Tech Section — Creating Unity in Educational Technology

Circa 2005

Close your eyes. Now try to read the rest of this article. And comprehend it. And explain it to a friend. And take a test on what is written in these pages. And be expected to pass. And if you fail, you have to repeat the process. Difficult?

Maybe it would help if someone read the article to you. At least then you’d have an opportunity to learn. At least it would give you access to the information, and you could focus on comprehending the words, the sentences, the meaning.

Then you’d understand accessible technology.

Accessible technology in the classroom is the marriage of two concepts: instructional technology (IT) and assistive technology (AT). Instructional technology is the use of any type of technological device that assists in the learning process. A glance into the most updated public K-12 classrooms will find many saturated with IT devices. Assistive technology is any item, piece of equipment or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve the functional capabilities of someone with a disability.

If instructional technology is computer hardware, then assistive technology is the programming and speaker that provide an audio version of the on-screen text. If IT is software, then AT is a version with alternative access tools for larger font size or simpler definitions. If IT is a television, then AT is a television that adapts to screen readers and closed captioning.

But AT doesn’t stop with learning. AT also includes prosthetic limbs, a computer operated by eye movements, a specifically designed door handle, an automated van lift or a specially designed grip for a fork or pen.

For all practical purposes, IT and AT serve the same mission. But for impractical purposes, they’ve never met. They’ve lived in the same communities, served the same people and knocked down the same barriers. But communication between the two has been virtually nonexistent.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), which serves as a voice in education technology leadership, is looking to bridge the gap between IT and AT. The national nonprofit organization, recently launched the Accessible Technologies for All Students initiative, a multi-year project to increase achievement and success for all students through the use of accessible technologies—a combination of IT and AT. A divide has historically been present between school districts’ IT staffs and special education leaders. This initiative aims to change that by steering school districts to overcome the communication problems, providing them tools for adoption of universal access to technologies and profiling successful districts.

Implementation of accessible technology isn’t targeted just at improving the learning processes of children in special education classes. It isn’t targeted just at improving the learning processes of children in general classrooms, either. It will do both at the same time.

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“Most educators are familiar with the term assistive technologies, which focuses on using technologies to meet the needs of students with special needs,” says Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. “We are talking about accessible technologies, which includes assistive technologies but extends to all students.”

The goal of the Accessible Technologies for All Students initiative is to increase classroom achievement for students through the unlimited and effective use of accessible technology. “This initiative is a major step in enhancing all students’ experiences with technology, because it views the learning environment as belonging to everyone,” says Janet Peters, coordinator of the Simon Technology Center, a leader in assistive technology, accessibility and universal design since 1987. “Each student, regardless of learning style or ability, deserves maximum access to the curriculum and technology to reach his or her learning potential.”

According to CoSN, accessible technology will create a new conversation that will build strong and positive relationships between K-12 school district technology leaders and special education leaders. The purpose is not only to assist children in their learning hurdles, but also to help school districts comply with government legislation.

The legislative mandate for individualized education has traditionally been the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), enacted in 1975 and requiring free and appropriate public education for all children with disabilities from kindergarten through high school. Lack of funding over the years, however, has limited the power of IDEA in gaining school districts’ compliance. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in January 2002, has recently taken a front seat. It places strict accountability for the educational achievement of all students and calls for adequate yearly progress (AYP) for each child.

Student underachievement isn’t seen only in the special education classroom. A study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that by fourth grade only one-third of American students are performing at the proficiency level in reading and math. But challenges in providing an appropriate education for students with disabilities play a role. “One reason many schools, districts or states have failed to meet AYP involves the chronic underachievement of students with disabilities,” says Dave Edyburn, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Department of Exceptional Education, who participated in CoSN’s launch of the initiative and has researched the field of special education for 25 years. “As a result, many educational leaders are looking for advice and resources on how to help their students achieve the content standards. In my opinion, accessible technologies are clearly an essential ingredient of enhanced academic achievement.

“As the implications of No Child Left Behind and adequate yearly progress reach each school, I think most educational leaders will care little about what we call the various forms of technology. Rather, they will be interested in how we capture technology in meaningful ways to help all children achieve their potential. As a result, I think the accessible technology initiative is vitally important in helping everyone to understand that access is an essential component of learning and achievement.”

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Bringing educators in instructional technology and assistive technology together can create one collaborative technological system of learning—accessible technology—starting at the district level. Picture two children—one from a special education classroom and one from a general classroom. They’re working on the same task, using the same type of computer and the same software. The software purchased for the special education student was paid for from one budget and labeled assistive technology. The software purchased for the non-special education student was paid for by a separate budget and is considered instructional technology. “Historically, the biggest road block has been designing the technology for a narrow range of users, as opposed to a universal design viewpoint,” says Simon Technology Center’s Peters . Put simply, school districts across America are spending their money on two types of technology to serve the same purpose.

A school district’s IT staff is often responsible for making those purchasing decisions and for developing learning plans for both students and teachers that mesh technology into the classroom. But too often, those decisions are made without general input from leaders in special education, thus inadvertently ignoring specific needs of students with disabilities. “In general, as people with disabilities begin to be looked upon as a normal part of the fabric in our society, there will be less tolerance for technology or curriculum that doesn’t address their needs,” Peters says.

For school districts to have one unified plan of action for both groups of students—those with disabilities and those without—and the trained personnel to provide leadership for both worlds, the wall between IT and AT must be brought down. “AT and IT have been in two separate worlds for the most part,” says Bob Moore, executive director of information technology at Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kansas. “They’ve had separate budgets, separate staffs, separate customers—teachers and students—with whom they work.”

Wisconsin’s Edyburn agrees. “This may be due in part to the specialized forms of technology we deal with. However, with the current emphasis on helping all students achieve academic content standards, I think we need to rethink the concept of assistive technology.”

Blue Valley, one of the nation’s top public school districts, was a classic example of two parallel worlds, explains Moore, who also serves as CoSN’s board chairman and is heavily involved in the initiative’s decision making. “The problem was, when our worlds would intersect every once in a while it was not always positive. IT did not understand the needs of AT and vice versa. While you never entirely solve those issues, we work together very collaboratively now. Our two departments have even jointly funded an AT position for the IT department, who in addition to technical work, coordinates and facilitates the work going on between the two departments.”

Boston Public Schools is fostering collaboration as well. For 20 years the system has been home to the Access Technology Center, whose mission is to promote teaching and learning for all children with the assistance of technology. But only recently has the center been included as an integral part of educational technology and regular education initiatives, says center director Kristen Eichleay. “In past years there was little communication except for high-profile cases. Communication gradually increased as the Office of Instructional Technology and the Access Technology Center together promoted a universal design approach to the classroom environment.”

Joining IT and AT worlds, however, will be a big step for all school districts, and it will be a long-term commitment.

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It’s up to school districts to accept accessible technology, and changing the way things have been done is not an easy task. “Every student has unique strengths and weaknesses,” Eichleay says. “The keys to student success with the technology are follow-up training, implementation, support and evaluation, which are required over the long term.”

CoSN has planned several steps to ensure school districts continue the initiative’s goals in the future. Strategies include publishing an educators’ toolkit with checklists, slideshows and best practices; organizing an online course and a series of face-to-face workshops with educators to expand understanding of the potential that accessible technologies provide; furnishing case studies that illuminate both successes and challenges in unifying the use of all technologies in school districts; and releasing an authoritative report outlining K-12 accessibility and technology advantages and issues.

In addition, CoSN will provide a framework for districts to inventory what technologies currently exist in special and general education, and it will survey K-12 school district technology leaders and special education directors to identify common accessibility and assistive technology issues and problems. Finally, it is planning a Capitol Hill event to brief policymakers on the potential of accessible technologies and make recommendations for the ways policymakers can best support their effective implementation.

 “First we want to create awareness or mindshare that this is a new way of thinking about accessible technologies,” says CoSN’s Krueger. “But the ultimate goal is to change behavior, and that is not something that will change overnight. Over the course of the project we will move from tracking awareness to building quality tools that empower educators, such as case studies and self-assessment tools. As we become confident of best practice, we will provide quality professional development.”

Simon Technology Center is also taking a proactive approach in assisting school districts with their advancement. The center has been involved in expanding the knowledge around accessible information and educational technology in K-12 schools since 2000. Peters notes the center will also hold training sessions and conduct surveys and evaluations that assess whether schools are increasing their awareness of the importance of accessible technology to equalize educational opportunity and increase educational achievement.

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“I think this is a very timely moment to re-examine our views on accessible technologies,” Krueger says. “First, No Child Left Behind requires that all students make adequate yearly progress. As all educators know, it is not just students with special needs who need special attention.”

Changing the approach to technology in the classroom can be intimidating for many school districts. Sonja Schmieder, who has been involved with the accessible technologies initiative since its birth, interviewed 20 national, state and district educational leaders about the challenges of bringing IT and AT together on behalf of all students. Their responses: historically parallel worlds, lack of vision, technical incompatibility issues, insufficient training, turf issues, financial concerns, limited understanding and lack of time were all considered challenges. According to the interviews, however, educational leaders agreed the benefits of consolidating outweighed the challenges.

Many education-related websites are already headed in the direction of accessible technology, offering different skill levels, information in multiple languages, variations in text size and options for text to be read to the user. One learning site is about the universe. One’s about astronomy. Another explores math problems. Yet another outlines school subjects using animated characters who tell a story. Across the Internet, websites with accessible features aren’t necessarily targeted at people with disabilities. For example, offers the viewer the option to change an article’s font or size.

Beyond websites, the mainstreaming of accessibility features is occurring with many technology products. “Over time, accessible technology has become part of the larger culture, and many of these tools are being used by the general public without disabilities,” says Boston’s Eichleay. “For example, touch screen technology that was developed for use by individuals with physical disabilities is used by everyone in stores and shopping malls.”

Boston Public Schools is steps ahead in implementing the principles of the CoSN initiative. The school system, Eichleay says, has installed standard software on all computers that provides visual and auditory support for learning. Staff members have gone through training for various technologies that can be used in all classrooms. And the system is seeing results. “We have seen increased motivation and improved skills across diverse groups of learners as a result of using these tools,” says Eichleay, who also points out that research on student improvement is ongoing at nearby Sargent College and Boston University.

“These resources are not simply helpful for students with disabilities; many students could benefit from these tools,” says Wisconsin’s Edyburn. “As a result, the potential of accessible technologies and universal design for learning is that by valuing diversity and making a commitment to understand the special needs of struggling students, it is possible to design tools that will help everyone.”

Take a peek into tomorrow. Two students are working at a computer side-by-side. They’re performing the same task. They’re using the same software. And, despite their different levels of educational achievement, they are achieving. One student comes from an eighth-grade class. The other student is from a special education class. “Our initiative is not focused solely on students with disabilities,” Blue Valley’s Moore says. “We want to leverage the assistive technology expertise of special education teachers, the enterprise-level computing expertise of IT and the concepts of universal design to improve learning for all students.”

One budget. One staff. One plan. One vision. It’s an easy concept, and the results have the potential to be eye-opening.

by Josh Pate


Online Glossary for Accessibility Terms

Windows on the Universe




Microsoft Accessibility

Apple Accessibility

Types of Technologies

Considering Your Child’s Need for Assistive Technology

Assistive Technology Training Online


Technology Resources for Education’s Assistive Technology Solutions

Accessible Curricula: Good Practice for All

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