Welcome back to the hub! My goal for this week was to first explore, what Assistive Technology is and it’s main goals in the context of my classroom. Next, I wanted to look at what Universal Design for Learning is, how it differed from Assistive Technology and if it would be something that would benefit my classroom (or potentially something I already do?) I dug through loads of literature and feel like I have a better grasp on these topics and their main functions.
Assistive Technology: As per the ATIA (Assitive Technology Industry Association) Assistive Technology is, “is any item, piece of equipment, software program, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities.” My initial understanding of AT in my classroom was computers that could be used to utilize programming like Google Read & Write, Dragon Dictate, Kurzweil, math games online, etc. However, after reading more, I realized that AT is so much more than that. AT according to ATIA could be:
- AT can be low-tech: communication boards made of cardboard or fuzzy felt.
- AT can be high-tech: special-purpose computers.
- AT can be hardware: prosthetics, mounting systems, and positioning devices.
- AT can be computer hardware: special switches, keyboards, and pointing devices.
- AT can be computer software: screen readers and communication programs.
- AT can be inclusive or specialized learning materials and curriculum aids.
- AT can be specialized curricular software.
- AT can be much more—electronic devices, wheelchairs, walkers, braces, educational software, power lifts, pencil holders, eye-gaze and head trackers, and much more.
I discounted how important the smaller adaptations such as a pencil grip could be to students. I have one child who has a sensory issue with pencils but struggles to do math with a pen – I got him a mechanical pencil and it solved his issue. Nothing ground breaking, but it was for that student. I also did not think of things like prosthetics, wheelchairs, walkers, etc. as assistive technology, however, when you fully understand the definition, these items help improve life and basic function for the user and therefore fit the category – even in my context in a middle years classroom.
In one study I read out of North Carolina, “Remote control: how one school turned its assitive technology startegy inside out through telepractice” they spoke to the immense benefits of enabling students in K-12 to spend portions of their day on the computer to aid in their speech and language programs. Their SLP’s were spread thin and this gave them easier access to students more frequently. Some of the major benefits included access to SLP’s that were out of area, greater access to help means higher success rates, happier students and families because access is more regular, huge savings in time and energy training and hiring as screening is already complete and better scheduling, tracking and reporting for both schools and families. This project could not have been attempted without a school willing to make adaptations for its students that needed it. “If compensation for reading is not introduced, then students who struggle with reading will potentially struggle more with all subjects as the curriculum content increases in higher grades.” (Edyburn, 2007). Assistive technology is there to, “help students with special learning needs gain access to curriculum and information and report their findings…” (White, Roberston, 2014) and now that I fully understand the wide scope of AT I see the importance of allowing students access to these tools so they can keep up with their grade alike peers if possible. Everyone needs something different to help them be successful, right? We should sure ensure that every student has access to adaptations and items needed to aid their learning. HOWEVER, when does aiding our students stigmatize them and their needs and make them feel more isolated than they potentially feel already? I think the line is thin. White and Robertson say, “It is critically important, however, for students with special needs to be able to participate fully in a way that does not make them feel outside of the mainstream communications and functions of the regular classroom.” (2014). So where did this leave me…questioning my practice for sure. Had I been giving kids adaptations this whole time and although they required it and it aided their learning, was I making them feel isolated and uncomfortable in the classroom? I had never asked them. I always, ALWAYS try my best to make my whole classroom an accepting place where adaptations and AT are no biggie – you need glasses, student x needs a pencil grip, student y a rocking chair but I never really thought of the implications. This is where I feel Universal Design for Learning comes in as it preemptively answers some of the questions I had asked once I read the AT literature.
So…what is Universal Design for Learning, that seems like the best place to start. In the article, “Smart From the Start: The promise of Universal Design for Learning” by Bart Pisha and Peggy Coyne they define it as, “Think[ing] about the needs of the entire range of learners who are or could be in today’s classrooms, and then design curricula, materials, methods and environments that support and challenge each learner as appropriately and consistently as possible.” (p. 197, 2001). Generally speaking, newer school builds have considered how our spaces affect our learners (sometimes…that’s another post topic! ) and they have adapted them – wider door ways, elevators, interactive board technology in every room, microphone systems built in, etc. “However, as the students open their textbooks, many are still denied access to learning.” (Pisha, Coyne, p.197, 2001). Universal Design for Learning invites teachers (and builders, and admin and support staff) to consider all aspects of learning and how they will affect students who require adaptation, as well as those that do not necessarily. “At minimum, UDL must provide multiple representations of information. Traditional text alone is insufficient to meet identified student needs.” (Pisha et al, p. 198, 2001). What I understand of UDL is that is pre-planning for the inevitable diversity of our classrooms and being proactive rather than reactive which is Assistive Technology. Essentially, I believe that UDL is an answer that came from necessity – whether it was this or something else, teaching had to change to accommodate the dramatic change and diversity in our students. I believe that in many ways, Dr. Alec Couros graduate level course embody the idea of UDL because we engage with a variety of materials, presented in a variety of ways and are given the option to “show what we know” in a variety of ways.
In an article titled “Universal Design in Elementary and Middle School: Designing Classrooms and Instructional Practices to Ensure Access to Learning for All Students” by Margaret M. Flores explores the idea that students gain access to information and instructions through certain UDL principles. They are:
1) Equitable use
2) Flexibility in use
3) Simple and intuitive
4) Peceptible information
5) Tolerance for error
6) Low physical effort and,
7) Size and space for approach and use
All of these pieces need to be take into consideration in order to utilize UDL properly. It takes a team of people to facilitate this wide scale change. AT, although it requires thought and consideration, it is more between the teacher and student, and sometimes the family, whereas UDL requires so many parties working in unison.
To conclude, I can’t get the “band-aid analogy” to teach equality and equity in the classroom, out of my head as a great example of why AT has its place in the class. One student comes up for a band aid for a cut of some kind, you give that student a band-aid and then continue to call students up, giving them all a band-aid. They will undoubtedly be confused and ask why they are getting a band-aid when they don’t need one…well, one student needed one so you all do. They will inevitably take issue with that and say they don’t need one – once this happens, you can let them know that just because one child needs something to help them be successful, doesn’t necessarily mean everyone does. I am not sure where I stand and truly, if I need to have a stand – both AT and UDL have positives and crossovers. All I know is that I will absolutely be more cognizant of my integration of AT in the classroom so as I don’t have students feeling out of place. I will continue to build strong, trusting relationships with my kids and hope that even if I stumble in my integration of AT, or my attempts at UDL in my classroom or school, that they will come and talk to me so I can make it right and make the classroom and safe, healthy, happy and accessible place for ALL my students.
My plan going forward with this concept is to interview my students (either on paper or recorded) and post my findings on this blog – the questions will relate to whether or not they have ever felt singled out with AT, how they feel, if they have ever said anything to anyone about, it, whether they wish they never had to use it, etc. I am curious to investigate this more in my school because it is a newer build that was designed and constructed with teacher consultation.
Thanks for reading,
“Educating the mind without educating the heart,
is no education at all.” – Aristotle
- Margaret, M. Flores (2008) Universal Design in Elementary and Middle School; Designing Classrooms and Instructional Practices to Ensure Access to Learning for all Students, Childhood Education, DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2008.105.
- Laura Sokal, Jennier Kotches. Effects of the Three Block Model of Universal designing for Learning on Early and Late Middle School Students’ Engagement.
- Bart Pisha, Peggy Coyne. Start from the Start: The Promise of Universal Design for Learning.
- Heather White, Lorayne Robertson. Implementing assistive technologies: A study on co-learning in the Canadian elementary school context. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.12.003
- Tech & Learning. Remote control: how one school turned its assitive technology strategy inside out through telepractice.