When asked to name the three biggest challenges of using assistive technologies in the classroom, Tracy Gray of the American Institutes for Research is unequivocal in her answer. “Professional development, professional development and professional development,” she says. “I can’t stress it enough.”
To equip teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to effectively integrate these tools into their curriculum, educators recommend the following best practices.
The occasional training session isn’t enough, says Karen Heilbronner, director of secondary special education for California’s San Ramon Valley Unified School District. Her district offers group and individual training to teachers and special education support staff year-round. (Check out the district’s extensive library of assistive technology resources for teachers.)
Training can occur online, in-person or across district boundaries, Gray says, but teachers and resource personnel will excel if they have access to a community of practice to share ideas and learn from peers what works — and what doesn’t.
Even a modicum of online research will reveal a wealth of resources — including lesson plans, templates, digital reading materials, and visual and audio supplements — that can help teachers incorporate assistive technologies and applications into classroom learning.
Like all Millennials, special-needs students are digital natives, says Diane Moog, a teacher at the Montana School for the Deaf & Blind in Great Falls, Mont. Give them opportunities to play with, explore and demonstrate what these new devices can do, she says, and “chances are, they’ll figure out and show you things you’d never figure out on your own.”
Teachers and support staff need to be trained to recognize that technology is a tool, not a panacea. “Whatever technology you choose to use and however you choose to use it, make sure it has a purpose and that it truly meets the students’ unique needs,” says Robin Lowell, a math teacher for the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash.
For more information on how assistive technology is helping teachers and special-needs students, read our feature story "How Technology Is Helping Special-Needs Students Excel."