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Can Ed Tech Make Learning More Accessible?

Ed tech experts say simple digital tools can help make learning more accessible if utilized correctly. Arizona educators set out to do just that for students with autism.

A student putting together a LEGO robotics kit.
Arizona Autism Charter Schools students have been using Lego robotics kits provided through Intel.
Long before K-12 schools moved to online remote learning last year in response to the coronavirus pandemic, education policy advocates were clamoring for ways to improve education for neurodiverse students. Concerns ranged from lack of appropriate state and federal school funding to curriculum design and everything in between.

Much of the recent discourse about ed tech has revolved around accessibility, mainly in terms of device availability and Internet connectivity. But this still leaves another obstacle — making the learning itself more accessible

One school in Arizona set out to do just that for students with autism.

Using Ed Tech to Bolster Accessibility

Arizona Autism Charter Schools, located in Phoenix, Ariz., had been considering how to use digital tools to make learning more accessible years before the pandemic, according to Founder and Director Diana Diaz-Harrison.

When the pandemic hit last spring, the K-12 school began pouring funds into ed tech upgrades, including over 350 Chromebooks and hot spots for students during remote and hybrid learning. Purchases were made with the help of about $100,000 from the federal CARES Act and $140,000 from A for Arizona, a nonprofit that awards ed tech grants to schools throughout the state.

Diaz-Harrison said students can now access one-on-one and small group telelessons with their teachers, and teletherapy lessons with speech and occupational therapists, seamlessly through Zoom and Google Classroom. Students with particular conditions received iPads outfitted with Apple Pencil, which allows for ease of navigation and the ability to use various response modes including talk-to-text, writing and drawing.

These upgrades, Diaz-Harrison said, have provided new mediums for communication with students and given educators more time to help with personalized lessons, both at home and in person. She believes digital tools can open new avenues for students to learn and demonstrate new skills.

“Tech is more critical for our kids than most people,” she said. “Some of our nonverbal kids rely on their iPads as a communication device, where the iPad is actually their voice.

“With our population, you have to give them various ways to demonstrate what they know when they can’t speak because communication is part of their disability.”

At least 1 in 54 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly a third of those students have an intellectual disability and sensory processing issues. Difficulties with verbal and written communication can often present a barrier for many students with autism.

Cynthia Cipoletti, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, said many students who struggle with attention and executive function skills also find long periods of screen time challenging. Selecting platforms and tools that are intuitive and easy to navigate, such as the ones found at Arizona Autism Charter Schools, could help mitigate these challenges.

“Many students with learning disabilities typically receive one-to-one or small group instruction to address specific skill deficits. During this instruction, special educators often use manipulatives and multisensory activities — things that are difficult if not impossible in a remote situation,” she added.

Diaz-Harrison said over 100 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Lego kits for robotics and coding projects have been given to students through the help of donations from Intel. Activities such as these have helped keep students engaged in lessons that improve problem-solving skills.

“A lot of these processes are hard to teach with just didactic lessons, but through our partnership with Intel, we received these hands-on Lego kits — where kids can build things, do coding to make their robots move, and do different activities they find entertaining while learning coding skills along the way,” she said. “For neurodiverse kids, this is where they really shine.”

‘Normal’ Schooling Didn’t Work for All Students

More than 7 million American students elsewhere received special education assistance through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during the 2018-19 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Pew Research Center. Learning disabilities, autism and speech and language impairments were among the most common reasons for those services.

Luis Perez, a technical assistance specialist with the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials, noted that designing online lessons for students with special needs isn’t “just taking what you used to do face-to-face and transferring it to an online environment.”

Perez thinks the use of ed tech could improve accessibility and encourage educators and policymakers to consider new ways of teaching neurodiverse student populations and students with autism.

“The truth is that ‘normal’ [schooling] didn’t work for everybody, so I’m hoping, as a result of this jolt we’ve had over the year, that there’s some disruptive thinking, and we start thinking about more flexible models,” he said. “If it’s not this pandemic, there might be something else in the future that requires this remote or mixed learning.”

Some tech developers and educators are considering how the future widespread use of augmented reality and virtual reality platforms could enhance and enrich school lessons. However, some of these platforms can cause sensory overload, particularly for students with sensory processing disorders related to autism.

Consortium for School Networking spokeswoman Christine Fox, former interim director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, says school and district tech officials should work with special education curriculum developers to devise the best ways to use ed tech.

She said utilizing simple, cost-effective tools with voice-to-text capabilities and screenreader programs commonly found on many devices can help personalize instruction for students with sensory and cognitive issues.

“Technology can help level the playing field for those special needs students when a teacher can’t go around and do all those adaptations in the classroom of 45 students all on their own,” she said.

Adapting to a Changing Landscape

Last March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Arizona charter school to switch to remote instruction. Both of the school’s campuses then moved to a hybrid learning model for asynchronous and synchronous learning before most of its 375 students finally made their way back to school five days a week. Such shifts aren’t always easy for neurodiverse students, according to Cipoletti.

Accommodations, such as reading to a student or repeating and simplifying directions, often mean parents need to be present when students work from home. Schools need to have support structures in place for when that’s not possible.

“One thing that might help is to ensure that schools are required to set up helplines for parents and ample resources that will assist them in assisting their children to navigate the remote instruction,” she noted.

Arizona Autism Charter Schools IT Director Dan McCarty said administrators worked to provide individualized tools and app programs to meet students’ specific needs, which required flexibility and constant communication between families and instructors. Administrators also had to hire additional IT staff and set up a hotline for troubleshooting.

“If you’ve ever heard the expression of ‘building a plane while it’s flying,’ this has really been that,” McCarty noted.

Despite the learning curve that came with remote learning, over 100 of the school’s families elected to continue with the virtual learning option. School surveys indicated that nearly 30 percent of families at the school have expressed interest in virtual learning after the pandemic.

Diaz-Harrison believes education is unlikely to go back to how it was before March 2020. New content delivery methods could allow schools such as hers to reach students elsewhere.

“I think it’s opened the door for students with special needs or neurodiverse students to actually consider doing online programming, whereas before, it wasn’t even a consideration because educators were unsure if they could engage the kids in a meaningful way through virtual platforms,” she said.

Using tech in the classroom can also help sharpen the skills needed for an increasingly digitized workforce. Engaging tech projects and homework assignments, such as the STEM kits Diaz-Harrison mentioned, can even serve as a gateway to high-paying careers later in life.

“By going more technological and project-based, they’re getting a skill set that’s needed in the workforce,” she said. “Giving them all of this access to tech and steering away from the traditional pen-and-paper classroom is a responsible thing to do.”

Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.