Making Better Technology Choices: Where Do We Begin?

by Cindy Richardson

School districts are struggling to embrace the 1997 amendments to IDEA which require IEP teams to consider the technology needs of all students for whom an IEP is written. It has become even more critical than ever that these teams make the types of decisions that will truly facilitate student success and independence.

Many of us have seen the results of poor technology decisions. The closets and shelves of our schools serve as painful reminders, housing discarded equipment that failed to meet our expectations. So what happened? How can we, as those to whom the process of "consideration" and "assessment" has been assigned, make choices that make a positive difference for our students? Often, an examination of past disappointments helps pinpoint one or more factors that, when approached differently, can make a tremendous difference in facilitating success. Ask yourself the following questions as you explore reasons why past choices might not have been successful:

  1. Were the needs of the student clearly established prior to, or at least during, the process of identifying a solution?

  2. Was more than one solution generated and/or more than one device tried?

  3. Was adequate time allotted to assess the student's ability to be successful with the solution/device?

  4. Was adequate training provided to the student, teacher, and other support personnel? Was training provided to the parents on how to reinforce and support the student's use of the device at home (assuming the device is used outside the classroom)?

  5. Were the student's preferences/input considered regarding the selected device?

  6. If problems arose regarding programming, repair, modifying the device to compensate for specific student needs, or ideas for integrating and supporting the student's use of the device across the curriculum or in other environments, were resources/personnel identified that could assist with these issues?

  7. Was adequate time available for planning, familiarization with the equipment/software, preparation of any adapted materials, or collaboration with other teachers/support personnel?

If you find yourself answering "no" to one or more of these questions, you may have identified a contributing factor to your dissatisfaction with the assistive technology process. The next time you or your team explore a student's need for technology, consider the following time-tested ideas echoed by a number of professionals in the field.

Before the process of considering technology is undertaken, identify how you would like technology to make a difference. A myriad solutions may be available to assist your student. Pinpointing the task(s) that he/she is currently unable to perform is usually helpful in guiding this process.

  1. Due to the uniqueness of each student and the manner in which he or she has been affected by a disability, solutions that work for one student do not always work for another. The more options that are explored, the more likely you will be to find one that will truly make a difference.

  2. Often success is not immediate. Remember that technology, like any other new idea or strategy, takes time and practice. Sometimes as many as four to six weeks are required before a solution begins to make a noticeable difference in the student's performance. However, if a problem does arise during this period, don't wait until the end of the trial to address it. These issues need to be addressed while the student is trying out the device or strategy, so that a fair assessment of its effectiveness can be made. Now is the time to voice your concerns and observations regarding any changes that need to be made to the equipment or for additional training in order to better support the student.

  3. Adequate training of all individuals who support the student is essential if we are to get an accurate assessment of how beneficial the technology could be. We should not expect a student to be successful or even comfortable with the technology or solution if we, ourselves, are not. Nor should we expect success if we cannot model how the device is to be used in given activities. Furthermore, once a solution is identified, training should be an ongoing activity that changes with the needs of the student and staff supporting the student.

  4. Failure to consider a student's input regarding a potential technology solution can be an instant formula for disaster. Not only can students provide invaluable information about the strengths and weaknesses of a potential solution, they may actually prefer a less obtrusive (and often less expensive) one. A student may refuse to use a device or never enjoy its intended benefits if by using it he or she feels even more ostracized or is seen as "different" by peers.

  5. Technology should never be just "dropped off" or dumped into a teacher's classroom without support staff in place to address issues that may arise. What happens if the technology fails, or if the teacher cannot remember how to assist the student in performing a given task? What if it becomes apparent that the student needs additional modifications made to the equipment in order to use it successfully? And finally, what if the teacher just needs some practical strategies for integrating the technology across the curriculum? Whether this resource is the T/TAC specialist who loaned the software/hardware or other IEP team members, classroom teachers should never feel they are alone during this process.

  6. Even though technology has become much more user-friendly, there are still a number of potentially powerful technological solutions that will require curricular modifications in order to provide students meaningful access to the curriculum. Ready-made templates should be available during the trial period, so that the teacher does not have this additional burden initially. If additional templates or adaptations are required during the course of the trial, the person(s) responsible for making these templates should be identified and/or the teacher and support staff should be shown time-saving short-cuts for materials preparation (again, training should be available once a selection has been made).

As described above, the process of assessment should not be thought of as a quick, one-time activity, nor should its success rely on the efforts of one person. The input and support of everyone who works with each student is critical if we desire to experience the impact that can be realized with technology. In Virginia, we are fortunate that the Department of Education has incorporated training, technical assistance, and a loan program through the T/TACs so that teachers and IEP teams are not alone as they consider the technology needs of the students they serve.

For more information on assistive technology for students with disabilities, please contact Cindy Richardson at [[cxric2]] or by calling 1-800-323-4489.

Date: February/March 2000