The nonprofit Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) has launched a three-year initiative intended to demonstrate how greater collaboration and increased communication between school technology leaders and special-education departments can deliver the benefits of a technology-rich education to all students, including those with disabilities.

CoSN officially unveiled the program during the annual Assistive Technology Industry Association conference in Orlando Jan. 21 and plans to make a similar announcement at the Florida Educational Technology Conference, also in Orlando, on Jan. 27.

“America’s schools need a new conversation between those responsible for general education and those responsible for special education around how technology can assist all students,” said Bob Moore, CoSN chairman, who is also executive director of IT services at Blue Valley Union School District 229 in Overland Park, Kan. “This new initiative will bridge the divide between district-level technology and special-education leaders, demonstrating how successful districts are overcoming these obstacles and what tools can be employed to extend access to technology to students of all abilities.”

Through its “Accessible Technologies for All Students” initiative, CoSN will host a series of educational resources and professional development opportunities intended to facilitate the effective use of educational technology for all students, regardless of ability or disability.

Among the project’s many endeavors are a program web site, www.accessibletech4all.org, featuring a repository of best practices that highlight how successful districts have sought to integrate the work of IT staff and mainstream educators with the efforts of special-education departments; an educator’s toolkit that includes slide shows, checklists, and suggestions for improving the widespread access to technology for all students; a whitepaper outlining the issues surrounding K-12 technology accessibility; and a series of online courses and face-to-face workshops explaining the importance of accessible technologies in U.S. schools.

The ongoing initiative also will feature an aggressive advocacy campaign, including interviews and meetings between K-12 district technology leaders and special-education directors and a Capitol Hill policy briefing, providing educators with an opportunity to state their case for accessible technologies to members of Congress.

Since the inception of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, a new era of accountability in the nation’s schools has made it incumbent on all educators, including those in special education, to raise the bar on student achievement. Faced with an enormous task–and determined not to leave a single student behind–many educators have embraced technology as a means to achieve the sweeping federal mandate.

In general, however, schools have largely approached the integration of technology on two separate fronts: assistive technology, or solutions generally reserved for students in the special-education system; and information technology, which encompasses the use of instructional technologies in mainstream learning environments.

As CoSN’s latest report suggests, a fundamental rift exists between the good work being done in mainstream education and the strides being made by special-education leaders, especially in terms of students’ use of technology.

“Communication and interaction between those in charge of special-education assistive technologies and those responsible for district information and instructional technology programs remains almost non-existent in many school district settings,” wrote project director Sonja Schmieder in her introduction to CoSN’s latest report.

But times are changing, CoSN suggests.

Rather than maintain separate approaches to the use of technology in schools, educators can help all children succeed by using technology to bridge the gap between special-needs learners and mainstream students. Where assistive technologies might be used to provide special-ed learners with access to mainstream opportunities, the same solutions might also be deployed in traditional classrooms to help mainstream students exceed their potential through the application of new and, as yet, untested approaches to learning.

“NCLB has forced us to understand that underachievement is not limited to students with disabilities,” explained Dave Edyburn, an associate professor with the Department of Exceptional Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, during a Jan. 19 webcast about CoSN’s initiative.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the concept of “universal design,” an emerging theory of instructional design that suggests it’s better to create instructional solutions built to address a wide array of educational needs. The theory, supported by such educational groups as CoSN and the Massachusetts-based Center for Applied Special Technology, contends that technology has the greatest effect on learning for all students, including those with disabilities, when it is deployed with a unified vision, combining the resources of AT (assistive technology) and IT (information technology) into a single, workable solution.

The reason is simple, says Edyburn: No two students are the same.

“American classrooms are more diverse than ever, and efforts that enable all students to achieve high academic standards will require new approaches to teaching and learning,” he noted. “Assistive technology has the potential to impact everyone, either directly as a personal user of assistive technology, or indirectly, as a means of helping someone we know.”

Not that shifting the way school districts view the use of assistive technologies will be easy. According to CoSN’s report, schools likely will have to overcome a myriad of obstacles before building a united front between AT and IT.

Aside from an overall lack of vision by school decision makers, the report states that insufficient training, the technical incompatibility of systems, the existence of financial hurdles, and an overall lack of time and resources likely will make it difficult to achieve better communication between AT and IT staffs–at first.

But don’t despair, Schmieder says; the results–when they come–will be worth it.

“Positive relationships between general and special-education technology leaders have the potential to create a powerful force for enhancing the school culture as well as advocating for technology-rich education overall,” she wrote in the report.

Aside from fostering better communication among staff and sharing ideas, educators say increased collaboration between special-ed and IT departments will bring about partnerships critical to education reform, accelerate the use of technology in schools, increase access to assistive and accessible technologies for all students, and employ a greater range of solutions that ultimately can individualize instruction for every student, regardless of disability or learning style.

Still not sold on the idea? Several forward-thinking districts already are reporting favorable results, says CoSN.

For instance, in Blue Valley, a 20,000-student district outside Kansas City, CoSN’s Moore sought to bring AT and IT staffers together by establishing an IT-AT Working Group whose job was to author and implement a joint technology plan for all students, including those with disabilities, at a new elementary school in the district.

To lead the group, Blue Valley also created a new AT coordinator position, with the sole job of streamlining collaboration between these two historically disjointed departments.

“We’re just starting to see the results of this–and it’s very exciting,” said Moore. For a closer look at the goings-on in Blue Valley, educators can visit the CoSN project web site and look at the case study.

Meanwhile, educators at the 60,800-student Boston Public Schools (BPS) have taken the idea one step further, creating an entire department charged with building a better rapport between the district’s Office of Instructional Technology and its assistive technology arm.

Directed by Kristen Eichleay, BPS’s Access Technology Center (ATC) is responsible for fostering relationships across various instructional departments and ensuring that AT and IT staff members confer when deciding what technologies make the most sense for the district.

As the director of a three-person office, Eichleay participates in all district-level IT meetings and activities. Because her office shares its budget with the larger IT office, the ATC also has a direct say in what technologies the district chooses to invest in.

Through a series of collaborative projects and grants obtained throughout the district, the ATC is helping to ensure that “assistive technology” is no longer a term reserved solely for students with disabilities, Eichleay says.

CoSN’s Accessible Technologies for All Students initiative is supported by corporate sponsors Sprint Corp., AlphaSmart Inc., Apple Computer, Educational Testing Service, IntelliTools Inc., Kurzweil Educational Systems, and Verizon. eSchool News is the initiative’s media sponsor.

CoSN’s full report on this topic will be available this spring as part of the 2005 CoSN Compendium.

Links:

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

Accessible Technologies for all Students
http://www.accessibletech4all.org

Blue Valley Union School District
http://www.bluevalleyk12.org

Center for Applied Special Technology
http://www.cast.org