Special Ed Tech: How Digital Learning Tools Are Helping Reach Students With Special Needs

According to the latest reports from the U.S. Department of Education (2010-11), approximately 13 percent of students enrolled in public schools are served by special education programs, a figure that's remained relatively unchanged for the past 13 years (THE Journal, 2013). The tools special ed teachers are using in the classroom, however, are changing. Until recently, these teachers have been relying on what is termed "specialized assistive technologies," components of a field considered highly specialized. "Now assistive technology is blurring with educational technology," said Andrea Prupas, head of the special education and technology consulting firm inov8 Educational Consulting, in The Journal. The "mainstream" educational technology (or ed tech) tools now commonplace in general education classrooms include mobile devices, apps, cloud-based computing, and "flipped" and online classroom approaches, all of which are increasingly showing up in special ed teachers' tool kits. Learn about these tools and how they may be turning the special ed classroom on its head.

Technology that's revolutionizing the special ed classroom

Some ways that special ed experts are employing mainstream ed tech initiatives to aid their special needs students include:

  • BYOT (bring your own technology) programs: The sense of ownership that comes from students' bringing their own devices to school results in their taking the devices more seriously and being more "engaged" in their schoolwork. Chris Swaim, an assistive technology facilitator for a Georgia school district, deems it a "tremendously positive thing" for her special ed students (THE Journal, 2013).
  • Moving to cloud- and Web-based software: The move to cloud- and Web-based software is a natural fit for BYOT (see above). Students no longer need to be stuck on the one computer that's installed with special ed software, or working on a network system that can't be accessed from home. One challenge for companies such as Google is making sure cloud-based software adopted by schools is accessible to special ed students. To that end, the company recently released Read&Write for Google Docs to schools that cater to students with special needs, and this is expected to become part of Google's Chrome browser for PCs or Macs (THE Journal, 2013).
  • Mobile learning and 1-to-1 (student-centered personalized learning): According to Valeska Gioia, an assistive technology specialist and autism consultant for the South Carolina Department of Education, mobile devices and the programs they run can save schools "thousands" of dollars in equipment. Generic devices can be customized quickly for special needs through the use of built-in apps, as well as such features as text-to-speech, magnification, and high-contrast functions. And, educators can swap out specialized equipment for mobile devices − where autistic students or students with speech disorders traditionally had to use communication boards, for example (the student would point to a picture and the board would "speak" it), special ed teachers can now set up students with an iPad or Android tablet that runs one of many voice output or communication board apps. For those students who are dyslexic or who have difficulty "decoding" text, digital books or text-to-speech programs can both read text to them and highlight each word as it is read, much as would a special ed aide. The 1-to-1 guarantee of student-personalized learning also has a dramatic impact (THE Journal, 2013).
  • "Flipped" classrooms: Special needs students may also benefit from "flipped" classrooms, in which students watch instructional videos at home and then come prepared to do more hands-on work in the classroom, because, as some special educators have noted, students can repeatedly watch the recorded content until they grasp the concepts being taught. Others point out the advantages that come from the collaborative and active learning aspects that take place in a "flipped" classroom. A "flipped" approach generally takes into account student needs and is thus considered a personalized approach (THE Journal, 2013).
  • Online classes: The Washington State School for the Blind implemented interactive, collaborative online classes in order to accommodate off-site teachers and blind and visually impaired students (THE Journal, 2013). And Louisiana hopes to benefit the state's 82,000 special-education students by offering courses online and through other innovative methods. A state law enacted in 2012 allows private firms, colleges and online groups to offer courses outside of traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms, and education leaders in the state are asking special ed advocates to encourage teachers and others to apply to offer such nontraditional classes for students with special needs (The Advocate, 2012).
  • Other innovations in special education: Nicole Parlavecchio, a special ed teacher at the Frank K. Hehnly School in New Jersey, received an "Innovations in Special Education" award for her "Teaching, Technology, and the Tennessee Titans" program. The program is an interactive, intergenerational mentoring and Skyping program between the school's third, fourth, and fifth grade special ed students and the coaching staff and players of the NFL's Tennessee Titans aimed at "enhancing student self-esteem, providing students an intergenerational learning experience, and utilizing technology as a vehicle to deliver the grade and subject area curricula." In addition to learning the technological and communication skill sets they'll need throughout their life, the special ed students experience firsthand the importance that their football heroes place on the value of education (NJ.com, 2013).

Special apps for special needs

There are a number of software applications that can also help special ed students in the classroom, as well as benefit teachers and classroom aides in instruction.

Avaz app: One innovation poised for rapid adoption in special ed classrooms is the Avaz app for autism, developed by an electrical engineer who wanted to duplicate the success of tablets being used in U.S. special needs classroom for an Indian market − minus the high price tag. The Avaz app was designed to help non-verbal children communicate by addressing their difficulty in processing such information as letters, words and sentences. It reworks the information in easily understandable pictures by rerouting through visual pathways instead of verbal ones.

iPad apps: Apps tailored specifically to the needs of autistic students include speech, gesture, tone and visual elements to help bridge the communication barrier for autistic students (The Circuit, 2013). Neil Virani teaches in a self-contained multiple-subject special ed classroom in Los Angeles and recounts his experience with a student who had never written a word before because of his lack of fine motor skills and ability to control only one finger. The student wrote his first word on an iPad and then went on to create sentences and graphic organizers through the Popplet application. Virani's conclusion? "iPads transformed my special education classroom" (TakePart, 2013).

About the Author:

Michelle Filippini is an editor and writer based out of Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She received her B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing and enjoys writing nonfiction as well as on issues in the educational realm.