Lessons Learned: eTech Ohio’s Mobile Assistive Technology Grant Program
In our Lessons Learned posts, eTech Connect looks back at past eTech programs in order to gather the key lessons for educators and policymakers as we move forward in making the digital shift. As Sean Wheeler pointed out in our last post, “educators bear the dual weight of not only” learning to function in a digital world while also needing to “figure out how to teach at the same time.” Sharing key results from our pioneering Mobile Assistive Technology grantees provide one way to collaboratively approach this problem.
The Mobile Assistive Technology Grant was developed to expand and enhance learning opportunities for special needs learners through the use of mobile assistive technology (MAT). The program was intended to build capacity of Ohio schools to use MAT and to increase special needs students access to the general curriculum. Twenty grantees were announced in April 2012 and completed their final reports by December 2012. An independent evaluator reported on the program in February.
Changing Teacher Attitudes
One of the most powerful success stories shared by our grantees was of a resistant teacher who viewed the MAT as an opportunity for students to “play” rather than learn who was surprised when a special needs student who rarely spoke in class raised his hand to tell the teacher about mitosis:
The teacher just started introducing this subject and was surprised by the information he was giving let alone that this student was volunteering…The teacher finally asked the student where he learned all of this information, knowing that he was going to say the discovery channel on TV but he responded “During silent reading, I read the app that [Mrs. X] put on my [device].
Another teacher reported that technology is no longer used as a “free time” reward, but that classroom instruction has been re-framed based on enabling technology. The differences were so significant that one grantee reported, “If I forget [the tech] or if we are off-site and do not have it, we feel like we are missing another teacher.”
Teachers expressed surprise at how intuitive MAT was for students who have historically struggled with general education inclusion, noting that many of these students were able to teach the teachers how to use certain functions on the devices. MAT changed the way teachers thought about special needs students’ ability to work independently, with 64% of teachers reporting that their students exceeded their expectations in their abilities to apply MAT to learning.
Though a few grantee schools used MAT with special needs students prior to the grant award, those schools did not tailor the tech to the students. As mentioned above, the ability to personalize mobile devices led teachers to grant students more independence as they worked on content from the general curriculum. In one case, a student who had never spoken at school was able to enter her words on the device and hit “speak”:
She has been volunteering in her classes. She enters her response, raises her hand, waits to be called upon and then shares her answer…She also uses the [device] to converse with her friends at lunch and during free time.
This example is a particularly poignant demonstration of the finding that MAT allowed students with special needs to learn in “real time” and at the same pace as other students when in the past, participation was not possible. This lead to greater inclusion, as devices allowed teachers to differentiate instruction while students remained in the general classroom.
MAT also had the potential to allow that differentiation to take place without singling students out as “different.” When students with reading difficulties use e-reading devices, for example, they do not have to worry about their books looking different from more advanced classmates.
Concerns About Stigma
Though MAT can be used to decrease the fear of “being different,” grant evaluators expressed some concern that in schools where tech was made available only to special needs students, the practices “might run counter to district policy and best practices regarding inclusion” because these students’ differences were made visible to peers, a concern echoed in several teacher interviews. Such problems may become a thing of the past if BYOT programs continue to spread for students of all grades and abilities, but in the interim represent a challenge that must be addressed as schools move forward to enable all students through the thoughtful use of MAT.