Finding the right assistive technology (AT) to help students with special needs can be a daunting task — but two leading AT trainers say the simplest tools often are best.
During an Oct. 21 webinar hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), titled “The Building Blocks of a Successful Assistive Technology Team,” Sally Norton-Darr and Chris Bugaj, both AT trainers for Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools, offered their expert advice on how to evaluate assistive technology products for use in schools.
The good news for educators: Their most commonly recommended solutions are technologies that already can be found in most classrooms.
The pair said their experience with AT training started 10 years ago, when an “AT team” was a just a volunteer assignment.
“If you wanted to know more about AT and … find a way of implementing helpful strategies and tools, it was on a volunteer basis,” explained Bugaj, who also hosts the “A.T.TIPScast”–a podcast covering the implementation of assistive technology in public schools.
As awareness of AT’s importance in helping special-needs students grew, and procedures became less haphazard, Loudoun County recruited two full-time AT team members, as well as three part-time members.
Bugaj said the team’s “every goal, every action,” revolves around a special-needs student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). “Basically, the AT team exists because of the IEP,” Bugaj said.
As the team evolved, it tackled challenges such as how to develop AT evaluations, how to handle staff development, and how to keep an inventory of available AT products in the district.
Evaluations, team members decided, should be IEP-based. The team also uses the SETT (Student/Environment/Tasks/Tools) Framework to guide its evaluations. The SETT Framwork is a guideline for gathering data in order to make effective AT decisions. It considers first, the student, then the environment and the tasks required for active participation in the learning activities, and finally, the tools needed for the student to complete those tasks.
Once these elements are defined, team members can begin to conduct IEP-focused evaluations for individual students. In doing these evaluations, however, Bugaj and Norton-Darr began to notice that many of the recommendations they were making for teachers and students were similar across the county.
“We noticed that, not only were a lot of our recommendations similar, but 90 percent of the time the suggestions we gave for help could already be found in the classroom,” said Norton-Darr. “The problem was that educators just didn’t know [the technology] was there.”
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