A handful of research projects now under way will gauge the effectiveness of new learning and assistive technologies for students with disabilities, such as a non-visual web browser and spell-check programs designed for those with dyslexia.

The projects are being supported by the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) and its “Technology in the Works” grant program. The five grant recipients each will receive $15,000 to conduct research that examines the effectiveness of software and technologies for students with special needs. The grants require matching funds from project participants.

“This year’s winners represent and exciting cross section of breakthrough technologies that advance the learning and assistive technology field,” said Tracy Gray, director of NCTI at the American Institutes for Research. “We look forward to the knowledge these studies will bring to the field, [resulting] in greater opportunities for students with disabilities.”

Accessible Math Software

Madalaine Pugliese, developer of “Stages Math: Number Sense” software, is studying how well software can help young students of various abilities develop number sense.

“We want to create math software that is universally designed, so it’s accessible for all learners and provides differentiated instruction,” she said.

Pugliese, along with researchers Russell Maguire, an associate professor at Simmons College, and Karen Janowski with EdTech Solutions, will pre-test students in two classes in kindergarten, first, and second grades to determine areas in need of instruction within eight content areas. Students will receive instruction (supplemented by their use of the software) and then take a post-test.

Pugliese said the pre-test and post-test data will be analyzed to determine the efficacy of the software as an instructional tool and the effectiveness of the differentiated instructional settings for individual learning.

“We have different kinds of learners, so a [universal design] strategy is needed because kids are unique,” Pugliese said, adding that she hopes to determine “how software can play a role for kids with these needs.”

She said she is focusing on math, because she sees math as the next area that needs to be addressed in education.

“We’ve already tackled reading on a national level, but we know that math is the next horizon,” she said.

Mobile-Learning Efficacy

Robert Longo, executive vice president of Etech Group North America, researcher Megan Whitmore, a graduate student at the University of Michigan-Dearnborn, and researcher Susan Everett, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, will study the impact of individualized instruction delivered through the use of mobile technologies on the achievement levels of fifth-grade general education students and students with learning disabilities.

“The investigation focuses on the educational impact on reading and writing … through innovative applications of iPod Touch media players performing a variety of different tasks relevant to reading and writing in the classroom,” reads the research project’s abstract. “Using affordable mobile technology with an online teacher-managed learning space provides individualized instruction and fosters independent learning conducive to improved learning outcomes.”

Alternative Computer Interface

Andrew Junker, founder of Brain Actuated Technologies, and researcher John Flach, professor and chair of psychology at Wright State University, are collaborating on the project “Look Mom, No Hands: The NIA [Neural Impulse Actuator] as an Alternative Computer Interface.” The NIA measures electrical potential at the forehead and filters it to create separate “brain fingers” or “actuators” for different frequency bands. The actuators then can be mapped to computer functions as key presses or cursor movement.

“The goal of our research is to provide an alternative input mode for people who, due to motor limitations, cannot use standard computer input devices,” the group states in an abstract of the research. “The focus of the development work would be to enhance some of the capabilities of the NIA software.”

Non-visual Browser

Jeffrey Bigham, a graduate student at the University of Washington, is working with Tessa Lau, Jeffrey Nichols, and Jalal Mahmud with IBM Almaden Research Center to study the effectiveness of the WebAnywhere non-visual web browser, as well as the TrailBlazer browser extension.

“The web is an increasingly vital part of education, but disabled students are at a disadvantage. Software that provides access to the web [for visually impaired users] is not available on most computers and can be difficult to learn how to use,” reads the research abstract. “The proposed research will evaluate the effectiveness of two tools designed to address these problems.”

Assistive Spell Checker

Yael Karov Zangvil, chief executive officer and chief scientist at Ginger Software, and researcher Olga Jerman with the Frostig Center will be looking at the accuracy of spell checkers designed for persons with learning disabilities, and dyslexia in particular. Zangvil and Jerman will investigate to see if the software is effective and accurate in identifying the spelling errors made by people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

The annual “Technology in the Works” competition evaluates the effectiveness of innovative and promising assistive technology tools over a six-month span to provide the field with information about what developments are working.

The grant program “is uniquely designed to bring people together to ask these questions,” Pugliese said.

Work on the five projects began in May.

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NCTI Technology in the Works award winners