This week’s presentation by Reid, Daniel, Darcy and Janeen on assistive technology (AT) had me thinking deeper about some of the assistive technologies I have used in my classroom. I am always doing my best to meet the needs of my students, but as a new teacher, I haven’t always thought critically about their impact on all students. I have seen students feel singled out using a particular support to the point of them not wanting to use it anymore. And on the flip side, I have seen other students embrace AT and feel supported to the point where they “own” their circumstance or diagnosis (although, many of my students were undiagnosed at the time).
As teachers, we are always finding ways to support our students, whether through a UDL framework or differentiating our instruction and assessment. It is in my nature to support my students however I can. Sometimes this means trying new supports until we find one that works and is sustainable. Overall, when it comes to applying support for a specific need, I try to apply that support across the board so all of my students can benefit – if it works for one, it usually works for all. Some examples include graphic organizers, large print, easy-to-read fonts, timers, visual supports, and my class microphone. This is described in the article “What is Universal Design for Learning?” as a model of teaching and learning that is inclusive, equitable and promotes the use of accessible course materials (2011c).
To many people, UDL is simply good teaching!Center for Applied Special Technology. (2011c)
In my opinion, the most important piece of the UDL model is equity. Creating an equitable classroom is important so every learner can succeed. I talk about equity with my young primary students. At this age, students begin to understand that every child is unique and has different needs. And they see that support is provided differently in the classroom (EA support, devices, tools etc.). I use a similar example to teach my students about this to the one Darcy used in his breakout room. When the topic of fairness or equality comes up, I tell my students that I have to wear glasses or contact lenses to help me see. I ask them if it would make sense for me to give everyone glasses? They say no, and we make a list of reasons why. We talk about other examples including desk size and height, access to devices, wheelchairs, and stools. My students are able to refer back to this when an issue of fairness or equality comes up.
Having taught Pre-Kindergarten through to Grade 6, some of the AT from no tech, low tech and high tech I have used includes:
- Large print, readable fonts
- Visual graphic organizers (schedule calendar)
- Writing supports
- Magnifying glasses
- Reading supports
- Picture dictionaries, personal dictionaries
- Cardboard offices
- Noise cancelling headphones
- Google Read and Write
- Wobble chairs
- Seat cushions
- Flexible learning spaces
- Classroom microphone
When I compare these assistive technologies with the philosophies and theoretical frameworks of learning, I would fit them with constructivist learning. Students use assistive technology from no tech to high tech to assist them in constructing knowledge. For example, when a teacher incorporates Passion Projects or Genius Hour type learning in the classroom, students can use AT like Google Read and Write to help them research, record and write about their learning. They can take advantage of flexible learning spaces and work in an environment that supports them. And lastly, they could use noise cancelling headphones to help them focus and limit distractions. These are just some examples.
When it comes to challenges and limitations, there are many. Daniel talked about some of the social and cultural barriers that AT can create. Students and teachers using AT can face learning curve challenges including frustration over use and understanding how to use the AT. There can be high costs, including yearly fees and expensive devices. Students may require a diagnosis in order to receive funding. In addition, students can become distracted by AT, there can be tech failure, there can be compatibility issues, quality issues, as well cleaning and sharing challenges.
In terms of wearable technology, I have limited experience using it in the classroom. I certainly appreciate the convenience of my Apple Watch and use it daily to check the weather before recess, set a timer, take class pictures, etc. I have also had students with diabetes using wearable glucose monitors. Wearable tech is an area of advancement I am excited to see grow. Reid talked about several wearable technologies in his presentation. The example of his intern using a GoPro to film land-based education was fantastic. In the future, I could see myself using a GoPro to film lessons, if I had one available to me. What a great way to record a live lesson and allow students who were away or learning at home to be a part of the lesson!
In the article “Wearable Technology and Schools,” Sandall mentioned “wearable tech can increasing a student’s ability to interact with the environment more naturally, to be innovative and creative, and to access information easily without obstructions.” I agree with Sandall that students can interact with the environment more naturally, but I still think the in-person experience would be the best experience. There is no doubt that technology brings us beneficial alternatives.
In summary, as I look toward the future and using AT in my practice, I am looking forward to utilizing technology where I can to support my students. As a result of this class, I will be looking at AT more critically. Can I use the technology with all of my students so no one feels singled out? Is there a simpler, more cost effective way? And as Janeen emphasized, the most important question “Is the technology being used to support the learner?”