Use assistive technology to support the individual learning levels of all your students.
By Juliette “Cricket” Heinze
The flexibility of assistive tech makes it “cool” to all students, says William Schulte, Collier’s IT specialist.
Step into a classroom in Collier County (FL) Public Schools (CCPS), and you will find technological democracy in action—a third grader reading at a sixth-grade level and a special needs student wearing headphones and listening to a word problem read aloud by the computer. Whether students are struggling, high performing, or somewhere in between, they are using the same technology to push themselves to the next skill level. That’s partly because CCPS has discovered what has fast become a mantra in educational software circles: that assistive technology, designed for students with special needs, can be a universal learning tool to serve all.
It has taken CCPS four years to develop a classroom with the infrastructure and the resources to help all students succeed. Several departments in the district—exceptional student education, instructional technology (IT), English for speakers of other languages, and curriculum and instruction—merged funds and energies to retrofit every classroom with cutting-edge hardware and software.
William Schulte, Collier’s instructional technology specialist, and Randy Martins, the district’s assistive technology specialist, went on the hunt back in March 2003 to find
software, for a district-wide rollout, with which students could interact according to their specific needs. With help from a grant from Enhancing Education Through Technology (E2T2), the two began surveying a slew of products supporting Universal Design for Learning, which emphasizes the use of multiple approaches to meet the diverse needs of different types of learners. But the two also wanted something that could be maximized by all students. “It’s less of a stigma [for special education students to use] if all kids use it,” says Schulte. “If it’s ‘normal,’ it’s cool.”
Schulte and Martins came across WYNN, literacy support software from Freedom Scientific Learning Systems Group. WYNN is intended to aid students with reading and writing difficulties. But because the program can be used in conjunction with any piece of text uploaded from the Internet or scanned into a computer, Schulte and Martins saw its potential to support all students. Now all children in the district can manipulate text to assist their own comprehension through onscreen icons. They can opt to have a passage read to them aloud so they can hear it while reading it, and they can customize a piece of text by selecting different font sizes, margins, and spaces between letters, words, and sentences. If distracted by the graphics and formatting on a web site they’re reading, they can, with one click, switch from “exact view” to “text view,” which displays the text on its own.
When Schulte and Martins piloted the WYNN software in 17 third-grade classes across the district, they found that the assistive technology exceeded their hopes. Not only did the software benefit special education students and students struggling to reach proficiency, but it supported gifted students as well. That’s when the two specialists observed third-grade students using the software to read passages on the National Geographic web site that are written at a sixth- or seventh-grade level.
Following the pilot program, Schulte and Martins uploaded WYNN on the five or six computers in every classroom, as well as on all the machines in the computer lab, and began to train teachers. Currently, most teachers have a basic understanding of the software, and they use it to make the work they were already doing more efficient and effective. But now the district is pushing to make teachers experts through advanced training classes. As Schulte puts it, “We want to provide teachers with that aha moment when they see how actually manipulating the text can support nonreaders.”
In Beth Nelson’s hands, the computer lab has become the place for kids to learn how to teach themselves.
Beth Nelson, the instructional resource teacher at Laurel Oak Elementary School, received the advanced training in January. Afterward, she spent hours exploring the software on her own. She soon realized that although teachers have access to WYNN in their classrooms, few of them have time to dive in and learn how to use it with their students. To remedy this problem, Nelson turned to the students themselves. She began teaching them how to use WYNN during their computer lab time and hoped they would take their skills back to the classroom. “I see it as teaching themselves how to learn,” Nelson says.
Nelson also knows that fifth-grade teachers struggle to cover all of the content on which students will be tested on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). So as she teaches students how to use the software, she weaves in as much information from the curriculum as possible. For example, she asks fifth graders to complete a worksheet about ecosystems, which she has uploaded onto all of their computers. She advises the students to visit two web sites, where they will locate the information they need. She also explains that the content they will find is written above a fifth-grade reading level, as is the case with most web sites. The students, therefore, use WYNN to help them read and decipher the information.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
In Kimberly Gilbert’s fifth-grade inclusion classroom, Nelson’s plan is working. One-third of Gilbert’s students have some sort of learning disability, but you would be hard pressed to identify them as they move with the other students among centers during their language arts period. Three students at the computer center use the software’s features to listen to articles from the Time For Kids web site as they read. Two others manipulate word problems on the FCAT Explorer web site so they can comprehend them.
When Gilbert takes an informal poll to see which of her students are using WYNN when they read, a mix of general and special education students raise their hands. Says Schulte: “It’s like those cutouts in the sidewalks at the grocery store. They made them for people with disabilities, and now everyone uses and benefits from them.”
DON’T FORGET THE HARDWARE
Schulte attributes the system’s success to how it works within the newly retrofitted Collier County classrooms. Every classroom in CCPS now sports a laptop for the teacher, an LCD projector, a document camera, an electronic whiteboard, and a sound system complete with a clip-on microphone for the teacher and several handheld ones for students to pass around. “One of the reasons the teachers find the software so successful is that the other technology is in place. It’s about two things marrying at the right time,” he says.
“We’re trying to be on the cutting edge of technology,” says Randy Swicker, the district’s IT director. “But something new is always happening. It’s not as if we’ve arrived.” With the next steps lined up—to provide all students with laptops, create an infrastructure to transmit wirelessly from school to school, and offer video on demand, CCPS is making sure that it keeps up with every student’s needs.
Photos: ©Patrick Farrell