As outlined by the Megan, Leigh, Jenny, and Kalyn in their presentation on assistive technology last week, there are three types of AT that we can use specifically in a school setting. This includes:
Low-Tech – lightweight, portable, limited capabilities, simple features, inexpensive, limited to no training needed
Mid-Tech – requires a battery source, relatively inexpensive, limited to know training relatively simple to operate
High Tech – permits storage and retrieval of messages/information, digital or electronic components, typically computerized, require training and effort to learn how to use, expensive
As an LRT, assistive technology is something that I am constantly considering when addressing concerns that teachers have with students. Difficulties accessing curriculum are due to a variety of reasons including health, social/personal well-being, communication, and regulation to name a few. The purpose of assistive technology is for students to be independent, be in control of their environment, and improve skill acquisition. This will inevitably increase attention span, problem-solving skills, confidence, motivation, and engagement. Students need to see themselves as capable readers, writers, thinkers, and communicators. It may take some conventional and unconventional tools and methods in order to achieve this. It will also take careful observations, trialing, collaboration, and consistency for specific tools to be considered successful or unsuccessful. To elaborate more on that, I’d like to touch on some barriers or limitations that impact the effectiveness and efficiency of assistive technology.
Copley and Ziviani, highlight the barriers and limitations to the use of assistive technology for children with multiples disabilities in their study done in 2004. They’ve identified the following barriers to AT which include the lack of appropriate staff training and support, negative staff attitudes, inadequate assessment and planning processes, insufficient funding, difficulties procuring and managing equipment, and time constraints.
Staff training and attitudes
Copley and Ziviani recognize that teachers play a central role in the implementation of assistive technology. However, there is a lack of suitable training for teachers with specific mid and high tech tools. Even with training, which usually consists of a single session, follow up support and assistance is often non-existent. Teachers are often left to research how to troubleshoot or find ways to use and implement the tech within a classroom setting. This takes time, energy, and patience for which teachers struggle with. This then creates a negative attitude towards specialized AT tools and they are often abandoned, which unintentionally negatively impacts the student and their needs.
In addition to a single session of training, supports also need to be available during the implementation of the tool. I prefer to introduce a tool to a group of teachers and paraprofessionals during lunch-and-learn sessions (if possible). After this, I work with the student to train them in isolation with the tool for them to gain confidence and independence. Next, I help the teacher plan to use the tech with specific activities within one subject area to start so that they don’t become overwhelmed and avoid adjusting to the new technology. Often, once they see the benefits it has for the student, they start to feel more comfortable with implementing it within other subjects until it becomes a regular tool that the student can use daily. Although this approach sounds good in theory, it really depends on the teacher and their attitude.
Some teachers are more resistant to use AT with their students as it isn’t something that they are familiar or comfortable with. In addition, some teachers complain that AT devices interrupt the class and it makes it difficult to manage. Unfortunately, these aren’t uncommon complaints, but as mentioned before, it’s important to support all teachers through the process of training and implementation. Having said that, difficulties still exist when students change from one teacher to another the following year. The process and training for the teacher begins again, but the silver lining is that the student should be independent and empowered to assist with this process. This is why my role as the LRT is imperative for the students, the families, and the teachers as a consistent support for all.
Copley and Ziviani explain that most assessments of AT is through the process of trial and error there are few guidelines available to assess efficiently. This is sometimes due to the lack of team involvement in the assessment process. Where I see evidence of this is when students are discussed with school or division teams and decisions are made about them from these anecdotes, but these same team members rarely observe or work with students in their classroom environments. When an assessment is made off-site and not within the educational environment, factors as to where, when, and how it will be integrated are often overlooked. This sometimes results in an unrealistic or unnecessary recommendation for AT tools, hence the trial and error process we continually spiral through. However, in my division, we don’t have enough division professionals, such as occupational therapists, psychologists, SLP’s, and counsellors to have this luxury of a proper, full assessment of student needs. Therefore, they rely heavily on the bi-monthly meetings from their school teams to make their recommendations. We tend to acquire AT for students that may not work, but we try it because we are familiar with it and think it is a common tool that will work well for any student that struggles. Unfortunately, this increases the chance of device abandonment.
In addition to the school and division professionals’ expertise, we also need to include families and the student themselves within these assessment processes to hear their voices and perspectives on the situation. Lack of family and student input could lead to the inappropriate prescription of AT, and this can dramatically increase the stress level at home and negatively impact the student’s attitude and output at school.
Lastly, detailed and regular documentation of student tools/adaptations needs to occur and follow them going into the next classroom. Often, this paperwork is not considered or is overlooked. This oversight leaves other professionals working with the child back at square one, which is detrimental to the student and family. Yes, this documentation takes time, but it saves time in the end.
Integration of AT is sometimes not done with fidelity. We often expect the tool to work automatically and don’t give it the time and proper adjustments to fit the student’s needs and the learning environment. Implementing within one subject or activity at a time would help, but there needs to be a follow-up review or evaluation of the AT tool. This isn’t just for when technology doesn’t work. I’m guilty of neglecting documentation when AT is successful because everyone is happy with its implementation. Again, this documentation needs to be included in a student’s IIP, if they have one, or other notes that follow the student through their education endeavors. Therefore, long-term planning and review of student’s needs have to be an inherent feature of their IIP in order for AT to be effective and efficient.
This is a no brainer barrier to AT. It is no secret that AT can be downright expensive due to commercialization. However, as Copley and Ziviani point out, each division has a budget, and sometimes it is spent on the excessive ordering of high-tech devices that aren’t even being used due to a number of reasons identified above including improper assessment process, lack of teacher training, and teacher attitudes. It’s important for schools to re-evaluate the current AT tools they have in their school and the students that are assigned to them. The decision if these tools would be better suited for other students to use or to trial prior to ordering more is something that I know we aren’t doing at my school. Once it is ordered and assigned, it stays with them. This leads me to question whether AT tools that are no longer being used by students they were originally assigned to need to be returned to the division or used by another student in the school. If so, who should decide this?
Another common barrier is the maintenance of AT tools. Not only are there often long waits for equipment to be available once it is ordered, but their lifespan is also short-lived. Many high-tech tools require software or hardware that gets old quickly and requires updating or repurchasing of the most recent model. This is simply not sustainable. To put things in perspective, the average lifespan of a laptop or tablet is 2 years.
To make things even more concerning, classrooms are often sharing AT tools (after sanitizing, of course), which reduces its availability and doesn’t serve a consistent function but rather a spontaneous one. Lastly, AT tools used in schools should also be transferable to other aspects of a student’s life outside of the school wall. Is this too big of an expectation?
The last barrier Copley and Ziviani point out is the time required for AT implementation. From the assessment process, acquirement of equipment, training of teachers, students, and families, and then students becoming independent when using this technology in a classroom setting represents a significant barrier. In addition, time is spent troubleshooting. Therefore, teachers cease to use devices because they perceive that these aspects of technology do not fit into tight classroom schedules. It all comes down to proper training and supports for teachers, and I feel LRTs are taking this role on, which I am happy to do to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety AT tools have on some teachers.
To become an expert on AT tools for teachers and students, I resort to finding training for specific AT tools through online tutorials videos and reviews of products from other users. I teach myself in order to play around with an AT tool before using it with a student and lastly explaining to the teacher how to use it.
We need to keep in mind that technology is not a fix for students. We can’t expect to put it in their hands and their struggles will magically disappear. It comes down to doing a proper assessment, supplying frequent training and support for teachers, students, and families, and following up and evaluating these tools year after year.
To help with this process, each year I like to have the teachers that I support go through a printable Record of Adaptation overview document adapted from the online version that our division uses. Although overwhelming, going through this document not only affirms teachers of the low tech tools they regularly implement (bonus), it brings to the surface tools that they may want to try again or highlight new tools that fit the needs of new students in the class. This reflection and evaluation are important so that we don’t become stagnant in our teaching practices. We have to be fluid and in tune with the needs of our students each year and can’t paint each class with the same brush.
I apologize for the length of this blog, but this is an area that I am passionate about and want to ensure that we are doing properly for the sake of our students and their families as well as for the teachers that central to the effective implementation of AT tools.