Technology Considerations for Students Receiving Special Education Services as Schools Reopen
As schools, districts, and states continue to grapple with the challenges of reopening school buildings safely, it is imperative that collaborative planning includes effective practices, strategies, and solutions to foster the inclusion of children and youth with exceptionalities. Be it face-to-face, hybrid, fully online, or a combination of instructional formats, digital tools and technology solutions must be at the forefront of educational efforts to ensure students with exceptionalities are afforded their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
To build upon the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)’s Key Considerations for Special Educators the technology division of CEC—Innovations in Special Education Technology (ISET)—seeks to expand CEC’s recommendations with a specific focus on the digital tools and technology innovations critical to ensuring an effective education for the nearly 8 million students with exceptionalities who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).
As schools consider the health and safety of the students they serve, the professionals they employ, and the broader community in which they operate, we recognize guidance will be sought from local, state, and federal entities. In addition to following critical safety protocols outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CEC and its technology division (ISET) offer additional recommendations:
Key Technology Considerations for School Reopenings in Various Formats
- Framing Proactive Planning and Universal Design for Online Learning. Districts and schools need to plan and design effective hybrid and online learning experiences considering both synchronous and asynchronous formats. To ensure schools align with the best practices in instruction, educators need to look to the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. While a number of instructional frameworks can assist educators in facilitating hybrid and fully online planning, UDL’s principles and guidelines can ensure educators are designing essential learning experiences that meet the instructional, behavioral, and social-emotional needs of all learners, particularly those with exceptionalities. UDL provides educators a guide for identifying potential learning barriers, designing for the variability found across all learners, and embedding options for student choice—further empowering them in their own learning experience. The key to implementing UDL is often the use of various instructional and assistive technologies to facilitate the personalization of the student’s learning.
- Accessibility vs. Availability. As educators plan for reopening, the accessibility of the technology tools, digital content, and array of solutions made available need to be reconsidered. Instead of the traditional focus on sensory and physical accessibility [see Section 508 guidelines], efforts need to expand to the cognitive needs of learners (e.g., learning, attention, executive functioning). When it comes to reopening efforts, educators must go beyond current accessibility requirements to ensure that students with learning, attention, behavioral, sensory, physical, and similar challenges are guaranteed appropriate educational materials for their learning. School personnel should consider at least four key questions when planning for the availability of digital learning content:
- Can the student operate the technology independently and/or with limited assistance?
- Is the content available and understandable to the learner?
- Can the digital content be utilized via various technology supports (e.g., built-in speech to text, text to speech, etc.)?
- Are the demands of executive function skills supported? It is the belief of CEC and ISET that through the use of the UDL framework, a number of accessibility/availability considerations will be addressed.
- Professional Learning for Educators and Families. Schools and districts must plan to allocate time and resources towards training educators, family members, and students on the technology tools used to direct and facilitate learning. Realizing there will be variability amongst their stakeholders in knowledge, comfort, and expertise, schools must purposefully plan for learning experiences to ensure the digital tools used for instruction are not barriers to student learning. Likewise, schools need to support collaborative problem-solving, including family members, who will have increased roles and expectations in hybrid and fully online learning. To facilitate the instructional needs of educators, family members, students, and other stakeholders, districts should provide learning opportunities on:
- Instructional pedagogy to emphasize instructional design principles and the UDL framework
- Digital tools and affiliated educational materials to ensure they are accessible, on-demand, and meaningful
- Directly supporting educators, family members, and students in using the various technology tools, with targeted time to ask questions, problem-solve, and fully understand the technology demands prior to application
- Designating spaces where educators can share resources and collaborate
- Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). IEP teams need to continue to have high expectations in this new learning environment. Synchronous and asynchronous activities and tools can help educators develop and implement effective IEPs—including holding IEP meetings, delivering services, and assessment. Implementing a student’s IEP with fidelity across varied environments should be part of conversations between school leaders and IEP teams. IEPs may need to be revised to focus on making progress towards goals in new environments. Schools should also explore and provide the resources to parents to ensure continuity of services across various formats.
- Assistive Technology (AT) Devices and Services. School districts need to provide access to both AT devices and services. Programs and districts need to explore alternative ways to provide AT devices (e.g., exploring freely available programs and applications, lending/delivering devices to families), as well as AT services (e.g., conducting AT assessments virtually; providing on-demand, freely available how-to videos and other training opportunities for family members and caregivers via open-access websites). Low-tech options for students that do not have access to technology and/or Internet must be considered.
Innovations in Special Education Technology (ISET) is the technology division for the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). ISET is focused on providing current and future educators, professionals, and family members with innovative, technology-based solutions for today’s needs. Visit isetcec.org for additional resources, materials, and solutions to extend the implementation of effective technology solutions for students with exceptionalities.