This week we were treated to a wonderful presentation by Kalyn, Megan, Leigh, and Jenny on Assistive Technology. This group did an excellent job explaining what assistive technology, how it's utilized and how important it is - not only within our schools - but in the world in general. Personally, I was quite surprised with my misconceptions regarding assistive technology, as the first thing that came to my mind when we were asked to discuss assistive technologies were high tech examples such as computers or FM systems. I was surprised to learn that items as simple as pencil grips or visual schedules are considered assistive technology - which made me redefine my own understanding of what assistive technology is.
My Experience With Assistive Technology
As I mentioned above, thanks to the amazing presentation, I learned just how prevalent assistive technologies are within my classroom, as I was unaware that many of the tools I'm already using were assistive technologies. A further insight that was shared with us was how assistive technology can be divided into three different categories based upon the usage of technology. With this in mind, I would like to explore my personal and professional use of assistive technologies through the following categories: Low Tech, Medium Tech and High Tech.
Out of the three categories, this was the one that I really wasn't aware of. I had never imagined that items such as binder clips or highlighters could be considered examples of assistive technology. However, with my new understanding of this category, it was very easy to find different assistive technologies that I utilize on a daily basis within my own classroom.
From my first day as a classroom teacher, I have always utilized a large visual schedule on my whiteboard that breaks down the subjects that my students will be learning on a particular day. Every morning I take a few minutes to go through my "gameplan" with my students and discuss what we will be learning in each subject. While my schedule does not include specific times (something that I used to have), each subject label is accompanied by an image to represent it. I believe this helps keep my students organized and prepared at the start of the day and after recess breaks. It has also been useful for students who experience anxiety as the visual schedule provides consistency for my students each day.
Before these types of systems were as common as they are now, I utilized an FM system daily to support a student who had a hearing impairment. It was a little different than the ones that are commonly found in classrooms as the audio from my microphone went straight to my students' hearing aid, and not into a speaker at the back of the room. This technology was instrumental in the learning and success of the student - and was quite easy to use. The only roadblock we faced was ensuring that I had set the microphone to charge each night - and the student remembering to put the hearing aid in each morning.
Voice to Text (Cellphone & Computer):
While this could also be considered "High Tech", I had a student in the past who utilized the speech to text function on their phone to help them spell. Initially, we were using the spell check function to try and catch spelling mistakes, but we noticed that it wasn't working well because my student was spelling most words phonetically - which Microsoft word was unable to distinguish and was providing the wrong spelling suggestions. After discussing this with the student, we found a workaround which was simply using the speech-to-text function on their cellphone to help find the correct spelling of a word. We opted for the cellphone rather than a computer as the student felt more comfortable using their phone, and after some trial runs, we found that the speech-to-text tool in Microsoft Office wasn't as reliable or as effective as the one on their phone. This was an integral tool in helping my student learn to spell correctly as the more they used it, the more consistently they were able to spell words that proved difficult in the past.
While I don't have as much experience with High Tech tools as I do at other levels, I would still classify my class set of laptops as High Tech Assistive Technology. Even if all the students don't need to utilize them in the supportive capacity that other students would require, they still have the potential to be used in this regard when needed. However, one High Tech tool that I have utilized in the past for learners with lower reading levels, or English as an Additional Language learner is the Immersive Reader tool within our Classroom OneNote. Having the ability to read any words (whether text format or in an image) back to the students was extremely helpful. It was particularly cool when students could take a picture of a paper text and have OneNote read it back to them. The Chrome Immersive Reader extension has also a handy tool for my students when they are navigating various websites and need help reading the content. Also on a side note, I was completely blown away with the "short text" function on Seeing AI, as it was incredibly accurate. I could certainly see the benefits of using this app as an Immersive Reader - although the other functions on this app could be a distraction to students and also as scary in how accurate they are.
Challenges & Limitations
As was discussed in our breakout group, a major limitation of assistive technologies can be the cost associated with the tool. While visual schedules or digit fidgets can be purchased for a relatively low price (or created for free) - many of the other tools at the Mid to High level can be quite costly. If parents or schools do not have the budget to purchase these tools, it creates issues as the students will not have access to the technology required for them to experience success within schools. In addition, while there may be funding that families can access to help cover the costs of these tools, the process could also be a major barrier for our EAL families - as the wording in these documents can be difficult to follow.
In addition, Trevor also made a great point in his blog regarding the use of technology at home vs. school. While many students may have various assistive technologies to use while at school, a potential problem could arise if they do not have access to the tools while they are at home. Unfortunately, this could also lead to a further widening of the digital divide as Trevor explained, "privileged students that have access to good quality technology at home will not have the same challenges as those dealing with older technology or no technology whatsoever."