The Good News
It is estimated that there are more than 7 million students with disabilities attending public schools in the United States.
Technology is designed to ease the user’s ability to successfully complete tasks, whether it’s an assignment for a class, a time-sensitive project for work, or your taxes.
For the millions of students with developmental and learning disabilities, the need for technological assistance in their education is even greater.
And the good news is that researchers and ed-tech companies, bolstered by changing state policies, technological advances, and continual inspiration and encouragement from advocates, are developing new strategies and tools to better serve these students.
Why Technology is So Vital
The purpose of technology for special-ed learners is to help them learn in ways that will accommodate their learning styles and limitations.
Other benefits include:
- More independence
- Reduced anxiety
- Better relationships with classmates
- Communication that flows better
- Improved academic performance
5 Top Trends
1. Better Digital Personalization
Personalization has become a trend in education for children with special needs because it allows kids to set custom options just once. By performing actions with their profiles, children can automatically alter the content and other settings. This saves kids the hassle and confusion accompanied by repeatedly altering different profiles and customized suggestions.
Google has become the leader in this innovation, thanks to the immense contribution to K-12 by virtue of its development of web-based Chromebook devices and other highly popular G-Suite productivity tools.
Google’s Chromebook includes several features that are helpful to children with special needs. For example, there is a “select-to-speak” feature that permits users to highlight text so that the computer can read it back to them. This is extremely helpful for special needs students who read braille. Within this feature are “mini-features” such as:
- Read and edit documents
- Predict words that the user intends to write
- Translate words through the Chrome web browser extension
2. Artificial Intelligence for Early Screening
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another technology trend with many potential benefits for special needs education. And several companies are already working on some very important applications.
For the last 18 years, students across the country have had their reading abilities assessed with a tool called mCLASS, which was created by Amplify, an ed-tech company. However, in response to legislation in many states, Amplify has recently modified this software. And now, mCLASS can screen for dyslexia as well.
Babynoggin, another such company, has developed a mobile app that utilizes AI to screen children for various forms of delayed development to ensure no learning disorder goes undetected. It screens:
- Motor skills
- Social-emotional abilities
- Cognitive processing
- Language skills, etc.
These are just two examples of what is coming down the pike in the field of Artificial Intelligence for special needs children.
3. Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality (VR) is a fledgling field, but developing quickly. One application of VR is that it helps autistic kids practice how to react and respond to real-world challenges.
Lining up in the cafeteria for lunch, or struggling to navigate through a busy hallway, can be an absolute nightmare for autistic students. But providing these kids with a virtual environment where they can practice their motor skills, can facilitate their becoming more accustomed to physical places outside of virtual reality.
Through encountering these scenarios in a non-threatening virtual environment, special needs students can gradually grow accustomed and become better prepared to respond more appropriately and calmly when faced with real-life situations.
And VR devices for students with disabilities include settings that both encourage mindfulness, helping them to become more present and aware, and let their users with motor function problems interact with objects in ways that just aren’t possible in the “real world.”
4. Accessible Computer Science for All
In 2018, over one hundred companies, nonprofits, advocacy organizations, and universities jointly signed an accessibility pledge. Its objective was to make computer science education more inclusive, making it accessible for special-ed students.
Bootstrap is one of the companies that spearheaded this initiative. Within the computer science curricula they innovated for math and physics classes, they set out to accomplish these goals:
- Making the platform more user-friendly for students unable to use a mouse.
- Incorporating a screen reader functionality on its platform. This allows the platform to read the output of any subsequent program created by the user.
- Creating a toolkit function that has the capacity to integrate with different programming languages to read code aloud, verbally describe code structure and purpose, and read in different languages.
5. Opening Up Open Educational Resources
Yet another technology trend in special education technology is making “open” even more open by opening up Open Educational Resources (OER) for everyone. As of late, many schools have embraced using OER which are digital platforms that provide free and unrestricted resources. The objective is to give students the ability to choose how they interact and interoperate with various technological resources/platforms.
One example of “open” technology is the PDF file type.
However, the PDF file isn’t fully “open.” It has these limitations for special-ed learners:
- The inability to work well with several screen readers
- Limited searchability
- Lack of customization for students with special needs
- Doesn’t support the embedding of assistive features for users with special needs
New tools are being developed to combat these problems – tools that would make it easier for OER developers to release their content in formats that are more adaptable, consequently opening the tools and resources to special-ed learners.
Responding to the Trends will Benefit Everyone
Now that technology has become an integral part of the classroom, there has never been a greater necessity to serve special-ed learners through innovative technology. Fortunately, that need is beginning to be met in different areas.
Moving forward, the expectation is that the trends mentioned above will continue to accelerate. Ostensibly the goal is to prevent special-ed learners from falling further behind. But in reality, these technological innovations hold the promise to catapult special-ed learners in ways that will narrow the gap between the two groups.
And a bonus is that there is a growing consensus amongst the experts that many of these learning resources being designed to assist students with special learning needs will eventually benefit all learners as well.