Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Fundamental and Profound Shift in Assistive Technology

As odd as this may sound, we are on the verge of a technological revolution, but not in the way that some might think. We are reaching a point in education where, for the first time, technology is becoming capable of allowing our students to diminish or completely negate various disabilities and disadvantages they bring with them to school. The only real question is: are our schools smart enough to realize this?

Technology has long been hailed as the answer to many of the needs we face day to day in our classrooms with students who have disabilities ranging from Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, to more severe conditions such as Autism and Cerebral palsy. These students can benefit from a myriad of devices available on the market to assist them with tasks that they would normally not be able to engage in. The problem is, of course, that these technologies are incredibly expensive and often have a high learning curve but are the only devices recognized by many state agencies and school districts as viable options for these students.

 ALL OF THAT HAS CHANGED, but the problem is that no one has even realized it yet. Technology has just made a fundamental shift that will allow it, for the first time, to provide more effective, efficient, and affordable Assistive Technology.

This shift is so fundamental and so profound that I feel the company that has brought you theses changes doesn't even yet fully realize the impact it's technology can have on students who, with it's use, can do things they've never dreamed possible.

Many of you will chuckle when I say what device I'm referring to because so many have yet to grasp how and why it will change the course of human history when it comes to students with disabilities. Sounds too grand? Sounds ridiculous? Read on.

The device which I'm referring to as some of you may have guessed is Apple's iPad technology. And while a few of you have already rolled your eyes, consider the points I am going to make and the impact it will have on how things are taught and how kids access information and learning.

The first part of understanding this fundamental change is to understand the nature of the thing that is to be changed. It isn't necessary to understand the full nature of each disability and its underlying causes, it is enough to understand how the disability affects a child and that in most cases there is not a method for correcting the disability.

Take Dyslexia for example. A student with Dyslexia is unable to "see" letters in the appropriate order. The phonological and symbol processing areas of the brain become disconnected or don't work properly. This has the effect of making it difficult for children with Dyslexia to read. It was once thought that with enough repetition and enough practice these students would just learn to read on their own. We've since gained a better understanding of the condition and now know that students with Dyslexia never make the condition go away, they simply learn strategies to overcome them. This is the case with most disabilities. In the past, the best that Dyslexic kids could hope for is that they'd learn and master these strategies before they got too far behind in their education.

I use Dyslexia as the primary example because it is, by far, the most prevalent disability that students face today. Many kids have one form of Dyslexia or another and often don't even realize it. There are a myriad of other disabilities that students can have that affect their ability to perform in school and I don't want to spend the entire article on each of them as that wouldn't serve the purpose of the point.

 I am a teacher of students with special needs and have often sought better ways to serve my students. This often means that I am researching new technologies and programs that will help kids. Up until recently, most of those programs were cumbersome, expensive, inefficient to implement, maintain, and teach. They ran on computers that districts had to maintain. Best case scenarios often meant that when a program was requested it would take weeks to procure, install, and make it function properly on a computer. Time had to be spent training teachers how to use the programs and more time training students. It often took so much time to implement a new technology that most set it aside in favor of less time consuming, yet ineffective strategies. Teachers were scared of new technology and resistant to new programs because it was just one more thing they had to learn.

Other problems associated with new technologies was cost. 

Many of these assistive technology devices were custom built for specific tasks and cost thousands of dollars to purchase. These devices were just as time consuming and cumbersome to use and while, in certain cases, would be effective, they were neither efficient or cost effective. If a device became damaged, it took weeks or months to get repairs and when you're talking about a devicie a child relies on for day-to-day communication that's the equivalent of telling your child that they have to wait a few weeks while we send in their mouths and/or ears for repair.

Imagine being given a device which, for the first time in your life, allows you to do something you've never been able to do before. You take the time to learn the devicie, you become proficient, you are now able to do tasks that others can do naturally. Then the device breaks. You wait months for a new one and by that time you've lost that much time with being able to do what it was it allowed you to do. If that is something as important as walking or talking, time is lost.

It's difficult to grasp the complexity and severity of the issues I'm talking about here without actually being involved in the process, but I hope you're beginning to understand the problems with current uses of technologies. In steps the iPad. The iPad has been called many things from useless to the most essential tool of the 21st century. I hope, when I'm done with this post, that you'll see just how ground breaking it truly is.

When I first purchased an iPad I obsessed over the decision.

Did I really need another expensive toy?

I purchased it on the off chance that I would at least be able to read articles, surf the web, and do all those other things that I currently had to do at a desk or in my office. Sure, I could haul out the laptop and use it whereever I wanted, but it was still cumbersome and heavy for leisure reading.

When I first turned on my iPad and began to use it I saw right away the potential of the device. Here it was a device where I could simply press a button and there were all the things I needed to perform my tasks. No booting up, no waiting for updates, no lenghty install process. Touch a button and you're ready to go. Any of you with ADHD children will understand the importance of this seemingly innocuous and simple idea.

When I'm ready to begin a task I touch the screen.

Take a moment to truly appreciate the breadth of that statement alone. I touch the screen. Just like in real life, when I want to use something, I touch it, I pick it up to use it.

People take for granted the profound difference there is in the interaction with a keyboard versus a tablet. It's intuitive, natural, and relies on the most basic processes in the brain. It may not seem like it to most, but the process involved for using a mouse are actually quite complex.

There are many people who have difficulty associating the movements of a mouse with a cursor on the screen. It's just something their brains have diffculty doing. Once I remove this  and make interaction as natural as possible, I've just allowed a whole new set of students to use a device they never could before. Children with Cerebral Palsy can interact with a tablet where keyboards and mice were painstakingly difficult. Even children with extremely low IQ's could understand the simplicity of this action.

iOS is visual, seamless, responsive, and does what you tell it to do. There's no waiting for an app to open, no problems with where to save a file. I don't have to go through complicated processes to install applications and I don't need to call my IT department to set it up on a network.

It's easy, user friendly, natural, and efficient. It is the ultimate assistive technology device and we've only begun to scratch the surface of the things it can do. 

Now that you're beginning to understand why an iPad is going to change things for students with disabilities, let's talk about what it allows these students to do. I'll tell you a story of Annie (fictional character) who is based on actual real-life situations that I've witnessed with my own eyes. These accounts of accurate, factual, and true. They are not embellished in any way and while they may not have all happened to "Annie" alone, I'm using one fictional student to simplify your understanding of how this device can help kids in need.

Annie has severe Dyslexia and Dysgraphia. She had a lot of complications at birth which affected her ability to read and write. She's slow to pick up on new information and has a difficult time remembering facts. All her life her parents have been frustrated with her. She seems lazy, unwilling to try new things, and seems to ignore the things they ask her to do. When told to clean her room, she only gets a few things done or doesn't remember that they told her in the first place. She is often punished and has developed a low self-esteem and self-confidence. She is now in third grade and is unable to write much more than her name because her handwriting and words are undreadable. She also struggles to read the most basic text despite tutoring and outside help. Her parents are frustrated and it shows.

Up until now Annie has been given several accommodations or tools to help her with her tasks. When she doen't know how to spell a word she has a dictionary. When she can't read a word, she can ask a friend or the teacher. Sometimes, she's even allowed to use the classroom computer to help with her tasks. 

One day she is in class and is struggling with an assignment. She is already frustrated with the idea that she has to get up and lug a huge and heavy dictionary over to her desk because even after she gets it there she can't find the word she wants to look up. Even after she spends ten minutes looking up the first word, there are a hundred more on the assignment. She asks a neighbor for help and is scolded for cheating. Annie sighs and returns to her assignment, glancing occasionally at her neighbor's answers. At least the assignment will be finished and she won't have to worry about it any longer. 

She tries to write the answers the same way her neighbor did, but when she writes letters they come out backwards and she can't really tell whether they're right or wrong. When the assignment is graded and she is handed her "F," she sees the disappointment in her teacher's eyes. Annie sighs and adds it to the pile of other "F's" she has stashed in her desk. 

What's the point?

I could spend hours detailing every little thing that we as able bodied adults take for granted that kids like Annie have difficulty with. A project that would normally take 20 minutes, turns into hours and hours of agony for Annie. Of course she doesn't like to go to school.

Annie is given a project the next day. She has to research a famous person and give a speech about them. She can use the internet, get easy reader books in the library, and even have help from her teacher. She begins researching Amelia Earhardt because she's fascinated by the idea of a woman pilot. She's excited to learn more about her. She sits down at the computer because at least searching for things on the internet is much easier than in books and has to wait almost 5 minutes for the computer to boot up and load up all of the programs.

After 30 minutes of trying to type her name in and spell it correctly she finally finds a site about the female pilot. She looks at the page and uses a screen reader to help her read the text. It's cumbersome and difficult to use because Annie has a hard time manipulating the mouse and holding the button to highlight text. She gets part of the text highlighted and then lets go of the button too soon.

Finally, she is able to listen to information. She hears something important and wants to write it down. She figures out how to stop the screen reader and then has to find the sentence in the text which means she has to remember what the words she heard look like since the screen reader doesn't highlight as it reads. After another 20 minutes she's finally located the text and begins writing it down. Only one minute passes and she's written the first word when her teacher tells her that it's time to move on to the next activity. Annie sighs and realizes how long it's going to take her to do this project.

Here's the same scenario, but Annie is given an iPad to work on:

Annie is given a project the next day. She has to research a famous person and give a speech about them. She pushes the button to turn on her iPad and is immediately greeted by the home screen with all of the programs she uses.

She launches the web browser and using the predictive text feature is able to locate a website with information about Amelia Earhardt within seconds. She uses her finger to navigate the page and highlights text with a touch. The built in highlight and speak function of the iPad reads her selection to her as she follows along. She finds interesting information, highlights it with her finger, and copies and pastes it with the touch of a finger over to the Notes app where she is gathering all of her notes. She can listen to what she's gathered by touching the words and highlighting them.

Once she's gathered the information she wants and listens to it a few times, she prints out her notes and uses the Dragon Dictation app to create her own sentences. She needs help with the punctuation, but has created her own report that's ready for her speech. Once the teacher has helped her put in the punctuation and correct a few words, she listens to her speech and practices it. When she's done, she switches over to her favorite book in iBooks and begins leisure reading.

For words she doesn't know, she touches the word and instantly gets a definition that can be read to her using the screen reader. If she stumbles on a sentences, she can highlight it and listen to what the sentence says. Her teacher has taught her to try to read the sentences first, then listen to them, and read them again. This is a great strategy for Annie and with all the extra time that she has, she's practicing reading while the other kids are still working on their speeches.

This is just a taste of the things that are possible on an iPad. 

I was absolutely amazed the day that one of my students experienced this exact same scenario as Annie. Within 5 minutes of being shown how to use the iPad he was doing the very same things she was. With some training and time, it would transform how he is able to function in a classroom. There was only one problem. Our school has no iPads for him to use, he had to rely on the one iPad that we were able to procure that is shared by 20 Special Education students. Needless to say, he doesn't get to experience this often.

I can't begin to tell you the importance of my realization and what it means for education. Many would argue that iPads are more expensive than computers. "You can do more with computers." "Computers are already available in classrooms, we need to invest in using them." I've heard all the arguments. Nothing can replace Annie's situation. Nothing can duplicate the level of independence and success she felt. Some say it is enabling her to rely on crutches and she'll never really learn to do it on her own. I say to those: Is a wheelchair therapeutic? Prosthetic limbs? Hearing aids?

Would you tell a child without legs that he can only use the wheelchair for a short time, otherwise it will become a crutch and he'll never really learn to walk?

For Annie, her Dyslexia is never going away, but with the effieciency of the iPad as a tool she was able to get so much more out of her learning experience. Rather than being pulled from the classroom to force her to learn things her brain was incapable of learning, she was learningi the information her peers were learning and was able to have more opportunity to develop her own strategies to overcome her disabiliites.

Over time, the use of the iPad allowed her to build her reading skills enough to where she was able to do more and more things on her own and not rely so much on others. Her self-confidence improved. Her self-esteem improved. She began to try new things. Her parents saw the child they always wished for her to be and realized how much they were hurting her growth because of their unrealistic expectations. Annie will grow up to be a productive member of society whereas in the past she may have shuffled from Special Education classroom to Special Education classroom until she dropped out and entered a work program.

Sounds so simple, right? Schools should be jumping on board with this and fixing all of our kids like Annie, right? Unfortunately, most schools are still beginning to grasp the use of technologies that are so ouddated they haven't even begun to consider tools like the iPad for classroom use. "They're too expensive." "The kids will break them." "They'll get stolen." "Kids will just play around with them an not do their work." "Kids need to learn the old fashioned way, that's how I did it."

What's that old saying?

Excuses only satisfy the person who makes them.

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