Seizing Opportunity in the Digital Age: The Intersection of Technology and Special Education

Think about students in special education classrooms. Perhaps you knew these kids when you yourself were in school, or through your own children’s classes. Even with this type of daily interaction, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about how to improve the ways these students learn, probably because you believe as most do, that it doesn’t necessarily impact you or your kids. What you’d be surprised to learn is that the approaches to special education learning, particularly in the ways technology is used to assist teachers and students, has a dramatic impact on the lives not only of more mainstream students, but all Americans.

That was the major takeaway from a panel event discussion held in Washington, D.C. last week by The National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training (NCTET) and the Education and Technology and Telecommunications Taskforces of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. NCTET hosted the discussion particularly to discuss the intersection of technology and special education.

Kim Hynes, Associate Director at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, kicked off the event with a point that would run through the center of the 90-minute discussion: technology allows kids with learning disabilities or other special needs to have greater access to learning and to communicating what they know. Previous discussions about special needs have focused so much on the “can’t”–students who “can’t” participate in certain activities or “can’t” read certain texts. Technology shifts the discussion toward what they “can” do. What they “do” know.

Kim also addressed the second major theme of the discussion, the idea that technology for students with special needs has inspired everyday innovation that has infiltrated the mainstream. Everything from audiobooks, to streaming, to even the telephone was inspired in part as a solution to assisting learning impaired students with hearing, reading, and understanding classroom materials.

Also presenting at the event were Alexa Posny, former U.S. Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Special Education and Rehab Services, and Julie Evans, CEO of education nonprofit Project Tomorrow. Additionally, a panel with educators who are working every day with special education students shared their perspective in a panel discussion that included Carolyn Hill, principal of EL Haynes public charter school, Angela Foreman, resource teacher in Arlington Public Schools for special education, and Kate Nagle, who taught students diagnosed with disorders on the autism spectrum at The Ivy Mount School.

While the discussion covered a broad range of topics, all were in agreement that technology usage in special education classrooms supports access to higher-level learning, engages students with the curriculum, and allows educators to more thoroughly monitor progress. Opportunities for excellence are only possible when minds are engaged, and what’s more engaging than the use of technology?

Students using gaming, mobile, tablets, and other technology are more independent and empowered to do things teachers never thought they were capable of achieving. With technology devices, students are engaging in real world projects, and with each other, in ways they never have before, and they’re able to demonstrate what they’re learning more effectively. Devices, like Discovery Education Techbook™, are allowing them to engage in real world projects, engage with fellow students, and demonstrate what they’ve learned.

As one of the panelists eloquently stated, “Many things can wait. The child cannot.” Their minds are in our hands. Our collective goal should be striving towards greater digital learning for all students, but particularly those with special needs.

Click here to read more about the event and download presenter slides.

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