Technology in education has changed the trend of teaching as well as learning. In this context as observed by Russell and Haney (1997) with the increase in the number of students in schools and colleges working with spreadsheets and word processors the traditional methods of evaluating their work using paper and pencil may lack the ability to measure the extent of the learning of the students. Such methods of assessment have made these things of the past. A similar situation is witnessed in the case of meeting the needs of students needing special education, with the increased role of assistive technology in facilitating students with learning difficulties to perform better.
Educators and experts think that it is important to make use of the potential of technology to create a community of learners by (i) opening the classrooms as a place that provide more communication opportunities (ii) encouraging more teacher-student and student-student interactions (iii) bringing more resources into the classroom for the use of students, (iv) creating opportunities for the creation of multidisciplinary and long-term projects which are complex and challenging and (v) giving the students more opportunities enabling them to explore multiple ways of discovering, creating and communicating information in various formats and ways. Students requiring special education because of their learing difficulties look for assistive technology more than normal learners do. Therefore, the above statements about normal learners equally apply to learners with special needs.
Technology in education, especially in the form of computers and computer-related peripherals, has grown larger and they have intruded into all the areas of human life. With this development, the internet is becoming an increasingly important tool in information and communication technology. This has changed how the teaching profession is performed also. There has been an increase in the expectations of the teachers in the following respects:
- The students who live in the information age are exposed to a large volume of information, which they are expected to access, evaluate, analyze, and synthesize. Teachers are expected to assist them in all these areas
- Teachers are expected to impart knowledge to the students to solve complex problems which may sometimes fall out of the scope of the knowledge and skills of the teachers
- Teachers are also expected to cater to the varying needs of the aspiring students to enable them to use their potential to the maximum extent
It is possible by technology to assist the teachers to meet some of these expectations and make the teachers more resourceful. Several past studies have examined the role of assistive technology in meeting special education needs (Edyburn, 2006). These studies reveal that such technology has been found to play a significant role in special needs education. The role that technology could play in the education of students with disabilities needs a focus on the perceptions and awareness of the teachers, which is the central focus of this review.
Need for Technology in Education
With the rapid changes in technology, the world is becoming more and more complex each year, with the necessity for both the students and teachers to learn the use of sophisticated education tools in their teaching and learning process. This enhances the educational needs and the demand on the teachers to shift their focus from mere teaching to acquire newer skills to teach and prepare students to meet many challenges of education in different areas. This presupposes the ability of the teacher to muster the new technologies that can be used in the educational field to improve his ability in teaching.
As far as the students are concerned technology provides a large quantum of information, which the student can assimilate to derive the maximum benefits of his/her potential capabilities. A fitting example in this direction is the various search engines available on the internet, which provide voluminous information that is more than required by the students on any subject. The statistical reports of the National Center for Education pointed out that the poor schools and the wealthier schools access to the internet in the same proportions (Fox 2005), which shows the increased role of technology in education. Technology thus has been inducted into the schools which have become a continuous and necessary process that cannot be stopped (Fox 2005). Teachers have begun to use the internet as an important tool in their teaching function.
Hitchcock & Stahl (2003) enumerate the emergent approaches to using technology to improve the learning of the students. According to Hitchcock & Stahl (2003), these approaches include using technology(a) as a tool to enhance productivity, engagement, and performance;
- for research, organization, collaboration, and expression;
- to improve access, participation and progress;
- for discovery and to act upon accessible content to expose patterns and meaning; and
- to transform flexible content to preferred media” (Hitchcock & Stahl (2003).
All the above approaches will result in improved contact with technology, greater partaking of the students in the process of education, and progress in the common education system.
However, there are some opposite views about the growth and use of technology in schools. For example, Oppenhimer (2003) argue that placing computers in schools is a wasteful exercise. Other critics opine that schools should not use computers for a variety of reasons ranging from the fear that it will lead to the social isolation of students and is likely to prevent the students from earning the critical basic skills.
Factors affecting Technology in Education
Several reasons have been attributed by educational institutions by way of arguments against using technology in schools. The use of some aspect of technology may provide additional value to education. Some other aspects may distract the attention of the students affecting their focus on studies. There are so many other variables, which need to be addressed in the context of education and technology that cannot be treated in isolation is as far as education is concerned. The schools and educational institutions often face problems in the use of technology and as a result, they will be subjected to the criticisms of the students. Both the educators and students did not have any anticipations about the use of technology in education. Whatever views they are holding are to be considered unclear and inconsistent.
According to Fulton (1998), the following are some of the factors that need to be taken into account while using technology in education. Since there is rapid development in the technologies continuously, new applications appear offering improved avenues in teaching and learning. With poor classroom settings, educational technologies cannot be expected to offer their optimum use as such poor classroom settings may not offer the essential conditions for their use.” Research findings and results are often inappropriately generalized across grade levels, students, subject matter, types of technologies, and applications. The teacher is a key variable in technology implementation and effectiveness” (Valdez, 2005). The impact of technology on the teachers and their teaching practices should be treated as important as the effect on the students, especially in the case of students having learning difficulties and expecting to improve their learning through the use of assistive technology.
Perceptions of Students about Use of Technology
The students have found several uses for technology especially the internet in their lives and their schoolwork. “The Pew Internet and American Life project (Levin & Arafeh, 2002) found that teenagers use the Internet extensively. About 17 million students, ages 12-17, use the Internet to finding information for school research; that number represents 94 percent of the youth in that age bracket” (Valdez, 2005). As reported by this study the students had affirmed the positive use of computers and related peripherals including the internet in completing their schoolwork.
Levin & Arafeh (2002) are of the view that technology aids the students to complete their schoolwork more quickly than they were doing it earlier. The students are less baffled by materials, which they cannot comprehend as they can always resort to the internet to get their doubts clarified. The projects and papers being attended to by the students are more likely to draw upon the latest available sources and they use state-of-the-art knowledge, which will make them more informative and meaningful. The students can make better use of the internet in attending to both school assignments as well as extracurricular activities.
Despite the distinct advantages the students derive from technology, it is a fact that the students have different perceptions about the in-school use of technology (Levin & Arafeh 2002). This perception depends on the operation of so many factors. One of the perceptions the students have is about the knowledge of the teacher on any particular subject. Students think that the teachers may suffer from insufficient knowledge as the students keep their knowledge up to date by using technology (Levin & Arafeh 2002).
“Another factor students revealed is their disappointment in the lack of quality access and presence of excessive filtering systems that prevent them from accessing significant sites, especially those related to medical topics” (Valdez, 2005). One more concern of the students that was highlighted in a study is that the internet-related assignments given to them were of poor quality (Levin & Arafeh 2002).
Special Educational Needs – an Overview
Inclusive education has increasingly been an issue of debate concerning the development of educational policy and practices in all countries throughout the world (Farrell and Ainscow, 2002). As a part of these debates and discussions, the education of children with special needs and disabilities has gained momentum and in fact, special needs education has been made a policy objective in many of the countries (Lindsay, 2007). In the field of special education needs, Smith et al (1998) define educational adaptation as “changes in the manner in which students are taught … they include changes in instructions, assignments, homework, and testing.” We can include the assistive technologies within the concept of educational support included in this broad definition of adaptation.
Bryant and Bryant (2003) have highlighted the important role of assistive technology in bettering the education and lives of individuals with disabilities, by focusing on aspects of independence and academics. Assistive technology, which helps students with disabilities, can be considered as a means of providing independent living to such students, which is otherwise possible without the use of technology. According to Hasselbring and Glaser (2000), assistive technology “can enable even those students with severe disabilities to become active learners in the classroom alongside their peers who do not have disabilities,” (p. 102). It is to be noted that many assistive technologies are computer-based necessitating access to computers. To understand the enhanced role of assistive technology in educating students with special needs, it is important to have an overview of the special educational needs.
The concept of special education has been particularly problematic given the elusive nature of the concept and assumptions and practices relating to special education. In the context of the United States, special education covers “specially designed instruction … to meet the needs of a child with a disability (USDOE, 1999). There are 13 disabilities covered by the legislation covering special education. In the context of the United Kingdom, the focus of special education is on meeting the special educational needs. There is the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, enacted by the government, which encompasses a somewhat vague definition of special education needs. The Code of Practice does not prescribe any specific categories of children having special education needs. However, the Code recognizes that “each child is unique and that there is a wide spectrum of special educational needs, which remain inter-related, although there are also specific needs that usually relate directly to a particular type of impairment,” (UK Government). The code has recognized the areas of need to include “communication and interaction, cognition and learning, behavior, emotional and social development, sensory and/or physical” (DfES, 2001, p 85).
Special Education Needs in the United Arab Emirates
Although the problem of children with learning difficulties does exist in the context of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), psychological research on the learning difficulties of UAE children is rare. However, there are other studies, which focused on the efficacy of the special education placement of students with a learning disability. Some other studies focused on the effectiveness of teaching by special education teachers and a few others on coping with stress among parents of children, who are mentally retarded.
“Also, no effort has been devoted to the identification, prevention, and intervention of childhood emotional and behavioral disorders primarily because of the absence of the screening procedures as well as the unavailability of the empirically-based assessment instruments in the UAE public school system. Consequently, there is no information available that can provide insight into the broad spectrum of competencies, adaptive functioning and problems of children with LD in the United Arab Emirates or on the causes and correlates (e.g., classroom environment) that may have influenced them” (Khamis, 2009).
The Special Needs Education Abu Dhabi, Dubai, UAE Web page recognizes “children and adults with Autism, ADD, Downs Syndrome, and other mental and physical disabilities and handicaps,” (Dubai FAQs Information Guide, 2011, as persons having learning disabilities. There is no categorization of learning difficulties in the UAE settings. However, UAE Federal Law 29 of 2006 prohibits schools in the UAE from refusing admission to “a child deemed as having learning difficulties or special needs (SN),” (Dubai FAQs Information Guide, 2011).
Definition of Learning Difficulties
This review recognizes that there is no precise definition of the term learning difficulties evolved in the literature and there is no consensus among the scholars on identifying the learning difficulties precisely. Scholars and academicians in the field have focused on evolving a consensus on the definition of the term so that the definition would cover the scope of the learning difficulties of students extensively (e.g. Kavale & Forness, 2003; Scruggs and Mastropieri, 2002). There is an increase in the ambiguity of the meaning and scope of learning difficulties in literature, with the application of several terms when describing the issues connected with the problems associated with literacy and numeracy learning of students. There are different terms like “students with learning difficulties, learning disabilities, special needs, reading disabilities, or dyslexia ad students at educational risk”, which are applied to denote the learning difficulties of students. In this context, Gale (2000) remarked
Although there have been thousands of studies concerned with learning disabilities, particularly focused on primary and secondary education, what the literature generally shows is that researchers are no nearer to a common understanding of what is meant by such terms (p.130)
Kirk (1962) provided the first formal definition of learning difficulties.
A learning difficulty refers to retardation, disorder, or delayed development in one or more of the processes of speech, language, reading, writing, arithmetic, or other school subjects resulting from a psychological handicap caused by a possible cerebral dysfunction and/or emotional or behavior disturbances. It is not the result of mental retardation, sense of deprivation, or cultural and instructional factors (Kavale & Forness, 2000, p. 5)
While the disagreements on the definition of learning difficulty persisted, there are some definitional issues, where the practitioners have reached a consensus. “Points of the definitional agreement include that learning disabilities impact spoken language, academic, and thinking disorders, is present throughout life, is not a result of other conditions, involves psychological process disorders, appears to result from the central nervous system, and is marked by underachievement. One of the identifying factors of a learning disability is a difference between achievement and intellectual ability (Bigelow, 2008). The definition of learning difficulty adopted by the Federal government of the United States included the condition that there must be a “severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability” (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2006, p. 173).
Klassen (2002) found differences in the definition of the term in the literature review, which made a comparative analysis ambiguous. Therefore, it becomes necessary that there must be attempts taken to synthesize the previous research in the field with caution. Farrell (1997) identifies the heterogeneous nature of learning difficulties as one of the reasons for the problem with terminology and definition of learning difficulties. Farrell (1997) notes
“By their very nature, pupils’ difficulties in learning and behavior are complex. Each child is an individual whose pattern of difficulties is unique. To lump children with similar problems into one category may imply that they should all be taught the same curriculum, in the same way, and the same place. The reality is of course quite different. Two children labeled as having specific learning difficulties may require the different provision and separate teaching programs,” (Farrell 1997, p.2).
The studies selected for this review reflect the heterogeneity of the field.
Kavle and Forness (2000) observed that although there have been numerous definitions proposed by various scholars none of them has been received with favor. However, in the context of current American research in the field, the definition provided in the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA) be the most frequently employed. This definition is reproduced below.
“The term ‘specific learning disability’ means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written which may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, speak, write, spell or do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perpetual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”(IDEA Amendments of 1997, PL 105-117 quoted in Purdie and Ellis, 2005)
Although the above definition is used as the basis for funding of school programs in the United States, the exclusion of external causes such as environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage has generally been considered as problematic (Elkins, 2002; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2001).
Definition of Assistive Technology
According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 1990, an assistive technology device is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, off-the-shelf, modified, or customized that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities” (IDEA, 1990). Assistive technology encompasses a wide range of devices. According to Day and Edwards (1996), the learning environment, which includes assistive technology, assists the achievement of individual productivity and it is more accessible. The devices are available from a low-tech level to a high-tech level. “Low-tech devices are simpler and include Velcro fasteners and furniture adaptations.
High-tech items include computers and interactive multimedia systems,” (Blackhurst, 1997, quoted in Bigelow, 2008). “While there is numerous assistive technology available, Hallahan and Kauffman (2006) argued that the ones that are most effective are the ones that have been created with a universal learning design,” (Bigelow, 2008). Devices or systems can be said to be created with universal design when they allow access to as many people in the population targeted by them as possible. Hallahan and Kauffman have defined the term universal design as “the design of new instructional programs to make them usable by the widest possible population of potential users” (p. 551).
The main objective of assistive technology is to enable students to achieve independence. Assistive technology works to provide a volume of opportunities for all primary and secondary school children. “Assistive technology allows students to reread text without waiting for someone, to increase self-determination and to provide a model for self-actuated learning” (Bigelow, 2008). With increased knowledge in assistive technology, teachers can help students in their special needs and make them perform higher-level learning tasks independently and they can provide cognitive assistance for all learners in need of assistance. Nelson (2006) observes the use of assistive technology in creating different experiences for the students. It is critical to acquire knowledge of how assistive technology can be implemented (Edyburn, 2006).
Types of Learning Difficulties
Learning difficulties and other developmental difficulties found among school-going children are to be considered as social events with their impact on the social system. The learning difficulty of children has significant social and emotional problems, as children with such difficulty may face rejection by peers, which might undermine their confidence. Learning difficulties arise because of a difference in brain structure. The student might have this variation in the formation of the brain since birth or in most cases; it may be genetic. This defect affects how the brain processes information and this processing is the most important element in learning. Learning difficulties may create problems for the student in completing the tasks in his studies.
There are various types of learning difficulties and they affect people differently. Learning difficulties affect the ability of a person to complete work. Learning difficulties cannot be equated with mental or physical disabilities “such as mental retardation, deafness or blindness.” Nevertheless, people may suffer from learning difficulties because of mental or physical difficulties. It is not possible to identify children with learning difficulties based on acuity (such as vision or hearing) or other physical signs. Similarly, such children cannot be diagnosed solely based on neurological findings. Learning difficulties have been considered as variations in normal development. They are regarded as difficulties only in cases where they affect the academic performance of the students greatly.
Learning difficulties thus are “neurologically-based processing problems”. These processing problems will have a significant impact on the learning abilities of the individual and might interfere with higher levels of skill such as “organization, time planning, and abstract reasoning.” The following descriptions of learning disabilities have been the finding of Minnesota State University. Because of the information content of the learning difficulties, the information furnished by the University is reproduced in this review to enhance the knowledge of learning difficulties.
Types of learning difficulties can be classified based on the specific processing problem faced by the individual. “They might relate to getting information to the brain (Input), making sense of this information (Organization), storing and later reviewing this information (Memory) or getting this information back out (Output),” (Minnesota State University, 2005).
The brain receives information primarily through the eyes and ears. While eyes provide visual perception, ears provide auditory perception. A student might have problems with both visual and auditory perceptions, which would have an impact on his/her learning abilities and hence it becomes a learning disability requiring special needs education.
Auditory Perception (or Receptive Language)
There may be a problem with an individual to distinguish between subtle differences in sound (known as “phonemes”). The person may face problems in distinguishing the individual phonemes in a normal way. Either of the problems is likely to prevent the person from understanding and processing what is said to him. Further, an individual may face the problem of auditory figure-ground. This implies that the person would have a problem in identifying the particular sound(s) that he/she should listen to under a circumstance, where there is more than one sound heard by him/her. This difficulty is termed as “Auditory Dyslexia”. “Those who suffer from auditory dyslexia are unable to distinguish spoken sentences (Minnesota State University,
When a person has difficulty in differentiating between subtle differences in shapes (known as “graphemes”), the person can be said to have problems with his/her visual perception. The person might perform the peculiar action of rotating or reversing letters or numbers (such as d, b, p, q, 6, 9) and this might result in his/her misreading the symbol or information. An individual might encounter the problem of getting confused on which figure(s) to be focused on a page he/she is looking at which has many words/lines. This is called a “figure-ground” problem. This problem might result in the person skipping sentences or repeating the words.
For some people, there might be a problem in blending the information as seen by both the eyes, which prevents the person to have depth perception. This might result in the person misjudging depth or distance and as a result, might bump into things. They may also find it difficult to perform tasks, where it is necessary to have information to tell the body or hands the actions to be performed. “Visual Dyslexia” is a common problem associated with visual perception. A person having this problem may have difficulty in coordinating the eye and hand. He/she is said to lack visual-motor skills. There might be problems in catching or picking a thing. “This common problem is the result of being unable to correctly understand the information received through the eyes. For instance, a person with this dysfunction may not be able to pick out a pencil from several other objects. Similar letters and words may also be confused” (Troublewidth, 2009).
When the brain receives information, it has to perform three operations to make sense of the information or to integrate it. The first function is to place the information perfectly to retrieve the information when required – “sequencing”. Secondly, the brain has to understand the information beyond its literal meaning, which act is known as “abstraction”. As a final step, the information needs to be compiled into coherent ideas to enhance the understanding of thoughts – “organization”.
A person might find it difficult to understand the words based on the correct order. For instance, a student with this difficulty might get mathematics sequences wrong. He/she may have difficulty in retrieving sequential information. The student may be capable of preparing a report with all the relevant and important information but might not have the ability to place the information in the proper order.
A person might suffer from a disability to understand phrases or ideas. This will prevent him/her from conversing fluently. The person might face the problem of understanding the words, which might have various interpretations, based on the context in which the words are used. For example, the person suffering from this disability may not understand between the phrases referring to two things contextually.
A student might have difficulties in organizing things. He/she might have the problem of losing or forgetting things and such problems might result in misplacing papers. The student may also misplace his/her personal belongings. The person might have problems in arranging his/her place of stay. There might be problems in organizing time, with the result that they might not be able to complete a project on schedule.
When it comes to the memory of the brain, there are three memory functions be critical in the process of learning. “Working memory” is the capacity of a person to keep in store the different ideas told to him piecemeal until such time the individual ideas are merged into a full idea. Next is “short-term memory”. This is an active process, which involves storing and retaining information. In this process, the ideas are kept in memory only for a short time. During the process, the brain retains the information temporarily and makes it available when needed. However, at this stage, the information is not stored for retaining it for the long-term. The final function is the “long-term memory”. This function involves storing the information for a long time so that such information is available for retrieval when needed. In this context, a person might be facing difficulties in retaining memories of sound and vision.
When a person starts reading a sentence, he/she remembers it to proceed to read the subsequent sentences. At the point of time, when the person completes reading the paragraph, the person is expected to comprehend the meaning of the complete paragraph. This is the function of “working memory”. The person completes reading the chapter paragraph after paragraph and completes studying it. In this case, information is retained until such time; the person takes a test on the chapter and does well. This is the function of “short-term memory”. However, there will be problems in retaining the ideas longer, unless the person reviews and studies the ideas for an extended period.
Normally people communicate ideas through the exchange of expressions (language output) or by engaging in showing gestures. The person may write, draw, or gesture to convey the ideas. This is known as motor output. In this respect, a person might face difficulty in learning because of the inability to express. This is also known as a motor disability.
A person should have the ability to talk spontaneously or he/she might only talk when he/she is asked to talk. Under spontaneous output, the person involved starts to talk on his/her own. The person organizes his/her thoughts and words, which he/she searches for and finds before initiating the conversation. Conversely, under demand language, a person speaks, when he/she is asked to speak. This forces the person to organize his/her thoughts to search and find the right words, and at the same time, the person has to start conversing with the opponent. Individuals who suffer from language disability might not face a big problem to converse on his/her own. However, when he/she is asked to do so the person might find it difficult to arrange his/her thoughts or to find the proper expressions to bring out what he is thinking.
The learning difficulty may arise when a person finds it difficult to coordinate small parts of the body, which is known as “fine motor disability”. There might be a “gross motor disability”, which is a problem to coordinate large parts of the body. This would prevent the person from running or jumping.
“Each individual will have his or her unique pattern of LD. This pattern might cluster around specific common difficulties. For example, the pattern might primarily reflect a problem with language processing: auditory perception, auditory sequencing/abstraction/organization, auditory memory, and a language disability. Or the problem might be more in the visual input to motor output areas. Some people with LD will have a mixture of both,” (Minnesota State University, 2005).
A person is regarded as deaf when he has a hearing disability to such an extent that he/she cannot understand the speech merely by using his ears. In the case of such difficulty, even a hearing aid may not help the person with the learning difficulty to understand the speech. A person suffering from a hearing disability is subjected to significant hearing loss, which requires some special adaptations. However, a person can understand speech through auditory processes (Heward, 2001).
There is no precise definition of mental disability available in the literature. However, the definition provided by the US Census Bureau (2010) is worth looking at. Mental disability is a “physical, mental or emotional condition that makes learning, remembering, or concentrating difficult.” According to the US Census Bureau (2010), physical disability is “a condition that substantially limits one or more basic physical activities like walking or climbing stairs.”
There are several factors, which go into consideration in arriving at the definition of the term physical disability.
Thus, learning difficulties is a comprehensive term, which encompasses a range of problems. These problems arise when the brain is not able to react to the information sent to it. There is some other impairment, which affects the mobility of the students that affect their learning ability. A physical disability is a condition that restricts one or more basic physical activities of an individual to a substantial extent, which has the effect of hindering the person from performing some of the daily tasks. There is another kind of impairment that might affect the learning ability of the students is mobility impairment.
“Mobility Impairment describes any difficulty which limits functions of moving in any of the limbs or fine motor abilities. Mobility Disabilities can stem from a wide range of causes and be permanent, intermittent, or temporary. The most common permanent disabilities are musculoskeletal impairments such as partial or total paralysis, amputation, spinal injury, arthritis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury. Additionally, conditions such as respiratory and cardiac diseases can impair mobility due to fatigue and reduced stamina. In the college environment, physical and mobility disabilities often require accommodations to allow students to function successfully in the classroom setting. The effects of physical/mobility disabilities can be visible or invisible” (Monroe County Community College, 2010).
Students having mobility impairment may have pain management issues. Most of the physical/mobility impairments are most likely to increase the time people have to spend in performing some of their life activities. Students may find it difficult to reach the classes within the time restraint of the schedules, waiting for elevators, or due to equipment difficulties.
Teacher Attitudes to Inclusion
There have been several studies conducted during the last several decades on the issue of teacher attitudes to inclusion. The findings of these studies confirm that the attitudes of teachers are one of the key variables in the success of inclusion initiatives (Hastings & Oakford, 2003). According to Avramidis et al (2000), teachers need to be accepting and commitment to the principles of inclusion for ensuring inclusion to be successful. A study by European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education (2003) conducted into the classroom practices in 15 European countries revealed that teachers must possess a genuine willingness to respond to individual needs, which only will create positive attitudes towards teaching students with special needs. “Where this willingness is not evident teachers are most likely to shift responsibility for the education of difficult or challenging students to others e.g. special education teachers or to resist making changes to their pedagogy.”
Studies have found a range of factors influencing the attitudes of teachers towards inclusion (Hastings & Oakford, 2003; Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1996; Soodak, Podell & Lehman, 1998). One of the most common findings is that the nature of the disability or special need strongly influences teacher attitudes. The findings of the study conducted by Scurggs & Mastropieri (1996) revealed that support for inclusion is dependent largely on the type of difficulty. The study found that teachers accommodate students with mild difficulty more as compared to those having severe disabilities. Avramidis et al. (2000a) found that the perceived competence of teachers to teach children with special needs was significantly affected by the severity of the needs of such children. A study by Hastings & Oakford (2003) produced similar results.
Use of Technology for Special Education Needs by Teachers
The use of technology in special needs education has been termed as “assistive technology”. Assistive technology includes the use of software and is a necessary condition for meeting the needs of special education. In this connection, the determination and evaluation of software use and developmental appropriateness for classroom education by the teachers have been a complex task. This has become more daunting when one considers the evolution of student-based curricula for meeting the special education needs. One of the major issues is that many of the teacher preparation programs do not contain the procedure for evaluation of software and its use with meeting the needs of special education students. The teachers must also be able to align software skills with the curriculum (Weber & Forgan, 2002). Teachers must understand how different software would be able to provide opportunities for students with disabilities to control the environments (Forgan, Schoon, Singler, & Weber, 1999). The teachers must identify proper technological measures, which will be able to stimulate the imagination of the special needs students and encourage them to interact with others. The special needs students must be able to use open-ended exploration to develop skills of higher-order (Weber & Schoon, 2001).
Role of Assistive Technology in Special Needs Education
Bryant and Bryant (2003) focused on the aspects of independence and academics while discussing the importance of assistive technology accommodations concerning the individual with learning difficulties. The objective of assistive technology for individuals with disabilities is to facilitate them to secure independent living, which is not possible without the use of such technology. Effective use of assistive technology within and outside the classroom would enable the students to achieve better performance and promote the feeling of connectedness to academic and social aspects of school (Scherer, 2004). According to Hasselbring and Glaser (2000), assistive technology “can enable even those students with severe difficulties to become active learners in the classroom alongside their peers who do not have disabilities,” (p. 120). Assistive technology has the position of being an important mode of accommodation in any academic setting focusing on students with learning difficulties. This is the main reason that assistive technology has been one of the prescriptions by several legislations over the years.
Despite the positive impact, technology has on educating special needs students, published studies found only less usage of technology by teachers (Roblyer, 2004). On the other hand, if there is technology is integrated the focus shifts to the use of the components of technology rather than teaching with the aid of technology across the curriculum. Nevertheless, integration of technology is a key enabler of imparting quality education and both appear to be inseparable. Pierson (2001) observes that when technology is integrated into teaching content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge of teachers become evident in the areas of defining, planning, strategizing, managing, and assessing students. However, there is the need to model and emphasize technological knowledge in teacher training programs so that teachers can understand its appropriate and successful application in classrooms (Ludlow, 2001; Martin, 2004; Martin & Crawford, 2004; Martin & Crawford, 2005).
Martin (2004) thinks that special education teachers would be able to make use of related technology competently when its selection and use is embedded in the coursework and field experience of such teachers. This discussion highlights the need for better training of teachers who teach people with special needs. Ludlow (2001) has identified the following issues associated with technology use and special education teacher programs.
- university faculty factors such as a lack of modeling of technology in courses;
- lack of technology implementation in activities and coursework;
- lack of expertise to develop complex technology-mediated instruction; and
- lack of technology integration in special education field experiences
In general, technology integration is one of the important tools, which contributes to providing quality education to students with and without disabilities, and therefore teachers must consider developing their skills and exposure to selection and use of appropriate technology while imparting education to students with special needs. A study by Mull and Sitligton (2003) found some issues connected with assistive technology that need close attention. The findings included (i) assistive technology can provide more individualized assistance to learners and they can measure the progress of the student at the same time, (ii) assistive technology devices are often proved expensive and funding sources for providing the technology to the needy are limited, (iii) it is important to use the assistive technology devices only for the intended purposes and they need to be maintained using the services of qualified and trained technicians (iv) proper training of both students and teachers are required to derive maximum advantage of the technology and (v) controversies are surrounding the eligibility for assistive technology for students with learning disabilities.
Thus, assistive technology has been found to play an important role in special education, because many students with disabilities have to be provided with special instructional treatment to overcome the impact of disabilities in learning. There are several assistive technology devices and software that has been designed to meet the purpose of special needs education. Use of such devices and software, when provided to the needy students with careful planning and guidance can provide substantial benefits to such children with disabilities (Duhaney & Duhaney, 2000).
Teachers providing special education have been entrusted with increased responsibilities for teaching students with physical, mental, and hearing disabilities. Teacher education programs have recognized the obligations and challenges of the teachers, providing special education and the programs provide appropriate solutions for the dilemmas the teachers face in the inclusive educational environment (Murry & Murry, 2000). However, researches show that despite the developments in the area of assistive technology that has resulted in the creation of a wide range of assistive tools, software, and techniques, teachers are not feeling confident in “choosing, using and matching assistive technology” for taking care of the special educational needs of students with disability.
Inclusion cannot happen just by the use of technology. There is a need for better teacher training programs to make them use technology and also, consistent support needs to be provided to the teachers. Earlier research has indicated the positive impact of assistive technology on the learning abilities of students (Kobler, 1991; Sivin-Kachala & Bialo, 1993). Studies reveal that how teachers adapt and make use of assistive technology will make a difference in the learning of the children; but not the technology itself can bring any improvement. The potential of effectiveness of assistive technology on students with disabilities will prove to be positive when there is adequate knowledge about the use of the technology both on the part of the trainer and on the part of the student (Merbler et al. 1999). There are four considerations involved in making effective use of assistive technology. They are:
(i) there must be an assessment of the student to know his/her capabilities and limitations, (ii) there must be adequate knowledge on what is available in assistive technology, (iii) knowledge on the “ease of use of a device, the learning curve for the user or bystander and the noise level of the device” and (iv) the assistive technology tool must be matched to the age, gender and preferences of the user so that there are acceptance and use (King, 1999).
A vast majority of the research has focused on the use of assistive technology in meeting the special education needs of students with disabilities. While some studies have focused on the provision of an inclusive classroom, some of the studies have examined separate disability categories. Proposed solutions for assistive technology were addressed by the study by Jackson, (2003) and faculty development and need assessment by Bryan et al (2002). However, the literature on a comprehensive view of some disability categories and information on assistive software is limited.
There are several studies, which have investigated different disabilities and the use of assistive technology for students with these disabilities. For example, Merinda (2001) summarized and analyzed the vast research literature on aided autism and assistive technology for students with autism. “Golden (1999) projected that assistive technology could be used with up to 35 percent of students with a health impairment or a learning impairment or cognitive disability; up to 75% of the students with autism or traumatic brain injury and up to 100% of students with physical or multiple difficulties, students who are deaf or hearing impaired and students who are blind or visually impaired” (Thompson et al, 2004).
Teachers could use assistive technology devices to improve these students’ academic and other performance. Assistive technology devices would also be beneficial in respect of 100% of the students “who are deaf or hearing impaired and students who are blind or visually impaired”. As observed by Friend & Cook, (2003), the consideration of assistive technology can be equated to the process of collaborative problem-solving. The process starts with the identification of the problem traversing to the stage of formulating solutions. This process is carried out using a brainstorming session ending with the selection and implementation of a solution. This process is usually an ongoing one involving few participants with the collaboration of special education and general education teachers collaborating to address a specific problem. This problem-solving session should result in the selection of the appropriate assistive technology device to be used.
“For example, it may be determined that specific devices, software or other materials (e.g. handheld spell checkers, software to support first-draft writing or portable keyboarding devices) are indeed needed by the students as compensatory technology. If identifying and selecting technology requires more time, information or expertise – or if it is too complex for the team to consider using a problem-solving process – then a more in-depth technology assessment is needed” (Thompson et al. 2004).
Assistive technology will provide greater benefits to hearing-impaired children, with many of the options available in the devices, which can help the students. The student using the device has to hear the “sound generation device” and the “device can be one of several things: a telephone, a computer, electronic audio device a television.” The voice of the speaker must also be audible. There are four different types of hardware, which facilitate the bridge between these devices and the ears of the hearing-impaired. They are (i) Coupling Devices, (ii) Sound Field System, (iii) Radio Aids, and (iv) Conversor.
The table exhibited in the Appendix shows some of the assistive technology devices and software available.
Assistive Technology and Universal Design for Learning
The role of technology for students with a disability has been associated with assistive technology in general. Relatively low-tech assistive technology in the form of canes, wheelchairs, and eyeglasses has been helping students with disabilities for a long time. On the other hand, high-tech assistive technology, which has made a tremendous impact on the learning ability of students is of recent origin within the last two decades (Behrmann & Schaff, 2001; Edyburn, 2002).
“These newer technologies include diverse items such as electronic mobility switches and alternative keyboards for individuals with physical disabilities, computer-screen enlargers and text-to-speech readers for individuals with visual disabilities, electronic sign-language dictionaries and signing avatars for individuals with hearing disabilities, and calculators and spellcheckers for individuals with learning disabilities” (Rose et al.)
Past research has proved the enormous power of computer-based assistive technologies to assist individuals with learning difficulties and facilitating them to overcome the barriers in participation and progress (Xin & Rieth, 2001).
In contrast to assistive technology, universal design is relatively a new approach in meeting special needs education. However, universal design is well established in architecture and other domains. Because of the newness of universal design, there is a lack of clarity about the scope and content of universal design in education. Similarly, there is a differentiation in the universal design approach from other approaches, which meets the educational needs of individual disabilities. For example, people are unable to comprehend the difference between assistive technology and universal design as it pertains to educational needs although both approaches depend largely on the support of modern technology for their efficiency (Hitchcock & Stahl, 2003). Universal design has the same goals as those of assistive technology in contributing to the progress of the students with disabilities.
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Table: Matching Assistive Technology to a Disability.
|Type of Disability||Objectives/Tasks||Devices||Applications|
|Reading||Electronic reading machine||WYNN |
L&H Kurzwell 3000
|Reading||Portable reading pens||Quickionary ReadingPen Scan-a-Word|
|Reading||Portable handheld dictionaries||Speaking Language Master |
The American Heritage Dictionary
|Reading||Instructional software||My Reading Coach|
|Language Arts||Instructional software||Simon Sounds It Out|
|Writing||Word Cueing and Prediction Programs||Co-Writer|
|Writing||Speech Synthesis software||Write: Outloud Intellitalk II|
|Writing||Speech recognition software||Dragon Dictate |
|Writing||Spelling, grammar, and style checkers||Write This Way|
|Note-taking||Portable keyboards||Alphasmart 2000|
|Mathematics||Instructional software||Math for Everyday Living |
|Mathematics||Talking calculators||Radio Shack Talking Calculator|
|Auditory memory||Portable prompting devices||Mobile Digital Recorder|
|Visual||Reading||Video magnifiers||Aladdin Pro+ |
|Reading||Scanner/OCR systems||Reading Edge|
|Reading||Braille translation software||Duxbury Braille Translator |
|Computer access||Screen magnification software||Vista PC1 |
|Mobility||Low-tech aids||Long cane|
|Listening||Electronic aids||Mowat Sensor |
|Hearing||Listening||Assistive listening devices||Hearing aids |
Personal FM Educational System
|Communication||Augmentative communication||Dedicated AAC||DynaVox3100 |
|Speech||Speech training software||Speech Viewer III|
|Physical||Seating and positioning||Forms and cushions||TumbleForms |
|Mobility||Powered wheelchairs||Action Storm |
|Environmental control||Environment control units||PowerLink 3 |
|Activities of daily living||Low-tech devices||Various reaches and grippers|
|Computer access||Keyboard modification||Accessibility Options Easy Access (Apple)|
|Computer access||Alternative pointing services||Headmater2000|