Touch technology has been a tremendous development for the field of special education, giving students a wonderful new learning medium that enables them to experience and engage as never before. Additionally, educators now have more options for curriculum preparation, visual aid development and data tracking — options that save time and allow them to spend more time and energy actually teaching. However, several challenges accompanying the deployment of this new technology must be addressed.
As educators plan and accommodate for diverse learning styles, tablets and educational apps provide a plethora of new opportunities. Special educators often experience additional obligations and responsibilities beyond those of general education. These obligations include creative program planning and adapting lesson development to meet the needs of a learner with unique abilities or limitations.
For example, the careful selection of unambiguous instructional materials is key when working with children with autism. Helping these children to understand concepts using salient cues and limiting unnecessary distractions can take extra time and effort. iPads and other touch tablets not only provide an intuitive and reinforcing medium to teach these children, but also offer easily accessible and customizable apps, such as See.Touch.Learn. by Brain Parade. This particular app has allowed me to develop skill-building lessons using professionally-selected photographs. For educators who typically spend countless hours finding pictures, laminating them and cutting them out, this app is a time-saver. This app and other touch technology also allow the sharing of lessons across classrooms, schools, districts, and even countries, enabling a community of educators to share resources and creativity with each other.
Similarly, generating strategies and visual supports to help students with autism function throughout the day, understand classroom procedures and transition from one activity to the next also consumes a remarkable amount of time. Many students require a predictable schedule, timers for self-monitoring and token economies to stay motivated. Again, the days of cameras, picture processing, poster board, Velcro, scissors, and the time delay associated with these strategies have been surpassed by the availability of apps such as See.Touch.Learn or Choiceworks by Bee Visual. These apps allow for the easy and immediate creation of visual schedules with embedded timers to support a student throughout his or her day.
Another challenge for special educators is the burden of data and the accountability necessary to demonstrate progress on skill development and individualized education plan (IEP) goals. Tablets offer data-tracking apps to ease this burden, such as Catalyst by DataFinch Technologies. More and more apps are being developed with built-in capabilities of data tracking and reporting of the specific skills practiced within the app. Gone is the need for multiple copies of hand-recorded data sheets to share among a student’s service providers and administrators. Many apps and touch technology also offer to keep parents apprised of their child’s progress. Sharing data through apps can help caregivers stay up to date on the progress their special-education student is making outside of quarterly IEP progress reports.
Along with the many benefits of touch technology, however, also come new challenges for educators. The release of tablets into schools — both on a small per-classroom or professional scale and on a large per-student scale — happens rapidly, often without meticulous planning. Naivety of educators and school districts can restrict the power and efficacy of touch technology. Oftentimes this results in overlooked resources or training needed to accompany the technology implementation, leaving devices under-utilized and educators frustrated.
The proliferation of special education apps also leads to overwhelming confusion in regard to which offer the best resources. Identifying a quality app with functionalities for a wide range of students is time consuming, and typically not supported by tablet implementation plans. Some districts also neglect to incorporate apps purchases into the budget altogether, leaving teachers paralyzed with devices and dependent on a limited number of free apps to serve the numerous needs of students.
Touch technology offers enormous potential in the field of special education, not only for students, but also for educators. As with many new developments, however, challenges accompany the opportunities. It’s been years since educators first realized the potential of touch technology. Yet along with that realization, educators must learn how to successfully deploy this technology and identify meaningful solutions to optimize learning potential.
The key solution to the success of touch technology for special education is supplying quality training for educators to accompany implementation. Training should include an understanding of quality apps in order to determine which should be included in the budget and how the continued use of those apps can be supported through district-wide collaboration.
Debra Bryant, a former school district analyst, is the owner of ABA Consulting Services, LLC, where she serves children with autism and related disorders. In 2004, she formed the Comprehensive Learning Institute for Challenged Kids, a center for children to receive a variety of services, including social skills groups. In 2011, Debra became inspired by the interest and needs of her clients with regard to the usage of the iPad for communication and in a therapeutic setting. This inspiration led her to found the Touch Technology Applications for Children with Special Needs in 2012.