In 2017–18, 7 million students aged 3–21 received special education services, according to the National Centre for Educational Statistics. That’s 14% of all public school students.
We are increasingly, and quite correctly, becoming ever more aware of the cognitive diversity present in the classroom (and the population at large). But catering to this vast array of learning needs remains a significant challenge for educators.
Fortunately, we live in an age where a huge range of technological possibility exists. But do digital tools offer tangible improvements to education access, or are they just yet another fad?
Let’s explore how technology can improve special education and whether the advantages outweigh the potential downsides.
— Kami (@usekamiapp) September 23, 2019
What improvements do digital tools offer special ed students?
Technology has always been used to improve life and access to the world for those with physical needs. Think glasses or motorized wheelchairs – the world is undoubtedly a better place for these inventions.
As the sophistication of our technology improves it stands to reason that the net of needs can be cast wider. Specifically, edtech can now help those with learning needs which do not express themselves physically. Think dyslexia, mild autism or ADHD. So what specific improvements does appropriate technology bring about?
1.Capacity for personalized learning
This term can feel a little like a buzzword, but what we are getting at here is the ability to provide students with specific tasks or methods which support their personal learning journey. This could mean giving students the opportunity to progress at their own pace, choose specific topics that interest them or simply providing them with tools and modes of expression which suit their needs and preferences.
How does technology facilitate this exactly?
Within a good personalized learning strategy, technology is only one tool within a broader strategy. However digital tools provide some significant aids to personalized learning. This includes:
- Providing data to accurately identify student strengths and weaknesses,
- Utilizing online learning platforms which allow students to move through work at their own pace,
- Using gamification apps to add an element of challenge, self-direction and lots of fun to learning.
— Trevor Williams (@TrevorTeaches) April 4, 2018
2. Opening up the mainstream classroom to everyone
Technology gives those with special ed needs the tools to participate in classroom activities that they’d otherwise be cut off from. This means that those with disabilities can, at last, rejoin mainstream classrooms and their peers. Even more exciting still, there are many apps available that can be used by all students, those with disabilities and those without.
Why is this important? It means that everybody is learning together and no one is made to feel different. This not only makes lesson planning logistically easier, it means that mainstream schooling is accessible to everybody and reduces the stigma of being classified as ‘not normal’.
- ebooks or digital readers can provide visual enhancements such as text enlargement or color filters.
- Typing adaptations such as voice comments or video annotations can help those who struggle to type or write.
- Tech features such as text-to-speech can also help students who need support, and readily accessible dictionary tools can further aid those who have difficulty with vocabulary.
Suddenly traditional pen, paper and textbook exercises become accessible to everyone!
3. Increasing student independence
Improving access to classroom activities has the powerful knock-on impact of giving students with disabilities more independence. Now, rather than requiring a full-time helper, digital tools can liberate students and help them complete tasks themselves.
Writing alternatives such as audio and video recordings are a great option for many. There are also many speech-to-text tools that transcribe speech into typed text – a direct replacement for a personal transcriber. Interactive or collaborative documents also allow students to work together to solve problems rather than rely on direct support from teachers.
— Kami (@usekamiapp) September 24, 2019
4. Introducing collaboration
Many students with learning disabilities or physical impairments can find themselves cut off from collaboration with their peers. This could be because they are unable to attend mainstream lessons, need specialist teaching, or communication difficulties prevent them from participating in group work.
Digital tools now offer all students the possibility of engaging in group work. Collaborative digital documents can be used by everyone to transfer thoughts and ideas to multiple people (or even a whole class) electronically. Furthermore, these tools can be used by those who are not able to be physically present. Students can complete their work and interact with others from their own device using whatever tools help them to communicate best.
5. Recording and rewarding progress
Digital tools give students many options to interact with their work. These then allow teachers to better understand pupils’ strengths and weaknesses. For example, students who struggle to express their thoughts in writing may be very articulate if given the opportunity to leave a voice comment. Access to more options and modes of expression can help you to better understand your charges and their level of knowledge.
Collaborative documents, screen sharing, and LMS enabled marking systems can also allow educators to watch real-time learning and identify areas where a student is struggling before it becomes an issue. For example, teachers can do a quick check-in on individuals’ worksheets from their own device and see who has finished what questions, and what sort of methods they are using to reach their answers. The same can be done for homework assignments.
— Kami (@usekamiapp) October 10, 2019
Are there any downsides to special ed technology?
Despite the many fantastic opportunities technology provides, it is important to acknowledge some of the potential downsides.
- Cost: 1:1 devices, software subscriptions and server systems all cost money to install and maintain. That being said, this could be offset by other associated savings, such as reductions to paper, printing and specialized special ed solutions that are made redundant with new tech.
- Technical literacy: Introducing tech to the classroom requires both staff and students to have a good working knowledge of digital processes. This can take time and resources to cultivate.
- Data security: No technical solution should ever be used without a robust data security strategy. Not having a security plan puts both students and staff at risk.
- Choosing the correct equipment: Not all technology is made equal. Your choice of applications, systems and devices will have a huge impact on a school’s technical experience. They must be chosen wisely and take into account all of your needs and requirements.
Technology and digital tools are not just useful for special education, but a total necessity. They give students access to resources and lessons that were previously impossible, open the door for collaboration with their peers, and above all offer the opportunity to academically succeed if not excel.
Though there are some growing pains for schools to overcome, they are small in comparison to the life-changing results offered by digital tools. As we understand more about the nature of learning and the barriers that exist in our current curriculum structures it’s more vital than ever to help students with all sorts of needs to overcome their personal challenges. Technology is already an important component of the solution, and it should be a central feature of special education.
At Kami, we believe that EdTech makes education accessible to everyone. Learn more about how Kami could help your special education program today.