We learned a great deal about the use of technology in special education over the course of our first quarter at Austin Center for Design. The first segment of our research had us performing Contextual Inquiries in two very different AISD classrooms, both which are designed for special education. Contextual Inquiry is a form of research in which a subject is observed as a master of their natural environment and the researchers attempt apprentice under them, only interrupting to increase clarity about what the subject is doing.
The first classroom was a Special Ed math class in a general education middle school. We witnessed students who were enthusiastic about using technology, from the three desktop computers used for Khan Academy during group rotations, to simple calculators, which triggered a collective cheer as they were handed out. We saw the students adjust their behavior in order to demonstrate to the teacher that they were responsible, and therefore deserving of time on the computer. We saw them sharing their work and helping one another with the calculators in a way that had not occurred with pencils and paper moments earlier.
The second classroom we visited was in a school that caters to special needs and multiple disabilities. We saw many adaptations of technology being used, such as a custom-created computer program that taught history through a game projected on the front of the room and controlled by buttons the students pressed. Because many of the students were learning cause and effect, these buttons, or “switches” were an easy to see, hit, and grasp, method of accessing otherwise fragile technology. In fact, the teacher of the class had created many original systems to make technology more available, from a large switch that turns on a radio and disco lights, to units of time being taught through blocks and an egg timer.
In both environments the teachers were excited about technology and its possibilities in their classrooms. A teacher’s familiarity with technology made all the difference in how it might be used, and the integration of it into the curriculum seemed to be completely up to them. For example, each teacher said they wanted more technology and showed us the types of tools they wish they had full access to. In the first case the teacher wanted access to a newer Elmo device with a remote control style mouse and a way to project a laptop screen. In the second case, the teacher wanted iPads to play with and customize into versatile communication tools. Both teachers pointed out that unless technology is being used effectively at home in addition to the classroom, a student really couldn’t make consistent gains. This insight helped us focus the next stage of our research on Special Ed students and technology at home.
For this stage of our research we sought out parents for Participatory Interviews. Participatory Interviews are a collaborative conversation facilitated by three different activities designed to allow the participant to feel comfortable describing what isn’t working and imagining what might. In effort to narrow our criteria, we looked for parents of non-verbal students diagnosed on the Autism spectrum who were interested in discussing technology.
Each of the three mothers we interviewed was incredibly generous with her time and knowledge for our project. Their first assignment was to fill out a homework journal of home use between their child and technology, which gave us specific instances to draw from in conversation, so that we could ground examples in specific events as we began the interview. As with the Contextual Inquiry, the variety of technology used was vast, ranging from an iPad used for verbalizing words, pointing at a Letterboard to spell out words, and using a digital camera to illustrate perspective. In each case, communication with others was a major focus of their sons’ education, and so the role of technology as a communication device was of particular significance.
The second stage of the Participatory Interview had the participant and interviewer filling in a blank graph designed to demonstrate the spectrum of experiences they’d had with their son and technology, ranging from very negative to very positive. In each case, the positive end of the spectrum looked more like a list of criteria that they imagined a perfect device would adhere to, such as adaptable, durable, not dependent on the listener, versatile, and connecting rather than disconnecting. Interestingly, all three of the mothers placed the iPad closest to this end, even if they didn’t have one.
The third stage of this process had the participant decorate a canvas with provided images and words, showing us what the ideal experience would be like and would not be like. All three mothers emphasized a need for the tool to be fun to use, not just for their sons, but for others as well, so that he could build relationships and make friends. They shared many stories about technology being an equalizing device with other kids. Whereas adaptive technology once isolated a child and made their handicaps more obvious, new technology like Nintendo DS, digital cameras, smartphones, and iPads, are used universally and are attractive to others, which leads to socializing and increased independence, a quality that all of the mothers want to instill in their sons.
At the end of these interviews we compiled our data and sorted our insights into three different themes. These themes had subtopics that interested us and are listed below. Quotes from our research that are particularly resonating with a theme are below the subtopics.
Theme 1: Self-Expression: Technology enables externalization of inner thoughts and creativity.
- For students dealing with communication barriers, technology helps facilitate basic requests as well as deeper conversations with parents, teachers, and peers.
- Technology enables creative expression and communication to others of what a student is thinking, feeling, and hoping.
- Technology empowers the student to have authority and autonomy.
“Technology is a gift for everybody. He isn’t special-needs when he uses technology. It’s a vehicle for him to show us his mind and show us how smart and creative he is.” – Lynn, Parent
Theme 2: Social Connection: For a population that is isolated, technology promotes and nurtures social relationships.
- Devices serve as both virtual and physical gathering points that facilitate interactions among peers and adults.
- The same hardware and software means kids “look the same” whether they have special needs or not.
- Technology enables independence and gives a student confidence to work alongside students who aren’t in Special Education.
“Creative outlets like the iPad and Camera are equalizers that allow him to do the same things as other people.” – Lynn, Parent
“He sat outside playing Nintendo DS, and the neighbor kids got theirs and joined him.” – Lynn, Parent
Theme 3: Barriers to Entry: Small obstacles and repeated disappointments feel insurmountable in a situation that is already challenging.
- Adopting new technology comes with an unknown return on investment. It’s expensive to purchase, breaks with frequent use, requires upgrades that change the user experience, and won’t work in every context.
- A student’s likelihood to adopt a new technology is unpredictable and depends on their physical abilities. The technology must be customizable and adaptable to meet the physical and emotional needs so that the student adopts it.
- Neither parents nor educators have obvious forums to learn about what technologies are available and therefore lack awareness and remain intimidated.
“Technology’s changing and to buy a high end item that you don’t know if the person will take to is quite a rigmarole. John, and many autistic people, don’t generally take to something right away, so you don’t know.” – Ann, Parent
Having done this research it is clear to us that technology has the potential to redefine the Special Education classroom. Seeing how technology encourages self-expression and social connection is exciting and filled with possibility. However, truly accessing this population would mean designing around the Barriers to Entry.
One barrier each participant spoke about—in both the Contextual Inquiries and the Participatory Interviews—was money. Though the price of digital technologies is much lower than a decade ago, participants repeatedly mentioned costs associated with technology. In addition to the initial purchase, maintenance and upgrades contribute to the expense of digital devices and software. In light of this, we would want to research the relationships between socio-economic factors, Special Education, and funding sources for adaptive technology.
Another barrier we observed was the feeling that technology is complicated. For the most part, the participants we worked with were excited about technology. Several would even qualify as “early adopters,” willing to experiment with new technology if it will help the student. However, we also witnessed intimidation and discomfort around trying out and learning new forms of technology. This hesitance was much easier to overcome when it related to adopting consumer technology (for example, cameras or iPads). A way to address the concern about technology being too complicated would be a way to bridge students, teachers, parents, and technologists to train one another and share their experiences.
Actually, these are just a few of the ideas we have for continued research in this field. Unfortunately, neither of us is pursuing this topic in the coming quarters at Austin Center for Design. That said, this topic has the potential to satisfy a great deal more study and investigation. We believe the benefits of designing for the improvement of the Special Education classroom are invaluable and of unlimited consequence for everyone involved.