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Online services, Common Core tools, and robots are supporting special-ed instruction

special-edAdvances in educational technology make it possible for educators to tailor their instruction for students with special needs.

These technologies, including online speech therapy and platforms to align goals in a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) with Common Core objectives, make it easier for teachers to spend more one-on-one time with students who have special needs or require additional classroom accommodations.

Here’s a look at some of the newest special-education practices across the country.

(Next page: Special ed resources)

Overcoming geographical challenges

With declining local industry and challenging economic times, educators in Georgia’s Murray County schools knew they needed a way to connect students with speech therapists to prevent those students from falling behind their peers.

That’s when Allison Oxford, the district’s director of instructional support services, decided to pilot Presence Learning’s online speech therapy solution in select district schools.

“We’ve had difficulty finding qualified speech therapists,” Oxford said. “There aren’t a lot of young speech therapists looking to come make their homes in rural, impoverished Georgia.”

After the pilot proved successful, Oxford expanded it into all district elementary schools except for one, which already had a full-time speech therapist.

“These kids are digital natives, and this is the way they like to learn,” she said. “It removes the stigma of being called down to the speech room.”

Using an online platform has cut down on travel time and costs for district speech therapists, and it extends the time that each therapist, whether virtual or face-to-face, can spend working with students.

Critical to the program’s success was district-wide support. Oxford asked district speech therapists if they thought Presence Learning’s solution would meet the needs of students.

“Their support and understanding—that’s a huge piece of our success with it, that our speech therapists support it,” she said. “It’s not taking anyone’s jobs. That’s a big misconception, that it will replace speech therapists. It will never replace them; it really is an enhancement of the services we can offer to our students.”

The district also uses i-Ready Diagnostic from Curriculum Associates, an online diagnostic assessment that tracks student progress in relation to IEP goals and objectives and differentiates instruction accordingly. District educators analyze student progress and work samples each week and compare Common Core goals to IEP goals.

“If students don’t master skills or make progress on goals, my teachers have an immediate intervention plan to help that child meet that standard,” Oxford said. “It creates a nice way for us to have tangible products, especially for parents.”

Meeting Common Core goals

The transition to the Common Core States Standards hasn’t been easy for all districts, but some began revamping their curriculum offerings ahead of schedule in anticipation of the change.

For teachers at Everett Middle School in San Francisco, that meant reworking learning goals for students with special needs as well, said Jamie Stewart, the school’s Acceleration Coordinator.

(Next page: Robots for instruction)

Using Goalbook, a tool that enables teachers to personalize instruction for students through a blended approach, teachers are able to break down Common Core goals into IEP-ready objectives. The system makes it much easier to align the new standards with goals that already are outlined in a student’s IEP, Stewart said.

“I wish something like this had existed when I was a beginning teacher,” Stewart said. “General education teachers, especially … our new teachers, [also] are finding it really helpful, because many teachers in general are struggling with the Common Core transition.”

Robots for special education

More and more educators are finding that students with special needs respond well when interacting with robots. The NAO robot from Aldebaran Robotics has a sensor network that uses cameras for facial and object recognition, as well as microphones for voice commands and sound localization.

Teq, an ed-tech and professional development company, has formed a program called JumpStart NAO, which pairs its professional development services with the NAO robot to introduce students to STEM- and robotics-related fields.

But the robot also elicits an enthusiastic response from students with special needs, all of whom have different behaviors and learning goals that the robot helps to target through one-on-one or group interactions.

Part of NAO’s appeal is found in its design, said Joe Dixon, chief learning officer for Teq and a special-education teacher. “It’s humanoid in structure, and it has the ability to emote, but at the same time, students can be in control,” he said.

Aldebaran designed its ASK NAO program specifically for students with autism. Teachers create a “playlist” of tasks and goals for each student, and the robot is programmed to interact with that student, or with a group of students, and lead them through a series of interactions that pinpoint specific objectives. The interactions are captured and can be analyzed later.

Students also use NAO in unstructured ways, Dixon said, including free play or reading aloud to the robot.

“That’s the coolest thing about the robot—it’s really much more of a platform than a robot itself,” Dixon said. “You can create some really unique school ecosystems.”

Another social robot targeted to help students with autism comes from RoboKind, which has designed a robot with a human face. The robot uses CompuCompassion software to read an individual’s emotions and level of attentiveness, adjusting interactions accordingly to enable social engagement.

The company’s Robots4Autism program bridges academic success and developmental needs and is built for autism intervention. The robot, and a full curriculum for using it to teach students with autism, will be available toward the end of May.

The robot connects with a tablet computer, and the curriculum—designed by experts from the Collier Center at UT-Dallas and the Autism Treatment Center—includes 12 modules, containing about 50 video vignettes in all.

The curriculum is designed to help children with autism function in the real world. Its goals are to help students learn proper social behavior and to help students learn to react to emotional cues. The robot can simulate lifelike human facial expressions to help with this.

“These children need continuous repetition,” says Fred Margolin, founder and CEO of RoboKind. The robot can supply this repetition without showing anger or frustration.

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Laura Ascione

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