Assistive Tech Provides Learning Tools for All of Us

Did you ever pause to think that the term "assistive technology" is a tautology, like "free gift" and "new innovation"? All technology should be assistive, by definition. In many cases, Assistive Technology we refer to means technology specifically designed to help the disabled and uniquely-abled individuals.

Truth is, assistive technology needn't be so narrowly defined. It helps us all to communicate more accurately and successfully. As the latest wave of apps and software that falls into that broadly defined category demonstrates, it's for anyone who could use some help expressing themselves, like forming thoughts, putting them into words, and spelling them correctly. After all, they are just tools that allow you to perform tasks faster and with greater results, freeing up your time and mind to do more, with less stress.

Forbes contributor Jenn Choi, in her recent article titled "Cutting Edge School Tech: Focus On Differences," writes about using assistive tech in education that has the power to "change the playing field for the student and affect the whole entire classroom."

She elaborates:

"[A]dvancements in ed tech are allowing a great number of individual students with disabilities who really need technology not only reach higher levels of learning, but the move allows for a positive ripple effect throughout the classroom. That is, fellow students also experience numerous benefits just by being a classmate of the student with a disability."

Choi notes that some may complain that assistive tech could be distracting in a classroom environment, or not helpful to all students. A recent McGraw Hill Education Digital Trends Survey of about 3,000 students proved otherwise with numbers:

  • 84% of students reported that the use of technology improves their education
  • 81% reported that digital learning technology helped save them time and be more efficient
  • 81% claimed that digital learning technology was helping them boost their grades
  • Students who said having access to mobile devices when studying was extremely important has jumped nine percentage points in two years
  • Laptops still outpace smartphones as the primary device students use to study

Another survey shows that teachers, on the other hand, "still face systemic challenges in adapting their instruction to new technologies in transformative ways." When the Education Week Research Center surveyed about 700 classroom teachers and "school-based instructional specialists" online last April, they found that these were the two biggest barriers to the use of tech in a classroom:

  • 42%: Too few digital learning devices
  • 33%: Lack of training

Also:

  • 24% indicated that they are "risk takers" who are willing to try new technologies
  • 47% said they like working with new digital tools not yet commonly used

Interestingly, the survey also found that:

"[...] when asked to gauge how prepared their students are to use educational technology for particular activities, the teachers gave higher ratings to routine practices like drills, practice exercises, and reading assignments than to more ground-shifting projects, such as creating original content and using social media to collaborate on assignments."

Deb Stoll, director of special education in Worthington, MN, asserts in her article at Daily Globe that assistive tech is a great equalizer in schools, and is especially important in decreasing barriers for special-needs students and increasing "the performance and functional capabilities." Even more important, she writes, is that it "can give students the ability to participate with their peers and belong to the school environment."

We've written earlier about our best picks in voice-recognition apps, screen-capture software, and image-recognition tech like alt text. Choi recommends such tools as Microsoft OneNote and WriteWell, as well as the relatively new intelligent services Researcher and Editor in Microsoft Word, and the keyboarding app BrightFingers.

Choi is also very fond of the two word-processing programs, CoWriter and Read & Write, praising them for their topic-specific word prediction and voice-to-text writing features. Co:Writer Universal for Google Chrome uses grammar- and vocabulary-smart word prediction with built-in speech recognition. The Read&Write literacy software, the product website notes, is designed for people with dyslexia and other learning difficulties, as well as for users whose first language isn't English.

Here's Stoll's list of some tools that could be useful in the classroom (as you can see, it comes in various forms and needn't be high-tech):

  • hearing aids
  • FM units
  • classroom speaker systems
  • slanted boards for students in wheelchairs
  • pencil grips
  • walkers
  • keyboards with accessibility options
  • word-prediction apps
  • electronic books
  • talking clocks and calculators
  • print or picture schedules
  • grab bars
  • power wheelchairs
  • adaptive eating utensils
  • screen magnifiers and speech-to-text/text-to-speech apps

Let's close with Choi's take on how best to approach the usefulness of assistive tech in education environment:

"I think the key thing to remember here is that technology is merely a learning tool, just like a pencil. It is not an answer key. You still have to do the work. If a student was allowed to speak to his computer to write an essay, he would still have to give the computer words to write down for him. That said, the question is: what if everyone had some help through technology?
[...] The answer would likely be: everyone would have a better sense of how they learn best, the classroom would likely move at a faster pace and so all the kids would learn more not less."

Image by jacekkita/123RF Stock Photo.

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