New assistive technology research focuses on iPad, communication skills


Most of the projects for 2010 dealt with communication skills.
Most of the grant-winning projects for 2010 deal with improving students' communication skills.


In what might result in great new strides for assistive technology, the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) has announced the winners of its “Tech in the Works 2010” competition, which funds innovative projects that pair researchers with industry vendors to improve educational outcomes for all students—and especially those with special needs.

NCTI will award $20,000 to each of four researcher-developer teams this year. Each winning team has pledged to match this amount to facilitate its research project.

“Tech in the Works,” which began in 2005, promotes collaborative research in developing innovative and emerging assistive technologies. Funding for the competition is provided by NCTI’s own grant money, which comes from the federal Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

“The key part of this program is collaboration,” said Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, deputy director of NCTI. “What’s crucial to getting these projects from the lab to the people who need it most … is the partnership between researchers and vendors.”

The four winners this year are:

1. “Touching Lives and Creating Abilities: Social and Communication Skills with the iPad.” Researchers Scott Renner and Margaret Flores of Auburn University have partnered with PUSH Product Design to improve the social and communication skills of young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) using Apple’s iPad.

Taking advantage of the iPad’s large touch screen, PUSH will develop communication software and podcasts designed for the device. The communication software will target children’s communication skills, and the podcasts will target their social skills. The podcasts will display social story interventions using words, pictures, audio, and video. Once the software and podcasts are developed for the Apple iPad, Auburn University’s Assistive Technology department will assess their impact on children’s social and communication skills.

According to Renner, who heard about the contest through his university, the competition’s goal of using collaborative research to improve educational results for all students fit perfectly with the university’s new Center for Disability Research and Services.

“Being an individual with a disability, and knowing how assistive technology and other types of technology have improved my quality of life, furthers my passion to conduct research in this field,” said Renner. He said it would take about five months to collect, analyze, and compile the data into a comprehensive research report, but the development of the new software and the social stories will begin immediately and will be ready for implementation this summer. The final report will be completed by January 2011.

2. “Efficacy of the GoTalk Express 32 for Increasing Communication.” Researchers Susan M. Bashinski, Melissa Darrow Engleman, and Alana Zambone of East Carolina University have partnered with Attainment Company to examine the effect of Attainment Company’s newly developed GoTalk Express 32, a voice output communication device, on the communication rates of individual learners who have disabilities.

GoTalks are battery powered augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) devices used by people who can’t communicate well by speaking. Another person (a teacher, classmate, sibling, or friend, for example) records messages the user likely will need, and these are linked with an overlay of pictures, words, or symbols that help the user remember where to find these messages. Users can “talk” simply by pressing on a picture to play a message, allowing them—maybe for the first time—to communicate quickly and easily just by pressing a button. The Express 32 has the added ability to play multiple messages in sequence.

Bashinski, whom Attainment contacted for the competition, said her research has “consistently focused on issues associated with, and strategies for improving, the nonsymbolic and symbolic communication skills of learners who experience multiple disabilities, including deaf-blindness. One of Attainment Company’s primary foci is the development of materials for effective instruction with learners who experience intellectual disabilities; this is a perfect match with the population of learners with whom I conduct research. Nearly all participants in all of my studies do have some degree of intellectual disability.”

Bashinski said research will start immediately.

“I believe, in my soul, that all learners do communicate, and that all learners’ communication skills can be improved,” said Bashinski. “The onus is on us, as their families, friends, and educational team members to make this happen.”

Meris Stansbury

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