Imagine planning a lesson for a class of students, whose reading levels might range anywhere between a second-grade and a seventh-grade level. It would be tricky, right? Added to those instructional challenges, the day might include speaking with one child with a behavior problem, meeting with a parent who is in tears, and compiling assessments on the students in the class. That’s an average day for a special education teacher.
New technology is helping special education teachers meet the unique needs of their students as well as manage assessment results and data gathering for Individual Education Programs (IEPs). Many of these new tools are now packaged with existing software and devices, which means that teachers have greater access to them than ever before. Teachers are using technology to supplement, rather than replace, traditional pedagogy.
Special Education Challenges
There’s no one universal profile of a child with special needs. Some have trouble with decoding texts; others have problems with comprehension. Some struggle with math word problems, but are whizzes at computation. Some have high cognitive abilities but are easily distracted in large classrooms. Special education teachers have to know how to modify lessons, offer support to all of those very different students, and then find ways to coordinate group lessons.
Students with special learning needs are found everywhere in a school — some are learning side-by-side with their peers, while others are in a self-contained classroom. Special education teachers have to be prepared to work in those various settings. With increasing demands on their time and tight budgets, teachers say they always feel stretched. There is simply not enough time in the day to help each child individually.
Forward-Thinking Adaptive Technologies
Adaptive technology for students with disabilities has existed for many years, explains Susan Baglieri, an associate professor of special education at Montclair State University. But in the past this technology was expensive and was aimed at students with more severe disabilities. Now, these tools, including speech-to-text and text-to-speech, real-time translations, and highlighting text, are built into Google’s suite of products, and Discovery Education Techbook, all of which are available at many schools.
Because the price point for these products is much lower, teachers can experiment with different products, Baglieri said. Also, teachers can use these tools to help a wider spectrum of students with disabilities, including those who are educated in an inclusive setting.
“All this is changing the work of teachers. There is an explosion of apps and tools that can be used. There’s great potential out there,” said Baglieri. “These tools enable the classroom to be more dynamic, which fuels learning.”
Xiaoxue Du, a technology specialist assistant at the Center for Technology and School Change at Teachers College at Columbia, described some of the tools that are available to help students with special needs. She said that students with attention deficit disorders, in particular, can benefit from using video streaming from sources like Discovery Education. There are image databases that teachers can use in PowerPoint presentations to help visual learners. Teachers can use “mind mapping” programs, like Bubbl.us, to help students organize their thoughts. And there are apps that make it easier to create and share content, like Padlet.
Perhaps the biggest problem that has arisen with the proliferation of new tools for students with disabilities is simply sorting through all the options and choosing the best ones. Technology specialists and district leaders are helping teachers and parents become more knowledgeable consumers of technology, explained Baglieri. Du said that the Center for Technology and School Change trains teachers about the wide variety of new tools and helps them develop a curriculum that takes advantage of technology.
Why Use Personalized Learning and Blended Learning?
The wide use of computers in schools has opened up the possibilities for personalized learning, which gears the pace of learning and the instructional approach toward the needs of each learner. Students can choose topics that they find interesting and progress at their own pace. Personalized learning is particularly useful for students with special needs, who require special attention to ensure their needs are being met.
Schools that are experimenting with personalized learning environments have many tools at their disposal. Baglieri said that “self-leveling reading programs,” like Read 180, enable students to read and take tests at their individual Lexile level. After a student masters a skill, the program moves them to the next level automatically.
Blended learning combines the usage of these self-leveling programs with traditional group lessons in the classroom. For example, students in a science class might read about hurricanes using a program on their laptops. One child might access this material at a fifth-grade level, another at a seventh-grade level. After reading the chapter, the student would take a small quiz on the material, also geared toward their reading level. Then the teacher would bring the entire group together for a common discussion about the impact of hurricanes in the Caribbean or the time of year when hurricanes are most common.
While personalized and blended learning techniques can be used throughout a school building, teachers have found that these techniques are particularly useful in special education classrooms. Baglieri said when one student learns about volcanos by watching a video, another reads texts about volcanos, and yet another looks at an online magazine article on the same topic, “it opens the door to create differentiated learning environments.”
Advantages of IEP Software
The administrative responsibilities of a special education teacher can be crushing. A study by Daniel Deshler and Belinda Mitchell from the University of Kansas, “Examining the Role of the Special Educator in a Response to Intervention Model,” found that special education teachers spend 33 percent of their day on IEP paperwork and other administrative responsibilities. Another 13 percent was spent on testing and data tracking, and 27 percent of their day was spent assisting others teachers and attending meetings. That left just 27 percent of their day devoted to teaching students in the classroom.
Technology can help reduce the paperwork burden on teachers, too. IEP writing software provides teachers with suggested goals for their students, shares documents among teachers, and creates sophisticated reports. Some even help with billing for Medicaid.
Baglieri spoke about the benefits of these technologies for sharing IEPs with multiple teachers at the same time. “When I was a high school teacher in the 1990s, I had huge binders of IEPs,” Baglieri recalled. “I had to have IEPs ready to access at all times. The technology alleviates the need to look through all that documentation.” Baglieri worried that precrafted objectives might distract the teacher from thinking about the individual child, but said that there was no question that producing an IEP is made easier with these tools.
Technology Can Never Replace a Great Teacher
While technology is helping teachers in special education classrooms find new ways to reach their students and manage their administrative responsibilities, technology can never replace a great teacher. Students need the creativity and warmth of their teachers — qualities that can never be emulated by a computer program.
It’s easier for teachers to find the time for those pats on the back and heart-to-heart chats when other aspects of their job are less time consuming and frustrating. By lightening the load of instruction and administrative tasks, technology is creating a major shift in the special education classroom.
Over the past thirty years, Laura has been involved in education as a teacher, a researcher, a professor, a parent, and a writer. She began her career in education as a teacher of students with multiple disabilities in the South Bronx. Later, she earned a Ph.D. in political science with a specialty in education policy, while working as an education policy researcher at CUNY Graduate Center. She has taught political science and education policy classes at Hunter College, Teachers College at Columbia, and Ramapo College. Now, she writes about education for several publications, including Discovery’s Front and Central, Edutopia, The Atlantic, and Pacific-Standard. She has two kids — one is getting ready for college, the other is a special ed student in middle school.