What is Assistive Technology?
This is a very broad question and covers many aspects of education; however, let’s start with this frame of mind: what can we use in the classroom and with students that will make teaching and learning easier for the student and at times more convenient for the teacher? I would say anything that accomplishes this goal is assistive technology.
Assistive technology is also often defined as any item, equipment, or product system obtained off the shelf or modified or customized that can be used to maintain, increase, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.
I would go a step further and add “and help any student.” Although much the discussion with assistive technology will focus on special education, all students can benefit from many of these tools.
Types of Assistive Technology
As you would expect from the definition of assistive technology, the types of assistive technology is broad also and range from very high tech devices to simpler technology. Below we will look at some more specific details, but assistive technology runs the gamut from seat cushions to stress balls, from audio players to timers, reading guides to graphic organizers.
If you follow the example in the evolution of technology that the pencil at one point was groundbreaking technology, then at one point the pencil was a groundbreaking assistive technology.
Assistive Technology for Modern Learning Environments
Let’s take a look at different examples of assistive technology and how they can be used in the modern learning environment.
Audio Players and Recorders
This is a home run in many different aspects but primarily in special education. This one is not rocket science, but think of the students with visual impairments and how we can level the educational playing field for these students.
For our 504 students and special education students who need oral administration of tests, a teacher can record their tests and play them back. I believe one added benefit of this is hearing the same vocabulary, tone, and pacing from a teacher on the test that they heard when it was first discussed with them.
Beyond that, for all students, if a teacher records their lectures and lessons and then places them on their website, Google Classroom, or canvas for all students to access later, they are just making homework or studying easier for all students.
This year, there are two teachers on my campus that are using the microphone and speakers through their projector in their classroom so that students can hear them better through their mask.
Another home run in the special education department is in the area of writing support. First, voice-to-text and text-to-speech software has come a long way and is still getting better and better, just ask Siri. Much like audio players and recorders, there is a large number of students who can now participate that could not before with this technology.
Many of the speech recognition softwares are compatible with smartphones and tablets so students are not tied to a computer but can move around the classroom and school with this technology. The school I was at last year had a student who used his iPad to communicate what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go.
Word prediction software can help students think through what they are writing and help with their spelling and grammar at times. Not to mention the software we use every day in word processing that helps us with our spelling and grammar. My senior English teacher would be amazed at my spelling now…thanks to assistive technology.
Finally, here is a low tech writing support: graphic organizers. Take a writing utensil and a blank sheet of paper and a student can be taught how to organize their thoughts before they write. There are so many different ways this can be used from outlining to bubble maps, etc. There is software out there that can pre-design these for students and then add their content to the organizers. In the state where I am a principal, Texas, some students who qualify can use blank graphic organizers on their standardized tests.
Items that can Help Focus
Since the definition is so broad for assistive technology, I wanted to touch on this aspect of it. There are students that need help focusing on what is happening in class.
In my research for the article, timers came up often as an example for assistive technology. There are many ways this works. A teacher can use a timer to help manage the classroom not only from a classroom management standpoint but also as a pacing tool.
Stress balls or items that can be held in students’ hands while they work or listen was another item that came up. One of my earliest professional developments was on “How to Handle the Hard-to-Handle Student”. They talked extensively about ADHD and ADD students and how often if they just can fidget with something in their hand while working or listening, their focus goes up exponentially. From experience I have seen this work; it certainly assisted me in teaching, the student in learning, and then the entire class overall.
The Bottom Line…
There are many forms of assistive technology out there, high tech vs. low tech, ones that focus more on special needs and others that focus on convenience. What matters in the end is whether or not you achieve the desired outcome with the assistive technology. Is the student learning and growing with what you are using? If the answer is no, move on to the next possible answer and find something that works.