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Ask the Tech Expert

August 2014: This Month's Questions
Dr. Tracy Gray

Each month, Dr. Tracy Gray answers selected questions from teachers, students, and other users regarding effective use of educational technology.

Below are the newest questions answered by Dr. Gray.

Do you have a question about technology and learning disabilities? Submit it now!

Where can we find information about apps for the iPad in special education?

My school is getting iPads to work with our students in special education next year. We've had one to "play with" and have used many of the educational applications that our computer center downloaded for us. Are there other specific apps out there that you would definitely recommend for using with students in special education? Are there any apps you would recommend for use with upper elementary students? We've found that many are aimed at students in the primary grades but would love to have more choices for our older students.

As more and more schools look towards integrating the iPad and iTouch into their classrooms, the range of educational applications available is growing. For specific apps that may be helpful for students with disabilities, you may want to check out iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch Apps for Special Education, an extensive list compiled by assistive technology specialists and helpfully broken down by category (communication, math, writing, music, art, etc.). For another view of how the iPad might be beneficial for students with disabilities, The iPad: a Near-Miracle for My Son with Autism chronicles one mother's use of assistive technology and educational apps with her autistic son; she has some great suggestions and videos of her son using different apps.

For older children, apps like The Elements are exciting examples of what is possible with the iPad, as students can explore the Periodic Table in an interactive, media-rich and engaging way. Penultimate is a popular note-taking app that students may enjoy; students may also do well with fun games that teach math skills, such as Alien Equation. Apps for astronomy, Star Walk and Solar Walk would also be good choices for older students.  BrainPop has just released a free app that delivers a new featured movie every day, teaching students about a wide variety of topics.

There are so many educational apps available, with new ones coming out every day, that it can be hard to keep track of them all. You may want to check out reviews of educational apps from other teachers to help you find those that are worth checking out for your students. I Education Apps Review has a collection of reviews from teachers that can help get you started.

What cell phone applications can benefit students with ADHD?

I work as an OT with high schools students and wanted to know… what cell phone applications can benefit students with ADHD? We have used the basic features (calendar, alarms, etc) but have not explored additional applications and are wondering what other ideas or suggestions you might have.

There are many ways that students can make use of the features available on their cell phones to benefit learning, time management, and study skills. For example, if your students' phones are equipped with cameras (as most phones now are), they can use it to snap photos of the whiteboard/blackboard after class to make sure they don't miss notes or an assignment. Photos may also serve as a helpful visual reminder of what needs to be done (i.e. create a photo series of packing up homework, lunch, and other typically forgotten items).

Students can use text messaging, such as Google SMS, to get definitions, facts, weather, and conversions sent directly to their phones. As with Google searches, if a student spells a word incorrectly, Google SMS will generally prompt with "Did you mean…?" and provide both the correct spelling and the related information.

Online to-do lists such as Remember the Milk can send text alerts (or IM or email) reminding students of an upcoming appointment, assignment, or project. Unless the students have unlimited text messaging plans, it is important to discuss texting charges and how using these services can affect their cell phone bills.

Finally, many companies are capitalizing on powerful new cell phones and creating programs for sending flashcards and study materials directly to your phone or iPod. Students can browse flashcards created by others or create their own and study wherever they are.

Where can I find more books to use with a reading pen?

I recently bought a book that uses an audio pen to read the pages. You point the pen at the text in the book and can hear it read aloud. I'm wondering what kind of technology is involved here and if more of these books are available? Is there special software needed to convert text into encoded dots so the audio pen reads them?

Your question depends a bit on what type of reading pen system you are using, as different companies use different technology. Products such as LeapFrog Tag and VTech's Bugsby Reading System use specially-designed books with their reading pens. In order to access more titles, you will need to purchase their books, most of which are targeted towards younger or early readers. The benefit of books like these is that the text is typically read by a human voice, rather than a computerized voice. Children can also click on different icons within the text to get more information or sound effects while reading. The disadvantage to such products is that they can only be used with a limited number of titles and so may not be a good solution for a student with disabilities who needs to access a wider array of books. You may also look at the different types of reading pen/scanners available — many of these tools you use like a highlighter, running over printed text and getting instant speech feedback. While most of these pens are not appropriate for reading an entire book, they can serve as a valuable support for difficult words, definitions, and pronunciation.

What options are there for a teenager who needs a communication device?

I have a 15-year-old daughter that has multiple disabilities. She is nonverbal with some vocal sounds, is visually impaired, and has mental and physical deficits. She has full use of her right hand and a left side stroke. I'm wondering … is there any technology that she can possibly use for communication other than Cheap Talk 8? This is heavy and bulky for a child with limited hand-use, and it is too large for her desk at school. In addition, I am trying to compile a communication book, similar to PECS (picture exchange communication system), but am hoping there is some kind of technology that is available and easier to access for her. Are there additional communication devices that you would recommend?

Communication devices can often be large, bulky, and single out AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) users as "different" from their peers. This can be particularly frustrating for teenagers, who may want something more portable as they go about their day and something that doesn't set them apart from their non-disabled classmates. With advances in mainstream technologies, computing, and cell phones, there are now many options for the AAC user — from handheld devices to applications that run on a cell phone — that your daughter can choose that will fit her needs.

Many apps are available for the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Nintendo DS, and Droid phones; Prolquo2Go is one popular option, but there are many more programs out there. You can also try a web-based AAC service that can be used on a variety of devices. Many children with speech difficulties have had success with these devices, so you may consider trying one out with your daughter. If she struggles with making precise movements, she may find that a larger screen (as on the iPad or similar tablet computer) is easier for her to use. Try out a few different options if you can to find the right fit. If you're interested in sticking with a traditional AAC device, many companies now make much smaller and more portable AAC devices; so there are a number of options there as well. Before you make any decisions, it may be helpful to review some of the features of AAC devices and think about what your daughter's needs are with regard to communication. With the many new choices for communication devices, you should be able to find something smaller, lighter, and more usable for your daughter.

What technologies can help a high school student with dysgraphia in science and math classes?

What accommodations/modifications do you recommend for high school students in math and science when the main issue is dysgraphia? I have found that many of the "usual" accommodations (Alphasmarts, computers, voice activated programs, etc.) do not work as well due to the format of the math and science classes (i.e., drawing graphs, diagrams, writing in journals, etc.). What do you recommend?

The writing involved in science and math classes can be challenging for a student with dysgraphia. Formulas and equations must be written down precisely to avoid errors, and drawing accurate diagrams can be a painstaking process. Additionally, if students are required to write observations in science journals during labs, a laptop with voice recognition software may not always be practical. If the difficulty with writing in journals is due to the student not being able to safely use their Alphasmart/laptop (e.g., when doing labs where spills or safety could be an issue) to take notes, you may consider allowing the student to take voice notes using a digital voice recorder. Current models are inexpensive and small enough to fit in a pocket. The students can easily voice their observations and use the audio file to generate typed notes later. If students are able to draw diagrams and graphs but struggle with writing lengthier notes, they may do well with a Smartpen, allowing them to combine audio notes with their drawings and graphics.

Finally, for more complex tasks in both math and science, you may want to investigate software that allows the user to generate mathematical and chemical equations, graphs, and diagrams. One possibility is the math and science software from Efofex, with math and science programs for drawing diagrams, graphs, and generating equations. Efofex also has a program for students with disabilities, providing students with a free 10-year personal subscription to the software, allowing them to use it both at home and school. Another possibility for math classes is MathType, which allows students to enter math by hand (using handwriting recognition; Windows only) and create equations using templates, keyboard shortcuts, or copying and pasting from other applications (such as Wikipedia). Microsoft Word and Excel also feature a built-in program, Equation Editor, which would allow your student to create and enter mathematical equations into a document. This may be helpful for writing and creating math journals. Although the program is not as full-featured as some other software programs currently available, it may be an ideal solution depending on the math content.

What technology tools can my daughter use over the summer to practice her math skills?

My 14 year old daughter struggles with math. We have tried several things, but she does not seem to retain the information. She enjoys games on the computer and likes technology. We would love to help her over the summer but aren't sure where to start! We are wondering… are there any technology programs, or tools, that you think would help her math skills?

Since your daughter will be using these programs over the summer, and she enjoys games, it's a great idea to combine fun activities with learning and skill building! There are many online math programs, games, tutorials, and lesson available, so it can be a challenge to find these most appropriate ones for your child. If you know what specific areas your daughter is struggling with, that can help to narrow your search (i.e., search for games that teach fractions). In addition, you can talk with her teachers to see if they can recommend some high quality, standards-based math programs. Two good choices for math games that are also fun are BrainPop (subscription-based; free trial) and Fun School (free). The games on Fun School may be a bit below your daughter's skill level; if she is need of some remediation, they may be just right. BrainPop features a wide range of animated videos, quizzes, games, and activities addressing a variety of topics in an easy-to-understand and engaging way.

If your daughter is interested in trying to catch up on her math during the summer, she may also enjoy watching the free videos from Khan Academy. With over 1400 videos covering topics from basic addition to the Pythagorean Theorem, your daughter can watch and re-watch these easy to follow visual lessons on a variety of topics where she needs help. Finally, check out our custom searches on the TechMatrix to find suggestions for math software for teaching geometry, money skills, algebra, early math concepts, and more.

What tools can help my son with LD learn a foreign language?

My 15-year-old son has a language-based learning disability. He is in the tenth grade and so far has been able to maintain good grades with the assistance of an educational support paraprofessional. However, he has now started taking required foreign language classes and is struggling with vocabulary, verbal exercises, and exams. Are there any technology tools or software programs that might help him?

Learning a foreign language can be frustrating for a student with a language-based learning disability. Many of the same elements that may have posed problems in English (letter sounds, decoding, spelling, grammar), can cause difficulties in foreign language learning.

Since your son has been successful in his regular classes with the assistance of a paraprofessional, I would suggest that he use many of the same strategies he uses already to help him with language. What tools and support have helped your son succeed in his coursework? Some of these same strategies can be easily adapted to his foreign language learning. It is a good idea for your son to work directly with his special education and foreign language teachers about what areas are presenting difficulty for him, and discuss strategies and accommodations that may make language learning less challenging for him.

There are also a number of excellent technology tools for learning language that your son may find helpful. Beyond the familiar CDs and language software, many language learners are now taking advantage of social networking tools for foreign languages. A number of websites feature online chats and forums where users can practice language with a native speaker. User-created social networks on the Ning platform also provide opportunities to join a group interested in learning a specific language. Try searching Ning for "learning a language" to find a list of available groups. Many of these groups are full of others learning new languages that are happy to share tips, support, videos, and ideas for practicing vocabulary.

Finally, if your son is a visual learner, he may enjoy watching subtitled movies. He can choose to watch movies in the target language (i.e. Spanish) with English subtitles or watch English movies with foreign subtitles. Watching movies is an enjoyable activity and may lower your son's anxiety around language learning.

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