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The SETT Framework and Evaluating Assistive Technology Remotely

Image of a whiteboard showing "Student," "Environment," "Tasks," and "Tools" (SETT)

By: Aleksandra Hollingshead, Ed.D.; Joy Zabala, Ed.D.; Janice Carson, Ed.D.

Educational teams evaluate assistive technology (AT) needs at least annually for each student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). One of the most common methods of AT needs evaluation is the SETT Framework (Zabala, 2005). This blog provides a description of the AT evaluation strategies with practical strategies and considerations for distance instruction.

SETT Framework and AT Evaluation

The premise of the SETT Framework is identifying the characteristics of a Student, the Environments in which the student learns and grows, and Tasks required to be an active learner in those environments before trying to identify a system of Tools that enables the student to actively engage in the tasks in the environments. A critical feature of successfully applying the SETT Framework is a shared understanding across the educational team, the student, and the family when it comes to the "who" (student’s characteristics), the "where" (learning environment characteristics), and the "what" (tasks that a student needs to be able to do).

Upon establishing this shared understanding, the collaborative team can brainstorm ideas of the kinds of supports (tools) that could be helpful to the student. It is important to remember that such tools consist of more than AT devices; this could be additional accessibility features of educational software, supportive services, professional development training for the teacher or the family, etc. The tools a student might benefit from are much more than traditionally understood AT devices. For example, accessibility features like text-to-speech setting in a mobile phone might serve as a nice convenience to some people but might be a necessary support for an individual with a disability and, as such, be considered as AT for that individual. A team-based collaborative assessment of needs will lead to determining the most promising system of tools for the student, with a consideration of the environments this learner is in.  

Infographic outlining SETT framework
Practical Strategies for Remote Application

With social distancing protocols in K-12 schools during the pandemic, the most critical element of the SETT Framework that has been impacted is the environments. Pandemic teaching has amplified how important the consideration of the environment characteristics is and how flexible and vigilant educators need to be. Tools that might be helpful to a student in a brick-and-mortar classroom might not be ideal or feasible to use in a home environment. Moreover, in distance education, not only might a student be accessing instruction in multiple environments, but the instructor might be providing instruction from a variety of places (e.g., the classroom, their own home, etc.) as well. One of the challenges of delivering instruction remotely is the constant change in the characteristics of the environment (e.g., the access to a computer, the speed of the internet, the background noise, lighting, safety, available personal support, etc.) for both the instructor and the student.

Pandemic teaching has also amplified the issues of safety and socioeconomic inequalities. Many families are facing health issues, increased stress levels, unemployment, loss of housing, and other uncertainties which directly impact the environment the students are in. When analyzing and discussing the environment, it is paramount to remember that the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes before the Bloom’s taxonomy (Zabala & Carson, 2021). Student’s safety, health, and nutrition have to be addressed before students and those around them are able to attend to academic needs.

Accessing AT Specialists Remotely

The distance delivery of K-12 instruction and restrictions around accessing the school buildings has shifted the methods for collaboration with AT consultants and specialists (Zabala & Carson, 2021). Idaho Assistive Technology Project ( has developed a process for the remote collaborative AT evaluation:

  1. Complete an online, secure profile of student characteristics, their learning environments, educational tasks that present barriers, and previous tools tried with the student.
  2. Set up a phone or video conference call between the IEP team and the AT consultant.
  3. Conduct an in-depth conversation with the team, including the student’s family, to determine where the AT equipment will be used.
  4. Ship the AT equipment from the AT Lending Library to the student (either at their home or school) to try out.

Another practical solution to assessing AT needs from a distance is ensuring that the AT evaluator can see the entire student and not just their face. One strategy is to set up a secondary camera on a mobile device that is focused on the body of the student, which enables the evaluator to assess how the student is using their body and how much control and fine motor skills they have in their hands.

When the AT evaluation is conducted in a physical face-to-face classroom, the team can easily and authentically collect information about the entire student. So, it is paramount to replicate the same approach in a distance setting. The more information there is about the student and their environment, the better matched the services or tools will be.

Zabala and Carson (2021) cautioned that some AT evaluations could be very difficult when done remotely. Specifically, the needs typically addressed by the physical therapists should not be done via remote observation without the feedback and physical contact of a highly trained specialist. Distance-based observations, even with the ability to give directions to a support person with the student, cannot replace the hands-on positioning of a student’s body, or practicing movements, especially for initial evaluation of needs.

Best Practices in AT Collaboration
  1. Build a shared understanding of the characteristics of the student. Taking on an asset-based rather than deficit-based approach is critical! Consider student’s strengths that can be built upon, not just challenges or struggles!
  2. Evaluate student’s cause-and-effect skills and practice these prior to targeting more sophisticated academic goals. For example, prior to implementing a one-button switch to activate a computer program, it might be beneficial to practice with everyday, engaging actions like activating music or something else of high interest to the student.
  3. Together, clearly identify the learning tasks by breaking them down to individual steps. It might be that a student needs support only in one step of a given instructional task.
  4. Respect each team member’s perspective, especially the student’s! An evaluation team meeting begins with several “I’s" who then become a “we” (Zabala & Carson, 2021).
  5. Collaboratively arrive at an understanding of which barriers need to be lowered for a student prior to determining the most promising solution (i.e., tool or service) for lowering those barriers.
  6. Work closely with the families and get them involved in decision-making and training so that the implementation of a chosen system of tools happens consistently across environments.
  7. Remember to document in the IEP any AT devices that are required for an individual student, even if these are built-in features of a common device used by many.
  8. Intentionally develop students’ self-determination skills related to understanding and communicating their technology needs, including the built-in features in commonly used devices and programs and any unique devices they require. Every educator and student should know the features of commonly used programs or devices in their educational or vocational environments. Some accessibility needs can be easily overcome by using the features already designed within the device or program.
  9. Systematically design instruction, whether face-to-face or remote, within the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. Embrace the need for flexibility of a design that becomes obvious and necessary in remote learning and continue providing options to all learners after the schools return to traditional environments. Let’s not forget the lessons learned during the last few months of teaching and learning!  

Taken together, the SETT Framework and AT evaluation can be adapted to remote learning and teaching. Regardless of the method of instructional delivery, the educators, students and families need to work together to understand the Student, the Environments, the Tasks, and finally to select the Tools the student needs to be an active, participative learner. Educators and families have always been resilient and resourceful, but the pandemic teaching and learning has elevated these skills and characteristics to a greater level. The field of education always benefits from intentional collaboration among all stakeholders, now even more so than ever.



Zabala, J. (2005). Ready, SETT, go! Getting started with the SETT framework. Closing the Gap: Computer Technology in Special Education and Rehabilitation, 23(6), 1-3.

Zabala, J. & Carson, J. (2021). ISET Expert Panel Discussion: SETT and AT Evaluation Done Remotely. Retrieved from:

Posted:  13 April, 2021
Author: Aleksandra Hollingshead, Ed.D.; Joy Zabala, Ed.D.; Janice Carson, Ed.D.
Headshot of Aleksandra Hollingshead

Aleksandra Hollingshead, Ed.D., works as an Associate Dean for Inclusion and an associate professor of special education at the University of Idaho in Moscow, ID. Alex's research agenda focuses on...

Read more from Aleksandra Hollingshead, Ed.D.; Joy Zabala, Ed.D.; Janice Carson, Ed.D.

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