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What Happens When Assistive Technology Doesn’t Work?: The Need for an Integrated Approach.

By: Leonard V. Pisano

As a practicing School Psychologist and Coordinator for Assistive Technology, I am routinely asked to address these problems. Consultation with schools, parents and students have resulted in concerns, such as the following:

What are the usual complaints and problems identified by the school, student and parent?

  • The student doesn’t know how to use it independently.
  • The school staff express that the student doesn’t have time to utilize it, there’s too much work to cover; the curriculum standards have to be addressed.
  • The teachers don’t know how to use it, further adapt it, fix it when something goes wrong (for example, when the screen freezes), nor have the time.
  • The student finds it frustrating and not helpful. He/she is using other software or only part of the programs assigned.
  • The student’s paraprofessional continues to write everything down, even though the student can’t read or manipulate the information.
  • The parent doesn’t know how to use the technology or address problems at school and home in making this service successful.
  • Homework solutions continue to be a problem for the student, parent and teacher.

The critical problem and recurring theme is that the Assistive Technology has not been successfully integrated into the student’s school program (both in and after school)! We have to look at the system and develop an Assistive Technology and Education model that includes student identification, assessment, training, implementation, monitoring and integration of services.

What are some critical questions and areas that need to be examined regarding students that receive Assistive Technology services?

When assistive technology hasn’t made a difference for a student regarding school performance, it is important to identify key elements of the plan, such as how was it developed, implemented, monitored and integrated. There may be one or more breakdowns in formulating an individualized program for a student with learning difficulties, with issues regarding assistive technology services or other instructional considerations. Having a team approach with assigned team members to follow up on identified problems and goals should be part of an ongoing service for the student receiving assistive technology. Parent, teacher and student input and collaboration are also integral to a plan.

  1. Development
    • How were the student’s strengths, weaknesses and affinities determined – based on what assessments?
    • How were the student, teacher and parent involved in the process?
    • How did the student, teacher, parent and other staff feel about the plan? Were they comfortable with it?
    • Was the assistive technology part of a plan to enable the student to meet IEP goals?
    • What had been tried in the past - worked and not worked?
    • What were the interim and / or necessary accommodations or modifications to the classroom, to the curriculum?
  2. Implementation
    • Was there sufficient training? Who received it?
    • Were the assistive technology devices and / or services being used in prescribed contexts?
    • What expectations were agreed upon, as a plan until the student had learned to use the assistive technology, such as a word processor effectively?
  3. Monitoring
    • What were the targeted goals, timelines and how did they relate to the classroom demands?
    • How were the above issues integrated to foster student success?
    • Were there built in checks reviewing the amount of progress or difficulties encountered?
  4. Integration
    • How were other supports and interventions integrated as part of the plan?
    • Was there ample time set aside for all players to integrate and problem solve the student’s plan?

These questions not only have to be answered, but integrated into a problem-solving approach and individualized program.

How do we help students with learning differences to succeed?

Students with disabilities cannot be denied access to general education or standardized testing and need to be provided with appropriate and reasonable services to maintain them. As demands within general education increase, we have to look for alternative interventions to foster student success. In order to maximize success, an integrated approach involving instructional practices and applied assistive technology should be considered.

Different instructional practices and strategies – how can they help?

There are 4 ways of approaching instruction for students with learning problems:

  1. Remediation - usual instructional "direct fix" approach that works on the weakness (i.e., drill and practice, as in using flash cards for words, number facts, etc. This can also be through the use of instructional software.)
  2. Accommodate the problem - "external approach" (i.e., minimize the demands in relation to the deficit. If a student can't write small and in cursive, let him/her continue to print in manuscript.)
  3. Circumvent - (bypass strategy) go around it or avoid the weakness altogether (i.e., use a tape recorder or xerox notes if writing is a problem).
  4. Compensation - an "internally directed approach" - use your strengths and specific strategies to overcome or "compensate for" a weakness (use a computer and specialized software) to do writing assignments ).

Learning and applying strategies are important parts of problem-solving and being successful.

Direct remediation, accommodations, curriculum modifications and compensation can go on together. A combination of these programs will assist the student in becoming independent and mastering the curriculum.

What are some examples of learning strategies and adaptations to consider?

Curriculum accommodations – which alter how a student will access information and show learning. Accommodations may involve the use of books on tape (audio tapes to listen to or follow along printed text) with headphones, large print books, use of a calculator, continued use of manuscript printing even though the class uses cursive writing, hand held spell check (Speaking Homework Helper) or word processor. It is important to note that these accommodations do not substantially change the level of instruction, the content given the student or general performance expectations.

Curriculum modifications – which will directly affect the information and performance criteria that a student is expected to master, in relation to curriculum standards. These modifications may lower the instructional level, modify the content and expected performance of the student, not necessarily that of the entire class. Even though the student works on modified course objectives, the subject area remains the same as that of the other class members.

Individualized supports – which will assist the student by allowing for strategies to foster success in dealing with the curriculum. Students can benefit from having additional time to do assignments, test modifications (possibly alternate formats, such as answers recorded in any manner, use of a word processor or questions read), separate quiet location for specified tests / activities, preferential seating (to minimize distractions or aid in copying information from the blackboard), back up notes (“buddy notes”), alternate checks for assignments and individualized systems for being more organized. Curriculum aids that reinforce and support effective study skills, test-taking techniques, listening skills, writing and reading comprehension skills are other supports that may be helpful in a student keeping up with school demands.

Assistive technology – which will offer other ways of dealing with information, from accessing to processing to output. The goals involving the devices and services are to provide the student with compensatory interventions that will utilize a student’s strengths and lessen the negative impact of learning difficulties in negotiating school expectations. A student with significant handwriting and spelling issues, including both legibility and processing speed, would utilize a word processor with spellcheck features to facilitate writing as a skill. Training in keyboarding and appropriate functions of the word processing program, with regard to writing assignments, spelling and curriculum standards would have to be provided. The student’s teacher would need to be included in a plan that both supports the assistive technology, as well as utilizes it in classroom contexts. Until word processing can assist the student in writing assignments, copying notes and test-taking, alternate plans should be continued or developed.

In sum, assistive technology can help the student to compensate for weaknesses and develop more independent skills. Accommodations and modifications will aid the student in dealing with ongoing curriculum demands and remediation will continue to work on appropriate deficit areas.

How can we integrate assistive technology, learning needs, learning styles and instructional practices?

In order to assess the student’s learning problems, one has to look at the dynamic interplay between what the student brings to the school context and what he / she is being asked to accomplish. Does the student require assistive technology devices and services to meet those educational goals? What other interventions might be necessary, in order for the student to benefit from instruction, to be successful and to learn?

The integration of assistive technology and instructional practices are critical in fostering success for students with learning differences. Interventions involving remediation and varying degrees of compensation and/or classroom accommodations need to represent collaborative team efforts on the part of parents, educators, clinicians, administrators and service providers. An analysis of curriculum objectives and the student's educational profile are part of the process. Questions related to assessment issues, educational concerns and accommodations should also be discussed with team members. Assistive technology can often be an integral part of this approach. It is up to parents and educators to examine and question what students are receiving regarding assistive technology and how it should be integrated to foster a student’s success.

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Posted October 2, 2002

Leonard V. Pisano (2002)