My experiences with assistive technology have varied over the years. I have worked in a variety of schools with and without specialized programs. A school I taught at in the first few years of my career had the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) program. It was there that I was introduced to using an FM audio system. Working closely with the teacher of the DHH program I was able to learn about how to use the microphone levels properly. These systems have now been purchased for all kindergarten classrooms in my school division. I am fortunate to work at a school that was designed with these systems in every room. The microphones worn on a lanyard are wireless and will work in any classroom we walk into. While these systems are imperative for students with hearing loss, they can also benefit other students and are helpful for preventing strain on teachers’ voices. Those reasons are all benefits however, these systems do have some challenges. I have witnessed many teachers using the systems where the volume is turned up so that their voice absolutely fills the room much like you would expect from a microphone at an assembly or in a large hall. At times, the system becomes more of a classroom management tool than what it is intended to do. When working with the DHH program I learned that the audio level should be set so that you just hear your own voice. Anything louder than that is too loud to be listening to all day.
Another piece of assistive technology that I had experience with in the early 2000s was Kurzweil. It was a program that was designed for students who needed assistance with reading and writing. Students could use Kurzweil to have text read to them and follow along as it highlighted the words. The limitations to Kurzweil back then was that it had to be loaded on a computer, so that limited access for students. As well, the voices that read to you were extremely robotic (definitely not Siri or Alexa quality). The robotic sound took away from fluency of what was being read and I found most students would get frustrated as the voice either read too slow or too fast. So while the intent of this technology was useful the limitation was in the features. Fast forward to Google Read and Write and the limitations of Kurzweil were gone. Google Read and Write has so many more options, it is available to any student with an account on any computer they use (home or school), and the voices that read the text have greatly improved.
Even though the availability of Google Read and Write has diminished the availability limitations, it has its own challenges. My experience with middle years students is that often the students who need to use it refuse. They don’t want to be different, they don’t want their peers to see them as unable. Parents have also played a part in that they don’t want their child to be singled out or their expectations of what their child should do are very different than what they can do. All these barriers just take time and education. Working with families to understand what assistive technology is and how it can help their child. As well, creating a classroom environment that eliminates the stigma of requiring assistance is critical as we know there are times when we all need support of some kind.
Janeen, Darcy, Daniel and Reid shared many topics within their presentation on assistive technology. One in particular was Universal Design for Learning (UDL). We know that our classrooms today are complex with learning needs, behavioural needs, and emotional needs. The article EdTech and the Promise of Quality Education For All shares the belief of the Universal Design. Specifically it states “To make inclusive education a reality, however, students with disabilities must be considered in the design requirements of any new education technology”. Shelly Moore, a Canadian educator has created a website dedicated to inclusive education. Watch the video below to see the explanation and analogy she has for bowling and UDL.
Another topic that was discussed during the presentation was the SETT framework. With so many options available, it is important that decisions are being made around what type of assistive technology will benefit the student. Dr. Joy Zabala designed the SETT Framework as a “four part model intended to promote collaborative decision-making in all phases of assistive technology service design and delivery from consideration through implementation and evaluation of effectiveness”.
This is a process used by my school division and the decision to apply for assistive technology is made by a team of professionals who support the student. While the process is used, receiving the technology to support the student can be both positive and negative. I have seen situations where amazing accomplishments took place once a student was given the proper technology to assist them. I have also seen situations where the technology was not accepted by the student or encouraged by teacher. Sometimes, the tech that has been given to a student to use is unfamiliar to the teacher and they are unsure of how to incorporate it into their teaching. Even though the SETT framework includes thinking about what training is required, my experience is that often classroom teachers do not get what they require. No matter what we put in the hands of students, if a teacher is not comfortable with how to incorporate the technology with their teaching we are doing a disservice to the student.