The lack of communication and coordinated planning among school technology leaders, special-needs administrators, and classroom teachers in most school systems today is a serious impediment to providing a high-quality education for all students, warned a panel of experts who met at the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN’s) annual conference in Arlington, Va., March 1-3.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) places the same expectations on nearly all students, regardless of disability. Though schools are now beginning to harness the power of technology to identify children with special circumstances and better meet their learning needs, a number of barriers to using assistive technology (AT) in schools remain. Chief among them, participants in a special March 3 forum agreed, is a lack of understanding on the part of school technology directors about what kind of AT options exist and how these should fit in with a school district’s overall technology plan.

To help solve the problem, CoSN is launching a new initiative called “Building Bridges: Accessible Technology for All Students.” The first two components of the initiative, a report and a challenge-grant program, were announced at the conference.

The report, which appears as a chapter in CoSN’s 2004 Compendium of resources, provides advice from special-needs educators about how technology can be used to reach children with special needs; charts a course for improved communication between school technology coordinators and special-needs educators; discusses the use of AT devices in the classroom; and explains the theory of universal design, the concept of designing and delivering mainstream products and services that are usable by people with the widest possible range of functional capabilities.

The report also will take a look at current legislation supporting the use of AT devices in schools and will help educators follow the trends and policies influencing legislative action on Capitol Hill, particularly the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the billion-dollar federal program that aims to increase opportunities for children with special needs.

The idea, according to school technology leaders and vendors who attended the March 3 forum, is to move away from the “separate but equal” approach that is typical of special education today and toward a scenario where technologies and approaches designed to benefit special-needs children are ingrained in the fabric of traditional learning environments–and fit into a school system’s overall technology plan.

Too often, special-education teachers or administrators are the only individuals within a school who are capable of suggesting appropriate AT solutions for students, forum participants said. “Only the specialists even know what’s available,” said one panel member, a technology director for the Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland. Outside of that, teachers and technology planners “have very limited exposure to assistive technologies.”

The problem is especially acute in many smaller school districts, educators say, where a lack of resources makes it nearly impossible for instructors to keep abreast of best practices and new technologies proven to help improve achievement for special-needs students.

Tech directors in general complained they aren’t exposed to AT products. (At last year’s National Educational Computing Conference, according to one forum participant, only a single booth–sponsored by Microsoft–was devoted to AT products, and then had only a small selection.) Tech directors said they learn about AT products only when special-ed teachers or AT directors bring such products to their attention.

In some school systems, the lack of coordination among tech leaders, curriculum directors, and special-needs teachers is so severe that administrators aren’t even sure what kinds of assistive technologies are in use, simply because the technology was purchased by a parent or special-needs coordinator and then never included in the district’s broader inventory processes.

That’s because special education, in most schools, is traditionally grouped under a separate umbrella than traditional learning. Thanks to NCLB, however, all of that is changing, said Bob Moore, CoSN chairman and executive director of information technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas. “We need to move everybody if we are going to make (Adequate Yearly Progress),” he said.

But it isn’t just schools that must improve their efforts; vendors, too, must recognize a need for change, educators contend.

Several technology leaders who participated in the forum agreed that integrating AT devices would be easier if vendors and service providers worked to make their solution more intuitive, so that schools could purchase them without investing additional time and money in training and professional development.

Compatibility is another issue, they said. “Every time our (operating) system is updated, it seems our special-needs software stops working,” commented one panelist. Others were equally troubled by compatibility issues, citing problems with competing operating systems, among others.

Panelists also said they need solutions that instill elementary-level skills but do so using age-appropriate content. Many older special-ed students need elementary remediation but are turned off by childish content used in most products, they said.

With the myriad of disabilities that exist, from the most glaring of physical limitations to the least visible of learning disabilities, educators said what they need most of all are solutions that are versatile enough to meet the diverse demands of their students.

In education, “everyone is special,” according to one panelist. That means the solutions schools invest in need to be flexible enough to provide potential benefits for all, not just those who are labeled as in need of special attention.

Realizing the challenges most educators face in making technology and learning accessible to all students, CoSN on March 3 announced it has received challenge grants from two technology companies: IntelliTools Inc. and Sprint Corp.

The grants are intended to create new resources for school administrators and to help make educational technology accessible for students with disabilities. CoSN will use the awards to build tools to integrate assistive technology devices and services into the traditional curriculum.

According to CoSN, the grants will be used to identify and spread awareness of best practices for increasing access to curriculum for students with disabilities through the adoption and integration of AT devices and software. The program will provide tools and training to improve the ways school systems identify, acquire, and implement AT products and accessible technologies in their classrooms, officials said.

“As technology becomes ubiquitous in education, and the demands on students and schools increase, there is a pressing need for educational technology and special-education leaders to work cooperatively and to understand what each can contribute to the education of all students in the district,” said CoSN’s Moore.

Other conference highlights

AT wasn’t the only topic of interest at this year’s meeting, which CoSN said enjoyed its highest-ever attendance. Nearly 700 people participated, including educators from 20 countries and key government officials, the organization said.

The value of one-to-one computing was another point of emphasis, one CoSN hopes to address through a new series of reports on emerging trends in the field of educational technology.

The first report, from CoSN’s Emerging Technologies Committee, examines the implementation of wireless technologies in K-12 schools and looks to identify challenges, options, and lessons learned, officials said. Issues addressed in the report include standards and compatibility, planning and implementation, security, and total cost of ownership (TCO).

“The report provides a practical road map for … school administrators, technology coordinators, and other decision makers charged with planning wireless implementation,” said Steve Rappaport, chair of the Emerging Technologies Committee. “Some of the most compelling reasons schools give for purchasing wireless LANs (local-area networks) are mobility, flexibility, savings, and expandability. From learning about the components of a wireless LAN, to understanding the complex wireless standards, through deciding when and where to jump to designing the wireless network, the report provides step-by-step guidelines for school technology leaders.”

The 24-page “Emerging Technologies Report: A Guide to Wireless LANs for K-12 Schools” also includes profiles of eight wireless districts: Kearney Public Schools in Nebraska; Clark County School District in Georgia; Amarillo Independent School District in Texas; Cache County School District in Utah; Hampton City Schools in Virginia; Poway Unified School District in California; Henry County Public Schools in Virginia; and Westside Community Schools in Nebraska.

The initial report is sponsored in part by wireless telephone provider Spectralink and education service provider PLATO Learning.

The committee also announced the planned release of two additional reports: one on the use of personal digital assistants and handheld technologies, including graphing calculators, as a means of delivering one-to-one computing in schools, and another on “hot technologies” in education. The hot technologies report promises to look at those technologies that have demonstrated a proven ability to foster instructional change and improved assessment, while catering to diverse learning styles and building a better sense of community in the school environment, producers said.

CoSN said the new resources are intended to help educators as they prepare students for success in the 21st-century workforce and beyond.

This year’s K-12 School Networking Conference served as a precursor to Washington Advocacy Day, an opportunity for educators to meet and communicate with their legislators in Washington, D.C., about the significance of technology in the classroom.

The event, a joint effort between CoSN and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), reportedly brought more than 150 educators representing 29 states and more than 80 congressional districts to Capitol Hill to lobby for increased federal leadership and funding in the area of educational technology.

A key focus of Advocacy Day was the introduction of the Ed Tech Action Network, a joint CoSN/ISTE initiative designed to establish a grassroots network of ed-tech advocates.

CoSN hopes the initiative will provide its users with the necessary tools to advocate for increased federal government support for educational technology at a grassroots level, including an interactive web site, in-person training, sample advocacy letters, legislation updates, and policy backgrounders. (See “New program helps educators lobby for ed tech,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4926.)

“The launch of the Ed Tech Action Network was a significant factor in attracting the largest number of attendees in the history of Advocacy Day, making today the event’s most successful to date,” noted CoSN’s chief executive, Keith Krueger. “However, the very serious issues facing educational technology currently–the declining levels of funding and the increasing pressure to demonstrate academic gains in order to comply with NCLB–have energized CoSN’s and ISTE’s memberships like never before.”

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Editor Gregg W. Downey contributed to this report.

Links:

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org