Blurring the Lines between Educational Technology and Assistive Technology

Sharon Plante, Director of Technology, Eagle Hill Southport School

Sharon Plante, Director of Technology, Eagle Hill Southport School

The use of technology in the field of special education is not novel. It is actually the area of education where the use of technology began with any regularity. While pursuing my undergraduate studies in the early 90's, I recall working at a preschool for children with special needs. I had observed that the speech pathologist used to regularly implement learning programs. It was at this time I completed an independent study on researching and analyzing such programs. Moreover, across campus was a more traditional preschool (today those preschools are combined) where there was little of any technology in use.

With over 20 years of experience as an educator, and having worked in several K-12 environments, technology was mainly seen in computer classes-the beginnings of educational technology, or in the rooms of those providing services to students with special needs, the landmark of assistive technology. As such, a time when educational technology was only catered to those learners receiving speech-language therapy and/or occupational therapy, or who needed it for communication purposes in the classroom. Students were using switches or communication boards, since they had no other method of input. However, taking that special educated population of "hidden disabilities", those with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia and/or Dyscalculia (referred to as LD learners), were not provided technology to support and engage in learning. Despite their learning disabilities, these students were expected to use the same tools as their non-disabled peers, and complete the same work. Or they were given tools to use that were markedly different from their peers that added to the stigma.

​  Today, technology is making its way into many aspects of the educational landscape in the form of laptops, tablets and smartphones 

Today, technology is making its way into many aspects of the educational landscape in the form of laptops, tablets and smartphones. A student can be listening to a book or music, and no peer would know the difference. Dictation is a commonplace idea, thanks to technologies like Siri and Google Voice Typing. Use of word prediction, which years ago was only part of expensive software, is built into most handheld devices. The settings of today's technology allows for quick and easy basic accessibility options, without adding expense. The devices that are in many homes already can be customized to meet the needs of LD students, while providing the same usage for the everyday user.

Sites and apps are flowing into the assistive technology market everyday. Up until a few years ago, purchasing hearty software for a hefty price that required a lot of training was the only option. These programs were robust and beneficial to those who needed that level of technology, but many didn't need that level of support, couldn't afford it, or didn't have the support to learn them. The options available today are more cost friendly, are more scaffolded to meet a variety of needs, and lend a smaller learning curve that many students can do on their own. There are third-party keyboards that allow for word prediction with auditory support, apps that do grammar spell check, provide math practice, allow for demonstration of knowledge in non-print formats, and a variety of ways to access print in auditory and visual formats. The devices are truly allowing for multi-sensory learning, while providing much needed accessibility support for LD users.

Yet, some of these are also tools and apps that are being used by those without learning disabilities as well. Users find support with some of them to address the strengths and weaknesses of their own, or just that it is easy to use. How great is it to listen to a book while commuting to and from work, or dictating an email while walking around? So if listening to text and dictating are common place in devices and in usage, are these tools less about assistive technology but now just available technology? And what does this mean for overall educational technology?

There is an amazing array of educational technology already in use in many K-12 schools. Some are widespread favorites, as you can see from presentations at conferences, discussions on social media, and blogs highlighting their usage. In my own recently co-authored book about using technology with LD learners, many of the tools discussed are not assistive technology tools, but educational apps that innately provide multi-sensory interaction or instruction. Those are apps and sites that would be used in any academic setting, but the creators developed these tools in such a way that they work with the built-in accessibility options of devices or have these options directly built in.

Some great educational technology exists that I do not choose to use in my school for it does not allow the usage of accessibility options such as text-to-speech or speech-to-text. Additionally, there are ones that don't interact with other technology tools or apps in a simplistic fashion or require complex logins. If the developers of educational technology focused on developing their tools with the LD learner in mind first, not last, they would be able to create something that would be accessible to a wider range of learners. I think of a seventh grader, I had last year, who in an informal assessment demonstrated the ability to comprehend at a 12th grade level when he was provided text in a visual and auditory format. There are students who can verbalize wonderful stories, but can put them on paper with a pencil rather yet create wonderful digital stories or craft video trailers to visualize their thoughts. LD learners have amazing knowledge to share, and technology, assistive or educational, has begun to provide the eager avenue for them to show it. Recalling when my school first went to the use of tablets, the parents were amazed to see how we taught their children to engage in education. The device previously used by the kids only for gaming purpose. Today in our halls you regularly hear a student dictating or see a student with earphones engrossed in a book. They are glad to know when an assignment requires an educational technology tool. The lines of what would have only been used for assistive purposes is now just part of their everyday education repertoire, leveling the playing field of learning among their peers and fostering their academic independence by empowering them with the ability to scaffold their own engagement with content as needed.

Educational technology is an exciting front in education that has only yet begun to skim the surface of the academic landscape. With the development of tools that can engage a broader range of learners, we can talk more about differentiation rather than differences. All learners can benefit from the idea of building lessons and interacting with learning in ways that are designed to meet the needs of a range of learners-making the tools meet the needs of students-not requiring the students to meet the needs of the tools.

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