students' decisions to bring their own devices to school, there's still a potential disconnect between what's been recommended by her individualized education plan or program (IEP) team and whet the parents have chosen. "They might buy an iPad or a tablet and put a specific communication app on it that they've heard about, that the hype is about. Sometimes it's not the best selection for the student."
When that happens, she says, "We make a good faith effort to support what our parents want students to use; but we feel the responsibility of identifying what is the best thing for the student."
When there's a fundamental disagreement over which device to choose, Swaim lets the data talk. "We go through a consideration process end determine what tools are the best for that child," she explains. "We'll show them, 'This is what we determine. This is the data that shows your child's ability to perform the task using the tools we have recommended.' Sometimes when we show this to the parent, the lightbulb comes on. The main thing we all want is for that child to improve his skills."
Software in the Cloud
BYOT plays well into whet Swaim identifies as the biggest push in assistive technologies right now: the move to cloud-based and web-based software. The earliest special ed software was usually installed on a single computer. …