William and Mary School of Education

Using Technology to Bolster the Academic Success of Students with Disabilities

Only since the issuance of the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have educators been required to consider the need for assistive technology supports for every student for whom an IEP is written. Progressive school districts and educators have made a commitment to finding ways to support the learning needs and styles of their students. However, many educators as well as administrators have not yet witnessed the transforming power of technology when integrated with effective instruction. In the past, the only students who were seen as needing technology to access the curriculum were students whose disability limited most activities of daily living in addition to the curriculum. In considering technology supports for students with mild disabilities, this perception needs to change. Educators must recognize the potential of technology to increase academic success. Only then can they make the types of decisions that will give students the opportunities to achieve this success.

During this school year, we will examine technology supports that allow students with mild to moderate disabilities to access the curriculum in the least restrictive environment and how these tools can be used to help students reach new levels of academic success. T/TAC will also offer professional development opportunities in the form of in-depth presentations as well as lab opportunities for educators to allow them to become more familiar with materials through guided hands-on instruction. This article will explore technology supports for learning, studying, and organizing content, specifically the use of computer-based graphic organizing programs.

Computer-based Graphic Organizers

The success of graphic organizers as a teaching tool to assist students in grasping concepts has been widely documented. Graphic organizers allow the user to depict, organize, and relate information in a graphical or symbol-based format. Traditionally, this has been accomplished through the use of concept maps, a way of using symbols to represent, or make visible, concepts and their relationships. Originally constructed with pencil and paper, these maps were used as a tool to help students understand new concepts by showing a concept's relationship to the students' prior knowledge base. While its potential as a powerful learning strategy and assessment tool for identifying gaps in a student's knowledge base had become apparent, the process of refining these maps was often frustrating and quite messy until the advent of the electronic version of this instrument (Anderson-Inman, Ditson, & Ditson, 1998). Electronic mapping, as with a word processor, allows for easy manipulation of information and can support the unique learning styles and needs of all students, particularly students with learning difficulties. It is a comprehensive tool that can be used to support teaching new concepts as well as promoting academic success across the curriculum. Applications include information organization during note-taking, writing, and studying (Anderson-Inman, et al., 1998).

Using Computer-based Graphic Organizers with Students with Learning Difficulties

Many features inherent in computer-based graphic organizers contribute to their successful use by students with learning difficulties. Often students who struggle in reading, writing, and organizing information benefit significantly from the opportunity to see information depicted in a visual format and to actively manipulate this information. Some of the better graphic organizers also enable information to be constructed and depicted in a variety of formats, offer multiple strategies for completing a given task, and allow students to switch between formats as they are working with the material (Tenny, 1992).

Computer-based graphic organizers are one of the most effective ways not only to support meaningful learning, but also to foster independence and the development of critical thinking skills. This is accomplished through effective teacher modeling and instruction of strategies that integrate the use of computer-based graphic organizers within the curriculum.

To learn more about the computer-based graphic organizer Inspiration and instructional strategies that can be used to impact the academic success of students with disabilities, please refer to the workshop insert, containing workshops and professional development activities on this topic.


Anderson-Inman, L., Ditson, L., & Ditson, M.T. (1998). Computer-based concept mapping: Promoting meaningful learning in science for students with disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities [Online serial], 5(1-2). Available: www.rit.edu/~easi/itd/itdv05n1-2/article2.html.

Ellis, E.S. (1999). Using graphic organizers to water up the curriculum. Tuscaloosa, AL: Masterminds, LLC.

Tenny, J. (1992). Computer-supported study strategies for purple people. Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 8, 359-377.

Date: September/October 2000