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[Educator Network] Technology and Special Education

[Educator Network] Technology and Special Education

The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) mandate suggests a preference for educating students with disabilities in general education settings provided their needs can be met there; however, for many students the LRE has been flipped on its head. With every child working from unique environments, often online or in a hybrid model, COVID-19 has dramatically changed the playing field. The silver lining has been that with these challenges have come opportunities to examine and implement online programs and practices that improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

The occasion to infuse technological literacy throughout our education programs and to create a computer literate population equips students with the skills and knowledge they need now and into the future has never been more real, both for typically and atypically developing students. Using technology and emphasizing these technologies has created opportunities and provided space for educators to explore processes that they might not have had the occasion to do in the past.

Support Services

Rural districts have long used teletherapy for remote schools, while large urban districts have found teletherapy can help supplement onsite clinicians and help with caseload management.

These specialists are expected to provide their support of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; 2004) by delivering a Free and Appropriate Public Education Program (FAPE) in the LRE for students.

This is the law. The challenge to provide these tenets of the IDEA has created opportunity. Service delivery has always been dynamic, and the expectations have been built around some important instances but moving them to a virtual world has been done in the past and the opportunity and benefits to building these capacities in an online world will grow the prospects for service delivery in the future. IDEA requires, look at this list through the lens of putting it online.

  • Treatment setting: classroom, therapy room, job site and other school environments
  • Format: individual, small group
  • Intensity: the amount of time spent in each treatment session
  • Frequency: the number of treatment sessions over a set period of time
  • Duration: the length of treatment received

School districts can contract with teletherapy companies to provide the speech language, physical therapy, occupational therapy children with disabilities need to receive a free appropriate public education as set forth in their IEPs. Many teletherapy companies contract with licensed clinicians who provide support resources and other health services to school districts.

Evaluations and technology

If a child has an IEP, then by law it is rewritten each year, and the child must be reevaluated every three years to determine whether they’re still eligible for special education. If a student is new to the special education system, the school must evaluate the child within 30 school days, and after another 15 days meet with the child’s family.

Evaluations in a special education world speaks to gaining an understanding of where a student’s strengths and needs live. It starts with the understanding of how to instruct and support students by beginning to understand where and how they learn. A student going without an evaluation means they are going to continue to struggle without the services they need.

Limitations during this school year have restricted access to some of these essential evaluations. Observations are difficult when the context of the assessment is so much different. Many of these evaluations have been postponed from the spring and stacked up this fall. As quoted in an article for Disability Scoop Ethan D’Ablemont-Burnes, Boston Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for special education, said the district was doing its best to address the backlog. The district is growing the number of locations for face-to-face evaluations and has invested in software for more virtual assessments. This summer the agency acknowledged that school districts may struggle to complete in-person assessments within the required timeline and said such cases may count as an exception under the law. Even with this caveat, it also implied that there were boundaries to how far a district could push the law. Recommendations included leveraging student records and giving tests virtually. The goal was to have these IEP effective for the school year and then reevaluated when classrooms return to normal.

Districts are finding ways to manage the backlog, like for example one Houston-area district that kept their school psychologists working through the summer to process the backlog of evaluations, primarily done remotely. There is a balance that needs to be understood, for example some tests and questionnaires can be done effortlessly online, but other issues like social interactions and the benefits from sitting near a teacher rely on educator notes and student history. These understandings are more complex. As there is the opportunity to incorrectly identify students. The emphasis should be to use available data, professional knowledge and understanding, even if it’s incomplete, to ensure students at least receive the support educators already know is needed. Err on the side of too much support.

Working Online with Families

There has been a lot of discussion this year on how to connect with families and students in the virtual world. Connecting virtually is not necessarily better or worse, it’s just different. Trying to recreate the face-to-face interactions without acknowledging that these are two different mediums can create frustration on both sides of the screen. While some things won’t work virtually, other things will work better.

Connecting virtually requires empathy, flexibility, and creativity. Being deliberate in creating time and space for families to tell you what they need makes a stronger and engage with them in ways that are familiar to them. Take advantage of technologies already known to families. Which is most familiar Facebook Messenger? Whatsapp? A phone call? You can build trust with families remotely by checking in and with positive intention and interaction. There are a couple of apps to support understanding where your families are running from, like Mood Meter that can help you increase your understanding and reduce burn-out. This can help in supporting caregivers and increasing understanding when everything might just be too much.

Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, and Universal Access

Adjusting learning based on an individual student’s particular needs has been a priority for educators for years. Developing intelligent instruction design and digital platforms that use AI to provide learning, testing and feedback to students from pre—K to college level can give them the challenges they are ready for, identifies gaps in knowledge and redirects to new topics when appropriate. As artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated, it might be possible for a machine to read the expression that passes on a student's face that indicates they are struggling to grasp a subject and will modify a lesson to respond to that. Not replacing the teacher, but rather supporting the instruction provided. The idea of customizing curriculum for every student's needs weighs heavy on a classroom teacher but allowing for AI-powered machines might just help with that heavy lifting.

Trial and error are a critical part of learning, but for many students, the idea of failing, or even not knowing the answer, is paralyzing. AI supported instruction mimics this process but without the stress.

Mixed reality is a powerful technology that’s impacting various fields, including healthcare and education. Using augmented reality in the classroom can turn an ordinary class into an engaging experience. We have also seen this creeping into the way’s educators are student teaching. There are Augmented Reality programs that allow a new teacher to practice their craft without standing in front of a single live student. No program will represent the kind of antics of live students in a live classroom, the simulations though could help in creating a practice arena where these new teachers can try out their skills in a safe environment.

This is a big step for higher education, I can remember after Hurricane Katrina the medical schools of Louisiana State University and other programs were struggling to use digital meetings to check-in and continue instruction. Now they are operating on “patients.” Touch Surgery is a health app that specializes in surgical simulation.

Medical students can improve both their knowledge and skills by taking advantage of virtual and augmented reality. Use cases of AR technology in the medical world include:

  • Creating human body models that allow medical students to learn anatomy in depth
  • Providing more training opportunities for medical students with the help of simulations
  • Practicing surgeries on virtual patients


Auto Alt Text and Social Media

Did you know that every time you add an image to your Word document, it automatically generates “Alt Text?” Alt text is a process that translates an image’s metadata into words. It has been very simple and designed to allow an image to be realized by those that cannot see it. For a long time, these descriptors relied on the metadata and alt-text descriptions written by the developers often added manually and social media posters did not take the time to add comprehensive descriptors even if they knew about this feature. Auto Alt Text technology has only just gotten good enough in the last couple of years to make social media more accessible. Auto Alt Text is a chrome extension that can generate descriptive captions for pictures. Using artificial intelligence, the extension can analyze an image and detect the contents of the scene depicted providing a narrative for the image. While the technology has been there, it is now becoming more refined and leveraging AI.

Esports

After talking to several students are either in the virtual, hybrid and maintaining social distances with masks world of classroom instructions, one of the things that bubbles up is the use of technology is creating a space where some of the stumbling blocks of purely face to face might have existed. Student are teaching their teachers how to navigate the technology and teaching each other students some of the exciting aspects of the medium. Esports is a good example of leaving the playground champions out in the field. With esports students do not need to be the fastest runner or strongest kicker on the playground. They do not need to process the social etiquette of the kickball field. Esports include a range of multiplayer, online video games, from franchised games to strategy games like chess, from digital card games to NBA 2K21, which is an entire franchise of simulated basketball games created in partnership with the National Basketball Association.

Esports have found their way to the classroom. The High School Esports League, features more than 2,100 associated schools and more than 60,000 student participants across the U.S. and Canada. Like any other team sport, students are learning to work together, however, some restraints are eliminated, some barriers removed without manipulating the foundation of the games. These arenas become an environment where kids can practice soft skills like communication, collaboration, and sportsmanship and at the same time learn to regulate emotions like frustration, anger, and disappointment. In a study of teens published by The MIT Press, "Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out," Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist and professor in residence at the Humanities Research Institute at UCI, found the most resilient, adaptive and effective learning involves individual interest as well as social support to overcome adversity and provide recognition. Esports helps in creating that space. Students have built their team websites, full of student writing, they have filmed and researched lessons to improve their game. This means they are working on soft skills as well as preforming interest driven activities on standards expectations. While fantastic in its’ own right this also creates a level playing field for some students that might stumble in other sports.

As learning has shifted online, many noncentral subjects like art and music have fallen by the wayside (or look dramatically different from before). Art and music can be a starting point for engagement for many students, so encouraging virtual field trips, asking Alexia, Siri or OKGoogle to play music or read a story are simple ways to use technology to encourage and educate students. Technology can support the shift in the landscape of education, but lack of technology and the internet, the equitable sharing of digital resources,  has created a new population of students that have special needs. 

winnie.oleary's picture
Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently a Curriculum Manager for Edmentum. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she finds something new and exciting every day.