This week we had a very informative presentation on Assistive Technology by Megan, Jenny, Leigh and Kalyn. I enjoyed learning about the different types of technology, the possibilities within classrooms (and beyond), and a great discussion about the best ways to use assistive technology. Prior to the presentation, I assumed my experience with assistive technology was limited to a few apps and tools. But I quickly learned that this topic is very broad and there are many applications for using assistive technology with students in both face-to-face and online learning environments.
What is Assistive Technology?
Understood.org describe assistive technology as, “any device, software, or equipment that helps people work around their challenges”. In my classmate Jenny’s recent post, she explains three levels of assistive technology tools:
- Low tech – very common in classrooms (ex. pencil grips)
- Mid tech – least common, often battery operated (ex. talking calculators)
- High tech – tools we “plug in” and the most expensive (ex. projectors)
Assistive technology is a very broad topic and different disabilities require different technology. The Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) explains that “assistive technology helps people who have difficulty speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking, and many other things.”
My Experience with Assistive Technology
Since the majority of my career has been as a specialist teacher, I did not have the opportunity to work with individual students to learn about their assistive technology needs. Instead, I simply incorporated whatever technology was suggested or required by the classroom and learning resource teachers. I had some of my own tools in my classroom (like pencil grips, noise cancelling headphones, FM systems, projects), but I never consider the tools as assistive technologies. Instead, they were most often used as classroom management tools, one of the biggest challenges for specialist teachers.
That being said, I often tried to use S.E.T.T. technology that was assigned to specific students whenever students were doing tasks that would require assistive technology. The most common assistive technology used were Chromebooks assigned to specific students. Unfortunately I never really understood why specific students had Chromebooks (the realities of teaching 400+ students a week) and I also did not know the best ways to adapt my lessons for students who required assistive technology. The only time I feel like I was effective using assistive technology was when I taught in a school with 90% EAL learners. The most commonly used tool was Read&Write as a way to support additional language learners. Some features include:
- word prediction
- text and picture dictionaries (very useful)
- simplify and summarize text
- ability to collect highlights for summarizing and research
The most important factor that resulted in successful use of this technology was that we spent many classes explaining to students how to use the tool. This was useful for both teachers and students, and the information was shared with all teachers that worked with these students.
Using Assistive Technology in an Online Environment
My teaching role has shifted this year and I now teach exclusively online with a large group of EAL students. When designing lessons and instructions, I have learned that simply providing written instructions are not always helpful for students. Instead, I write simple instructions, make an audio recording of instructions, and also give students the opportunity to either write or record (video or audio) their answers. My most important development has been creating instructional videos to guide each lesson.
Understood.org explains that:
Teacher-made videos can be a great way to support all students, especially the 1 in 5 students who learn and think differently. When you make your own videos, you can tailor the instruction to the needs of your students. You can also bring a personal connection to the online learning environment.
Furthermore, making videos gives students the opportunities to understand any part of your lessons, go back and watch the instructions again. By trying to incorporate Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the videos give students more ways to access information. UDL guidelines “offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.” (UDL Guidelines, Cast.org) The three principals to include in a UDL approach:
- Engagement and the why of learning
- Representation and the what of learning
- Action and expression and the how of learning
Many of the challenges in an online environment can be addressed using the UDL principals and guidelines as engaging, representing and expressing learning is very different compared to a face-to-face environment. I am still working on the best ways for students to demonstrate their learning, but I am currently focusing on engaging learning and representing learning goals.
I recently had 3-Way conferences with students and their families, and some of the positive feedback was that students appreciated these videos with their real teachers instead of a random video and random teacher explaining the same concept. These videos help create connections with students and the asynchronous model means that no student is left behind. I also always upload my videos to YouTube so that students can use close-captions and adjust the playback speed. I am getting better at recording my videos in fewer takes, so editing time has improved greatly, but I still follow Cult of Pedagogy‘s guide for planning instructional videos.
Here are two examples of videos I have created to help my students with their online learning:
- A screencast video to explain how to do a Seesaw activity, and
- An instructional video about writing paragraphs (topic sentences)
Assistive Technology levels the playing field for all students and has many positive impacts, like those shared by the presentation group this week. In an online environment, students may feel isolated, so assistive technology can help students feel more independent in their learning, work more accurately and set and achieve goals. I look forward to incorporating more suggestions from Understood.org and the entire section devoted to distance learning. In particular, as I start working with Tier II and III intervention students, I will begin to explore online accommodations that could help these students.