Special Ed 2.0

As school districts face deep budget cuts, one service that sometimes ends up in the belt-tightening pile is special education. The need for small student-to-teacher ratios, plus assistants, can make some schools push harder for mainstreaming those students who may be able to function in a “regular” classroom. With some modifications and maybe a part-time in-class support specialist, they get folded into the academic track. This can be an opportunity for some students to shine, but others may get lost in the shuffle, especially with teachers who don’t have much of a background in special-needs instruction. I’ve watched too many teenagers graduate high school with a “D-” average and a minimum standards diploma. They have little to no practical job skills and nowhere near the academic preparation or study skills to move on to college. 

This is a disservice to students who could, with careful training, hold down some kind of employment or, with higher expectations from mainstream teachers, enter at least a specialized certificate program at a community college. 

Maybe one answer is Web 2.0. Some ideas…

  • Students with speech difficulties (or general reluctance to raise a hand) could use Twitter to offer real-time questions in a class discussion.
  • Students with illegible handwriting, often an issue for those on the autism spectrum who struggle with fine motor control, could use blogs for in-class reading journals. Additionally, sensory issues may be minimized by typing on an iPad or laptop with special keyboard. 
  • Students with ADHD or an autism disorder often forget their assignments, either at school or at home. They might have better success with something like GoogleDocs. They could work on a paper or math assignment on a computer in class, and everything would be saved and available later at the library or at home. If the student works in a teacher’s account, the teacher also can keep track of progress. A simple login can be shared with parents and tutors for the student who can’t remember those details.
  • Students who have physical limitations regarding writing or typing or those who struggle to verbalize their comprehension of a topic could record their answers to exam questions using podcast technology. Often the kid who can’t write more than a word on a test about primates can tell you, at length and in amazing detail, everything you’ve said about gorillas. Sometimes, the alternative assessments allowed by an IEP can seem too time-consuming for a teacher facing a crowded classroom–podcasts recorded during class time, perhaps in another room, can be reviewed at home along with all the other test materials.
  • Computers in general can help with multiple challenges: “computers enlarge fonts, translate to and from English, convert text to speech, correct mistakes, and help teachers individualize instruction. As one special education teacher said about a school’s laptop program, ‘It’s like an instructional assistant in my class’ ” (Zucker).
close up of a child's hand using an ipad in class

Available under a Creative Commons license from Brad Flickinger: http://www.flickr.com/photos/56155476@N08/6660127471/

Isn’t the goal of special education to make students into adults who are as independent as possible? Maybe targeted use of Web 2.0 technologies can make a student more self-reliant, more confident in his ability to succeed in class (or even a peer trainer in technology matters), and more likely to enjoy her time in school. An IEP that includes a $500 laptop loaded with all sorts of free software might just save a school money in the long run, too.

Works Cited

Zucker, Andrew J. “Transforming Schools with Technology.” Independent School Magazine. National Association of Independent Schools, Winter 2009. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. 

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