Access to Educational Technology: Students With Special Needs
Students with Special Needs: Access to Educational Technology
Technology has literally changed the way we live our lives in the education sector, as well as in recreation and employment. Research evidence, however, shows that a digital divide still exists between persons with disabilities and their nondisabled counterparts. This text presents the possible reasons for this, and identifies specific tools that teachers could use to maximize outcomes for specific learner groups.
Technology has impacted almost all areas of human life, including recreation, employment and education. However, research shows that students with special needs are largely underserved, with less access to educational technology. Empirical evidence indicates that persons with disabilities are less likely than their nondisabled counterparts to have computer and internet access. This text analyzes the potential reasons for this, and identifies specific tools that teachers could use to maximize outcomes for specific learner groups. It provides crucial insight on how effective use of technology affects the academic outcomes of learners with special needs
Technology plays a huge role in almost all recreational, employment and educational activities (Burgstahler, 2002). In the educational sphere, computer access maximizes learners’ academic outcomes by allowing them to access distance learning courses, communicate with mentors and peers, participate in class discussions and complete coursework independently (Burgstahler, 2002). Studies have shown that students enjoy and gain more from their lessons when technology-based instructional techniques are employed as opposed to when the traditional worksheets, regular blackboards and textbook techniques are used (Kulik, 1994). Students with special needs have particularly benefited from the opportunities that technology offers in the modern-day classroom (Burgstahler, 2002). They have been able to use technology to compensate for their inability to perform specific functions owing to their disability (Burgstahler, 2002). Today, a special needs student who cannot speak with their own voice can still actively take part in a classroom discussion with the help of a speech-based synthesizer (Burgstahler, 2002). Despite these benefits, however, empirical evidence shows that students with special needs have significantly less access to technology than their mainstream counterparts. This is perhaps because stakeholders do not fully understand the role of technology in influencing the academic performance of students with special needs. The current study provides insight on how effective use of technology affects the academic outcomes of learners with special needs, and the specific tools that teachers could use to maximize outcomes for specific learner groups.
The central question guiding the study is: How does the use of technology in the classroom affect the performance of students with disabilities? The subordinate questions include: what is the extent of the disparity in access to technology between special needs and mainstream students nationally and in the researcher’s school? What are the barriers to effective use of technology for students with special needs? What specific strategies could be used to close the gap in access? What tools can special education teachers use to maximize outcomes for specific learner groups?
Students today learn differently as a result of technology (Prensky, 2008). However, students with special needs continue to lag behind their mainstream counterparts owing to a lack of access (Burgstahler, 2002). One possible reason for this is that stakeholders in the educational sector do not fully understand the role of technology in facilitating the learning process for this particular group (Johnson, 2003). As a matter of fact, not many studies have focused on this area of study (Johnson, 2003).
The current study examines the effect of technology on the performance of special education students in fourth and fifth grade, and the specific tools that could be used by special education teachers to maximize outcomes for different learner groups.
The Problem: Digital Gap between Special Needs and Regular Students
Technology can help any student with motivation, academic skills, and social development (Burgstahler, 2002). A 2009 survey conducted by National Center for Education Statistics found that 97% of teachers in regular classrooms had one or more computers located in the classroom every day while 54% could bring computers into the classroom (NCES, 2009). Internet access was available for 93% of the computers located in the classroom daily and for 96% of the computers that may be brought into the classroom (NCES, 2009). The ratio of students to computers in the classroom daily was 5.3 to 1 (NCES, 2009).
The same cannot, however, be said of students with special needs. Multiple studies have shown that students with disabilities, compared to their counterparts without disabilities, are less likely to have computer access both at home and at school (Kaye, 2000; NCES, 2006). In his study seeking to assess the differences in access between persons with special needs and their non-disabled counterparts, for instance, Kaye (2000) found that persons with disabilities are, compared to those without disabilities, less than half as likely to have access to a computer at home (23.9 vs. 51.7%). Moreover, persons without disabilities are three times more likely to have internet access at home compared to those with disabilities (Kaye, 2000). At school, only 3.9% of students with disabilities reported having computer and internet access, compared to 20.6% of their non-disabled counterparts (Kaye, 2000).
These findings mirror those of another study by the National Center for Education Statistics, which showed that 91% on non-disabled children in nursery school and grades K-12 used computers both at home and at school, compared to 81% of their counterparts with disabilities (NCES, 2003). The gap is even more striking in the case of internet access — 61% of non-disabled children reported having access to the internet at home and at school, compared to only 49% of those with disabilities (NCES, 2003).
These studies signify that nationally, special education students have less access to technology than their counterparts without disabilities both at home and at school. The researcher hypothesizes that one possible reason for this is the fact that stakeholders do not fully understand how the use of technology influences academic performance in the case of special needs students. Moreover, even those that understand this lack knowledge on the specific technological tools that they could use to maximize the learning outcomes of their students (Johnson, 2003).
In the literature review section, the researcher interacts with various studies and resources to determine: i) the effect of technology on the academic performance of learners with special needs, ii) the specific strategies that could be used to bridge the gap between students with disabilities and their non-disabled counterparts, and iii) the various tools that special education teachers could use to maximize learning outcomes for different learner groups.
Before embarking on the literature review, however, it would be prudent to first define some of the fundamental terms that will feature prominently in the subsequent sections of this discussion.
Table 1: Definition of Terms
Access A way of being able to use or get something (Merriam-Webster, 2014).
Technology Integration Education Instruction in how to use information technology to enhance classroom curricula
Information Technology Traditional computer applications (CAI, tools) and communication tools i.e., e-mail and www resources
Special needs The individual requirements (as for education) of a person with a disadvantaged background or a mental, emotional, or physical disability or a high risk of developing one.
Technology Manner of accomplishing a task, using technical processes, methods, or knowledge Minority. (Merriam-Webster, 2014).
Integrate To give or cause to give equal opportunity and consideration (Merriam, 2009).
Digital Divide The difference between people who have easy access to the internet and those who do not have access (Techopidia, 2014).
Title I Federally funded program that awards funding to schools based on factors such as the number of socioeconomically and physically disadvantaged students.
Traditional Of, relating to, or being a tradition (Merriam-Webster, 2014).
This review is divided into three distinct parts. The first part reviews literature on the effect of technology on learners’ academic performance. The second section reviews literature on the various strategies that schools and school districts could adopt to increase access for special needs students and bridge the inherent gap. The final part reviews literature touching on the various tools that could be used to maximize outcomes for different learner groups
The Effect of Technology on Academic Performance
Multiple studies have shown a positive correlation between the effective use of technology and positive academic outcomes for students with special needs (Kulik, 1994; Butler-Kisber, 2013; Bartsch & Corben, 2003). In his study, Kulik (1994) utilized meta-analysis to collect and analyze the results of over 500 different studies on computer-based learning. He found that the use of computers individualizes the learning process, and accommodates the varying inclinations, knowledge systems, learning styles, interests and needs of learners (Kulik, 1994). The researcher concluded that special needs learners who utilized computer-based learning scored 64% on assessment achievements vs. the control group (learners who were not using computers), whose average score was 50% (Kulik, 1994). According to the study, students with special needs, just like their non-disabled counterparts, learn more within shorter periods, and tend to like their classes more when using computers and other mobile devices than when the using traditional techniques such as worksheets, books and blackboards (Kulik, 1994). Moreover, they tend to have more positive attitudes towards education when using computers (Kulik, 1994).
Similar findings were reported by Bartsch and Cobem (2003), who compared the use of PowerPoint presentations and overhead transparencies, finding that generally, students (with or without disabilities), preferred PowerPoint presentations to overhead transparencies. The authors posit that these findings clearly indicate that students generally learn with more advanced technology (Bartsch & Cobem, 2003).
Another study showed that technology helps students with special needs participate actively in class, and develop crucial social and communication skills that would otherwise have been impossible to develop (Peterson-Karlan & Parrette, 2005). The authors contend that technologies such as smart phones offer students access to IT (Instructional Technology) and AT (Assistive Technology) applications or programs, such as dictionaries, reminders, voice recognition software, planners and other interesting applications that make it possible for them to keep up with class proceedings and maintain active engagement during classroom sessions. Burgstahler (2002) offers a specific example of how a special needs student who cannot speak with their own voice can actively take part in a classroom discussion with the help of a speech-based synthesizer (Burgstahler, 2002).
These findings mirror those of another study by Butler-Kisber (2013), which sought to examine the impact of technology on the literacy skills of preschoolers who are deaf and or suffering from impaired hearings. The researcher found the learners’ literacy skills to improve considerably after sessions of viewing educational videos presented using ASL (American Sign Language) (Butler-Kisber, 2013). Moreover, the study established that literacy skills could be improved even further by increasing viewing times and incorporating follow-up measures (Butler-Kisber, 2013).
In yet another study, Zhang (2000) sought to determine how technology influenced learning outcomes for fifth graders with learning disabilities. He sample five students and used the ROBO-Writer computer program to assist them in a writing curriculum (Zhang, 2000). The students wrote three times a week in sessions that lasted approximately twenty minutes (Zhang, 2000). One year later, their writing skills were assessed — the study results showed that the students’ writing skills had improved considerably following the use of technology Zhang, 2000). Prior to the study, the students displayed high degrees of self-consciousness about the poor writing skills (Zhang, 2000). This had caused them to shun from practicing effective writing skills (Zhang, 2000). The word processing software used in the study, however, gave them ample opportunities to enhance their power of expression (Zhang, 2000).
Sivin-Kachala (1998), however, cautions against adopting a blanket assumption that technology always leads to improved academic outcomes for learners with special needs. The researcher reviewed 219 research studies conducted between 1990 and 1997 to assess the effect of technology across all ages and learning domains of learners (Sivin-Kachala, 1998). He concluded that although technology use produces positive outcomes on achievement, the level of effectiveness of the educational technology used is influenced by the specific needs of the student population (Sivin-Kachala, 1998). The study findings showed that in order for educational technology to yield maximum outcomes for students with special needs, the instructor needs to accurately identify the needs of individual students, and choose the strategy that best responds to the same (Sivin-Kachala, 1998).
Strategies for Bridging the Digital Divide
The preceding section established that educational technology indeed has a positive influence on the learning outcomes of students with special needs. The next step would then be to devise ways of increasing access and hence, bridging the digital divide identified earlier on. Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser (2000) identify three potential causes of the disparity in access between special needs students and their regular counterparts: cost constraints, restrictive policies, and lack of adequate teacher training.
According to the authors, lack of adequate training is the leading barrier to the use of educational technology in special education classrooms (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). Research shows that a significant number of special education teachers cannot comfortably use simple communication technologies such as email (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). The researchers make reference to a 1997 survey by the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, which showed that only 20% of special education teachers feel ‘adequately prepared’ to use technology in their classrooms (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). Most teachers lack training on the various instructional tools that they could employ in their classrooms, and even those with such training often have difficulty determining what tool to use to teach specific groups of students, and respond to specific needs (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000).
The researchers contend that special education teachers need to be adequately trained on how to use technology to carry out a plan of action (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). Only then will they manage to realize the full benefits of educational technology in their classrooms. Further, they need to be trained on how to match individual needs of learners with the appropriate assistive technologies – for instance, a blind student may need differentiated pedagogical materials whereas one with mental retardation may require highly-organized computer training modules owing to their limited cognitive ability (Jackson, 2003).
The second barrier to access identified by researchers is cost (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). The technology needed to assist learners with disabilities, especially those with more severe disabilities is often very expensive, especially if the same must be tailor-made to suit the needs of each student (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). Legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Act and the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act mandate school districts to provide appropriate education to all students (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). However, as the authors point out, the goals of such legislation exceed their funding levels (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). As such, school districts are not obligated to obtain specific computer technology even if they are deemed beneficial for special needs students (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000).
This means that individual schools interested in purchasing the same will have to finance it themselves, and may be forced to seek out alternative sources of funding (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). Moreover, requirements related to some funding sources can restrict technology use for learners (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). Some school districts, for instance, run ‘limited-use policies’, which limit the use of certain technology equipment to the classroom setting (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000). Policies such as these make it impossible for learners with disabilities top take part in social and educational activities outside the school setting (Hasselbring and Williams-Glaser, 2000).
Another group of restrictive policies encompasses policies that deny students with special needs permission to use home-owned devices at school (Marino, 2009). If the school is unable to provide the same owing to funding constraints, special needs students are forced to live with limited access to the same (Marino, 2009).
Researchers contend that there is need to develop alternative funding mechanisms for projects geared at purchasing high-cost technology equipment for students with special needs. School districts within the same zone could, for instance, come together to purchase crucial equipment that could then be used jointly by students with severe disabilities within that particular zone. Moreover, schools and school districts need to identify restrictive policies within their systems and find ways to modify the same to maximize outcomes for students with special needs.
Assistive Technology: Helping Students With Disabilities Realize their Maximum Potential
The type of educational technology chosen is influenced by the specific needs of the learner, and the type of disability (Sivin-Kachala, 1998). Researchers have identified the appropriate assistive technology to use with different disabilities.
Students with visual impairments, for instance, could be provided with Braille note-takers, screen readers, descriptive video services (DVS), closed-circuit television magnification (CCTV), and computer screen magnification (Glaser, 2011). CCTV and screen magnification technologies are used to enlarge text or graphics to make them more readable for students with visual impairments (Glaser, 2011). Screen readers, on the other hand, convert sentences, text, and graphics into digital or synthetic speech (Glaser, 2011).
Students with hearing impairments, on the other hand, could be provided with telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD), captioned television, hearing aids, and live speech captioning (Glaser, 2011). In the case of live speech captioning, a stenographer enters information as the teacher talks during a lesson, and the same is then displayed as text on a computer screen for the student with hearing impairments to read (Glaser, 2011). Similarly, in the case of the TDD, the student is linked to the teacher through telephone lines — the TDD is attached to a telephone connected to a screen, and as the teacher talks, words are displayed directly as text on the student’s screen (Glaser, 2011).
Students with speech and language disorders could be provided with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, designed to help them overcome their communication problems (Glaser, 2011). Synthetic speech synthesizers are the most common AAC devices used in the modern-day classroom to assist students with poor speech (Glaser, 2011).
Finally, students with physical disabilities could be provided with touch-sensitive screens or basic adaptive keyboards, where keyboards are customized, say keys are arranged in an alphabetical order or larger keys are used so that students with limited range of motion do not have a difficult time applying pressure to keys (Glaser, 2011). Moreover, students with severe physical disabilities, and who are unable to go to school as a result and cannot go to school can be provided with technology that allows them to continue learning at home. These could include web cameras, laptops, and so on. However, researchers acknowledge that such students are highly likely to experience fluency difficulties (Simmons & Carpenter, 2010).
More and more Americans are going online daily. However, the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not access may be getting wider. Students with disabilities are particularly affected by this divide. Research has shown that students with disabilities desperately need technological support in schools. However, they are not getting the same because teachers are not properly trained or simply because schools do not have policies in place to ensure that such students use technology and succeed.
In contrast, the author works in an affluent school – the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) has made it the cornerstone of the school to ensure that every child has adequate access to technology regardless of their disability. The school has enough computers, and most of the students have home-owned iPads and other mobile devices that they bring to class. This gives them considerable advantage over those whose homes and schools do not have the same offerings.
Sometimes it amazes me just how important technology has become, and how accustomed people have become to 24/7 access. However, there still is a lot to be desired in regard to the accessibility of technology by students with special needs. The researcher hopes that recent research attempts to bridge the gap between those with access to technology and those without will yield positive outcomes in the near-term.
Adaptive technologies that can enable students with severe disabilities to become active learners in the classroom have been developed. It is prudent that these are accompanied by policy restructuring efforts geared at ensuring that policies governing the use of technology by learners with special needs do not interfere with their acquisition of educational skills outside the classroom. These measures will go a long way towards making technology more accessible for learners with special needs.
Bartsch R.A. & Coben K.M., (2003). Effectiveness of PowerPoint Presentations in Lectures, Computers and Education, 41, 77-86.
Burgstahler, S. (2002). Bridging the Digital Divide in Post-Secondary Education: Technology Access for Youth with Disabilities. Information Brief, 1(2), 1-4.
Butler-Kisber, L. (2013). Teaching and Learning in the Digital World: Possibilities and Challenges. Learning Landscapes, 6(2), 423-430.
Hasselbring, T. S. & Glaser, C. H. (2000). Use of Computer Technology to Help Students with Special Needs. Children and Computer Technology, 10(2), 102-122.
Jackson, V. L. (2003). Technology and Special Education: Bridging the Most Recent Digital Divide. Information Analyses, 70, 1-26.
Kaye, S. H. (2000). Computer and Internet Use among People with Disabilities. Disability Statistics Report 13. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Kulik, J. A. (1994). Meta-Analytic Studies of Findings on Computer Based Instruction. In E.L. Baker & H. F. O’Neil, Jr. (Eds.). Technology Assessment in Education and Training (pp. 9-34). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Marino, M. T. (2009). Understanding how Adolescents with Reading Difficulties Utilize Technology-Based Tools. Exceptionality, 17(2), 88-102.
NCES. (2006). Computer and Internet Use by Students in 2003: Statistical Analysis Report. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Retrieved November 28, 2015 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2006/2006065.pdf
NCES. (2009). Fast Facts: Educational Technology. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Retrieved November 28, 2015 from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=46
Simmons, K., & Carpenter, L. (2010). Spelling and Assistive Technology: Helping Students with Disabilities Be Successful Writers. Physical Disabilites, 8(4), 5-19.
Zhang, Y. (2000). Technology and the Writing Skills of Students with Learning Disabilities. Journal of Research on Computing and Education, 32(1), 2-9.
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