Inadequate teacher preparation, low awareness, and gaps in leadership are the chief barriers to making assistive technologies (AT) a core component of education to ensure that all students have the capability to learn, regardless of their abilities, said a panel of researchers, policy makers, and technology developers at the eighth annual Technology Innovators’ Conference, held Nov. 17 and 18 in Washington, D.C.

Hosted by the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI), the conference brought together educators and researchers to explore ways to collapse these barriers. Attendees networked and brainstormed multiple ways to advance technology to support students with special needs.

This year’s conference theme, “Creating Solutions Through Collaboration,” encouraged participating educators, researchers, and entrepreneurs to focus on the future of AT. In the first conference session, “Paths to Innovation,” panelists discussed ways to promote the AT field to new professionals, as well as nurturing the next generation of innovators and researchers.

“This conference has surpassed what we ever could have imagined it would in terms of really bringing people from a broad cross section of AT and instructional technology fields together,” said Tracy Gray, project director of NCTI and principal research scientist at the American Institutes for Research. NCTI is funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and is intended to help foster technology innovation and collaboration to support special-needs learners.

“[We have] researchers, developers, companies, and other service providers–such as teachers–who are all focused on the question of how we can best bring AT to support the needs of students,” Gray said. “It’s really about giving people the tools so they can succeed. We are trying to raise the level of awareness to help people realize that it’s not just a small group’s problem, it’s everyone’s problem, and we’re all in this together.”

Toward this end, a panel discussion addressed the executive summary of key findings from NCTI’s dialogue forums, put together in a report entitled “Moving Toward Solutions: Assistive and Learning Technology for All Students.” The full report will be released in January.

NCTI, in a series of forums conducted during the 2004-2005 school year, asked “what it will take for assistive and learning technology to be considered a critical component of education to help more students learn, achieve, and reach their potential.”

“Inadequate teacher preparation, low awareness, and gaps in leadership at all levels undermine the implementation of assistive and learning technologies,” the report’s summary said. In addition, the report found that the assistive and learning technology field “lacks a recognized advocate and unifying voice.”

“How will we know when AT is helping more students to learn and achieve their potential?” asked panelist Lynne Anderson-Inman, director of the Center for Advanced Technology in Education and the Center for Electronic Studying at the University of Oregon’s College of Education.

“When the technologies that we have traditionally identified as AT are embedded in those tools we use every day, then I think we’re poised to make some major changes regarding the use of these technologies in education,” Anderson-Inman said. “There is a word prediction feature built into my cell phone, but I’m still working with schools to get them to buy software that helps students with disabilities learn how to read. It’s just a regular phone, but it’s an incredible array of AT sitting in my hand, and I’ve never thought about using it instructionally.”

She concluded: “As educators and advocates of AT for kids with special needs, we need to be aware of it, and we need to know how to capitalize on these technologies so their powers can be used to help our students.”

Aside from large panel discussions, the conference also offered several smaller sessions. One breakout session focused on the implications of universal design (UD) for learning and innovation. The session centered on the idea that UD is an educational framework that increases the accessibility of learning for all students, and that while the learning goals are the same, the means by which these goals are achieved are different depending on each student’s own learning style and capability.

“We need to build a bridge between people who do a good job with education and UD and those who do more traditional education,” said moderator Jim Clovis, president of InnOvis Associates Inc.

UD for learning brings attention to the question of differences in learning, said David Rose, the founding director and chief scientist of cognition and learning at the Center for Applied Special Technology.

“There isn’t a single way to ask students one thing and be fair to them all,” Rose said. “The virtues and limitations of print, for example, are that everyone gets the same information. If you have a book, make sure that book has multiple presentations, such as being spoken as well as seen, having varied text sizes, different voices, even embedded vocabulary.”

Rose then asked how one would design images universally, and he used as an example the parking guides at Minnesota’s Mall of America parking lot. Each sign has its own color, letter and number combination, animal, and state. This, Rose said, ensures that people with different learning styles will all remember where they have parked their cars, whether they remember the parking sign’s color, its number, or what animal’s picture it displayed.

“Universal design means multiple means of presentation,” said Dave Schleppenbach, chief executive officer of gh, an AT company. “The important thing is feature matching, and making sure those features of AT match each student’s unique need.”

Schleppenbach also discussed MathSpeak, a project that aims to enhance math and science access for students with various print disabilities by making digital talking books.

A grant from the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund was awarded to gh in 2004 to develop MathSpeak. Indiana’s Department of Commerce chose gh to research and develop a standard for producing digital talking book versions of math and science books, and a software player module that can properly render the math and science both aurally and visually. Specifically, gh is developing several mathematics textbooks, one science textbook, and a standardized test involving math and science in this format and is testing these among print-disabled students in a variety of settings.

Other sessions during the conference concentrated on how accessible technologies can advance the accuracy and outcomes of standardized testing for students with special needs, and how innovative technology can bridge the gaps as students with disabilities transition from secondary schools to adult lives.

The conference also gave attendees a chance to preview new and still-developing technologies for special-needs students.

MySchoolDayOnline, presented by Matt Kaplowitz president of Bridge Multimedia, and Wendy Sapp, director of Visual Impairment Education Services, is in its alpha version and is a Section 508-compliant platform through which anyone with minimal computer knowledge–including children with visual impairments–can build accessible education web pages and web sites.

Design Science’s MathPlayer, a free plug-in for Internet Explorer, displays MathML in web pages. MathML is a recommended format for representing math in extensible markup language (XML). MathML incorporates mathematical structure and allows the MathPlayer plug-in to implement a wide range of accessibility features, such as magnification, speech, synchronized highlighting, and keyboard navigation.

The Research and Development Institute demonstrated Braille Note, a means by which students who are severely visually disabled can learn to read and write the Braille symbols that make up Nemeth Code, the Braille mathematics code. Braille Note is in the second phase of a three-year project. The project staff have proposed creating an interactive software tutorial that would be used in middle and high schools to help blind students learn to read and write Braille mathematics notation.

Links:

National Center for Technology Innovation
http://www.nationaltechcenter.org

U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/osep/index.html

Center for Advanced Technology in Education
http://cate.uoregon.edu

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

MathSpeak
http://www.gh-mathspeak.com/index.php

Bridge Multimedia
http://www.bridgemultimedia.com

Design Science’s MathPlayer
http://www.dessci.com/en/products/mathplayer