Bright ideas for tech-savvy educators, right to your inbox

Trending Issues in Special Education, Part 2: Technology & Special Populations

Tuesday, November 17, 2015 -- Winnie O'Leary

Yesterday, to kick off our series on special education, we presented an overview of IDEA and special education classifications. Today, we’re going to start digging in to specific trends by focusing on how edtech is changing special education.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 25 years ago. This groundbreaking legislation marked the beginning of a new age of accessibility. The act prohibits discrimination against disability, giving individuals with all manner of unique disabilities increased access to a wide variety of opportunities and services. As time has passed since then, the challenges and barriers to that access have evolved in the most phenomenal ways. Technology has helped to knock down the brick-and-mortar walls that were once a barrier to many opportunities. For that reason, technology has had significant effects on the quality of life for people with disabilities and has dramatically altered the application of ADA legislation.

There has long been a call for special education services to be on the cutting edge. Advancements in technology have changed the playing field for education in general, but special education classrooms have been targeted especially. As such, it is critical that we continuously work to improve efficiency, implement evidence-based practices, and provide greater accountability on key performance indicators that support successful academic and post-school outcomes for students with disabilities. Here are four of edtech’s most significant impacts in the world of special education.

Edtech and Personalized Learning

Technology makes it possible for classroom instruction to be enhanced with individual learning events, allowing instructors to provide greater flexibility and differentiation in instruction. Teachers can use technology to offer a variety of learning opportunities and approaches that engage, instruct, and support special education students with a myriad of tactics designed to appeal to individual learners. No longer are students stuck in a classroom they don’t understand, trying to learn at a pace they can’t keep up with or participate in.

Personalized learning is the true value of technology for special education—it allows for a unique learning path to be created for every child, based upon the unique situation and needs. Students have the opportunity to approach curricula through a variety of learning modalities, while using a device they are familiar with and passionate about. A computer or tablet will look the same in an AP® class, a general education class, or a smaller self-contained classroom, but the digital content it delivers and how that content is acted upon is completely customizable and in the students’ control. 

Building Skills for Life Outside of the Classroom

Technology is not just producing changes in the classroom; it is fast becoming ubiquitous in today’s world at large. Preparing students for that world outside of school is critical. Twenty-first century skills cross all domains and offer a new vison to guide instruction and the application of education in the working world. It has become the expectation that students graduate from the classroom with skills for the technological world. Technology-assisted instruction allows student to learn in an interactive, hands-on manner (often a great fit to begin with for students with unique learning challenges), while also to be provided with opportunities to build those necessary tech skills. Technology in special education settings has blossomed well beyond assistive applications into being an avenue to help students build a foundation for success outside of the classroom. 

There are also some specific considerations for high school students in special education preparing for a postsecondary experience. Colleges and universities are not required by ADA legislation to provide free appropriate public education (FAPE) as public primary and secondary schools are, but they are required to provide appropriate academic adjustments as needed, so as to ensure that students are not discriminated against based on disability. This means that there are likely to be expectations regarding technology use that students will need to meet. Similarly, special education students entering a work field after high school must be ready to manage the technology that has become an integral part of most work spaces.

Opening Doors for Autistic Students

Autistic students are one subgroup of the special education population who have, overall, especially embraced and benefited from the introduction of technology in the classroom. As a broad generalization, autistic students tend to struggle with language and spoken communication. Tablets, as well as other mobile devices, are helping overcome these language barriers by allowing autistic students to simply select an icon on the screen and then letting the device speak for them.

As more and more autistic individuals use technology to make gains in the ability to communicate, they are leading the charge in a growing call for a shift in the common thinking about autism. As Steve Silberman argues in this Wired interview, instead of a disability, autism is simply one dimension of neurodiversity. So, what does that term mean?

One way neurodiversity can be understood is to think of operating systems. A majority of computers may run on Windows, but there are plenty of other (equally capable) operating systems out there. These systems simply go about tasks in different ways. Correlate this back to autism: autistic individuals tend to struggle with reading social signals or coping with unexpected situations, but they excel at spatial visualization and can complete tasks with uncommon focus. Ultimately, the concept of neurodiversity asks us to move away from thinking in terms of diseases, cures, and causations and instead consider autism, among other conditions, as simply a different mode of being that deserves respect, understanding, and accommodation.

Changing Landscapes for Students and Instructors

Just as students experience the many changes that technology is bringing about in the classroom, special education instructors will also need to have the skills to keep up with these changes. There is a growing need for high-quality professional development before, during, and after the introduction of new technologies and resources to ensure that teachers are properly trained and supported. All teachers must be confident facilitators of the digital world in order to provide effective personalized learning, and this is especially true for teacher of students with special needs. Technology in the classroom is understood as being just as necessary as a chair or a desk, but its appropriate use is less clearly understood, and that is the critical piece.  It is not enough to simply have the furniture in the classroom; it must be liked, thoughtfully arranged, and well used. Thus, professional development on HOW to use digital resources, tools, and content is what is making the difference in the effectiveness of technology. This know-how allows technology to be a tool rather than a paperweight. 

Teachers are finding that technology is altering the way they do their jobs. This shift can be subtle or dramatic. It can be from the point of view of how they use data or how they interact with their students on a daily basis. Sometimes, these changes can be intimidating and challenging. However, with the right training and correct use, technology truly can offer the ultimate leveling of the education playing field, and that is a milestone everyone with a stake in special education wants to meet.

Looking to incorporate technology in your special education classroom? Make sure that you ask the right questions when deciding on a solution by checking out Edmentum’s Special Education Technology Evaluation Guide!