Learn how assistive technologies should be used to make learning accessible for all, with Gunjan Tomar and Vineeta Garg.
John F. Kennedy once said, “All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have equal opportunities to develop talents.” This quote so aptly resonates with our daily classroom situations. We educators have learners with different learning needs, and we are constantly looking at innovative strategies to facilitate learning in the way our learners need it. It can be extremely challenging to facilitate learning to suit the diverse needs of each student, which is why a method needs to be devised to personalize learning, to generate the best opportunities.

When we imagine the word ‘assistive technology’ in the context of the education domain, several words pop up. We asked a group of K-12 educators (in our schools) to share the word/s that come to mind when they are asked about ‘assistive technology.’ This word cloud was formulated with the words brainstormed by those educators.

A word cloud with 'learning' in the centre. Around it are the words: computer, variability, learner, diversity, independent, tools, keyboard, software, potential, empowerment, uncovering, personalize, hardware, kindle, accessibility, equity, iPad, inclusion, student, supportive, tailoring, technology, design, operational, powerful, transform, assistance, differentiation, functions, visualization, aided, voice and impairment.

Word cloud collated from educators for words associated with 'assistive technology'.

According to the World Health Organization,

“Assistive technology is an umbrella term covering the systems and services related to the delivery of assistive products and services. Assistive products maintain or improve an individual’s functioning and independence, thereby promoting their well-being.” 1

Myth busting

A lack of understanding of assistive technology and its role in education has resulted in certain myths surrounding it. Here are two of them.

Myth 1: Assistive technology (AT) is used only by students with special needs

Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding involving AT is that it is only for students with special educational needs. However, this is not true. It can be used by anyone to bridge their learning gaps. There is an array of AT tools available, and teachers need to identify which AT is best suited for a child, regardless of whether they have special educational needs.

“We have found that if we give these tools only to students who needed them*, we had a 20% improvement in reading and writing. When we gave it to the whole class, we saw a 30% to 40% improvement. More people using them creates a strong support network. A student can turn to their neighbour and ask for help.” Assistive technology specialist, public K-12 2

*The students who ‘needed AT tools’ were identified according to their learning challenges.

Myth 2: Assistive technology is expensive

The second myth about AT is that it is not affordable. This is also not true. There has been a revolution in the field of assistive technology. Earlier, the solutions consisted of tools that came with separate licenses. Now, the tech giants like Google and Microsoft are offering lots of free AT-based tools. These are mostly web-based tools for which a student only needs a computer or a tablet, an internet connection, and a web browser. Providing assistive technology to students with educational needs has resulted in better outcomes, more engaging learning experiences, lower IT costs and effort, and more satisfied students and teachers.

Defining assistive technology

In the education context, research recognizes the potential of assistive technology to support access to learning, engagement and achievement for a range of students with diverse learning needs. Assistive technology is any device, software, or equipment that helps people navigate challenges so they can work, learn and communicate better. A wheelchair is an example of AT, so is software that reads aloud text from a computer, or a keyboard in place of pen and paper for someone who is unable to or struggles to hand write. AT can range from ‘high tech’ technology, such as electronic devices or power wheelchairs, to ‘low tech’ devices such as a pencil grip or supportive seats, or a simple switch, or “no tech” which involves innovative strategies like Universal Design For Learning to assist students in their learning.

Using assistive technology, students’ specific learning needs can be supported and scaffolded effectively, and learning becomes a more meaningful and engaging experience.

An individual’s limitation cannot be a barrier for their access to education and information, and the use of Assistive Technology acts a bridge between students’ individual needs and access to learning.

Your ‘how to’ guide

Companies like Microsoft and Google offer a variety of tools and features to facilitate students’ diverse learning needs. To help educators around the world to understand how to use the features of Microsoft Windows as assistive technology, we created a series of three videos.

The first encompasses resources related to addressing the challenges of reading, writing and math, as well as speech, language, and communication challenges.

Our second video addresses hearing, mobility, and vision challenges of the students and the various tools needed to accelerate their learning.

Not every disability is visible. A variety of Microsoft tools can be used to support students with neurodiversity, multiple impaired/medically fragile pupils, and those with mental health issues. Tools to meet these needs were collated in our third video.

Reading tools

‘Reading Progress’ supports students in building fluency through independent reading practice, educator review, and educator insights. Educators can upload reading fluency assignments and differentiate for their pupils, and individually assign the appropriate reading tasks to the students according to their reading levels. This AI-enabled tool evaluates students’ reading abilities and analyzes their reading fluency to create a report on the following parameters:

  • number of correct words per minute
  • accuracy rate
  • mispronunciations
  • omission
  •  self-correction
  • insertions
  • repetitions. 3

With this reading analytics data, educators’ ability to track each student’s reading fluency has become very simple. Educators can now easily track reading progress and support their teacher-made evaluations with concrete evidence of students’ learning. Students not only have the opportunity to self-evaluate their reading path, but also parents are able to access the tool and monitor their child’s reading progress over a period of time.

Extensions and web apps

Google is another big name in the education world when we think of assistive technology, with many products that have in-built accessibility features. Besides this, Google Chrome has many web apps and extensions for accessibility.

Here is a list of extensions provided by Google Chrome to address accessibility by area of support 4 :

  • Reading comprehension – SummarzieThis, sentiSum, Google Dictionary, Newseta
  • Speech to text – Voice recognition, SpeechPad, VoiceNote
  • Text to speech – Read & Write for Google, SpeakIt!, Announcify
  • Navigation – Click-free broswing, Vimium, CrxMouse, Caret Browsing
  • Focus – Simple Blocker, uBlock Origin, Move It
  • Communication – Picto4Me
  • Readability – Readability, OpenDyslexic, BeeLine, Reader, High contrast, Atbar, MagicScroll, Web reader, Readline, Visor, Color enhancer

References

  1.  World Health Organisation (2022) Assistive Technology. Available here. (Accessed: 04/08/22)
  2. McKown. B, Cynthia. L (2007) Improving reading comprehension through higher order thinking skills. Available here. (Accessed: 04/08/22)
  3. Tholfsen, M (2021) Reading Progress in Microsoft Teams – Improve student reading fluency, save time and track progress. Available here. (Accessed: 04/08/22)
  4. Curtis. E (2016) Google Tools for Special Needs. Available here. (Accessed: 04/08/22)

Authors

  • Gunjan Tomar

    Gunjan is an activities and service as action coordinator, CAS coordination and emotional learning faciliatator at DPS International. She is a workshop leader, international speaker and develops CBSE resources. She is passionate about social-emotional learning and making classrooms inclusive.
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  • Vineeta Garg

    Vineeta is an IT head who is passionate about music. She has written and sung many songs on social issues, as well as jingles to help children overcome their anxiety of learning to code. Her outstanding contributions in the field of education have won her many national and international awards.
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