Future of Learning

Learning technology once reserved for special needs students is now in everyone’s hands. Can teachers figure out how best to use it?

As technology increasingly blurs the lines between how different students best learn, teachers face new demands

“A lot of people worry that technology will take the place of the teacher, but I think it’s exactly the opposite,” said math teacher Kaswell.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Math teacher Aaron Kaswell is checking off names he’s written on a whiteboard table in blue dry-erase marker. Around him, the busy classroom hums as 30 students work on laptops, interact with other teachers and chat among themselves.

“This is a list of kids I need to check in with, maybe because they’re learning the English language, or because I’ve observed something where they need a little more help,” Kaswell said. “Some kids can push ahead if they’re ready. But I can always spend more time if a student needs it.”

Kaswell’s class is known as the STEAM lab, for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. It is also an integrated co-teaching classroom (meaning some of the students have special needs) and an English language learner class, with some students still learning English. As such, Kaswell and his colleagues, a special education teacher and a science teacher, must teach a wide variety of students, each with different learning styles and needs.

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Kaswell — now in his tenth  year teaching at MS 88, a large middle school in the South Slope section of Brooklyn — has always been drawn to combining face-to-face instruction with online learning. But now he’s implementing a particularly intense approach to it, known as personalized learning. His seventh-graders set their own learning goals and focus on mastering skills and knowledge via a combination of online resources (such as BrainPOP and Kahn Academy) and painstaking guidance and support from a team of teachers.

To do this, they use “Basecamp” software developed by Summit Public Schools in California, a charter network whose personalized learning platform stresses self-directed learning and project work within a teacher-driven curriculum. Because this software provides students with a wide variety of learning resources — videos, online texts and interactive exercises, for example — students are able to select materials that best suit their individual learning needs and styles.

“To let kids learn at their own pace, to let them see and track their progress — everything is helping them make another connection to their learning,” Kaswell said. “Using Basecamp software has pushed my accelerated students more than I expected, because they have so much to grab onto, more than I could ever provide in a traditional classroom.”

But because this tech-intensive approach to learning demands high levels of focus, resourcefulness and independence on the part of students, it has not been an easy transition for Kaswell’s students working below grade level and those with special needs.

“It’s definitely been hard for them,” Kaswell said. “It still takes a very big human lift by the teacher to help them access entry points [different ways to engage with material]. It requires a lot more human involvement.”

For example, Kaswell and his colleagues must collect their own online teaching materials, essentially creating a curriculum from scratch, to meet the needs of the students working below grade level, because Basecamp’s software does not at this time include resources below a sixth-grade level.

Using “Basecamp” software developed by Summit Public Schools in California, students access online resources such as BrainPOP and Kahn Academy.

Despite such challenges, educators and policymakers increasingly recognize that technology is beginning to blur the lines between how educators meet the learning needs of various children — whether they have a diagnosed disability or not. For example, many digital books come with a prerecorded audio version of the text. As school districts invest in cost-friendly digital books, all students have access to standard reading aids, such as help with pronunciation and with word and sentence emphasis.

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While the presence of technology does not necessarily ensure learning equity and accessibility, the authors of the Department of Education’s 2016 National Education Technology Plan concluded that technology nevertheless “has the power to lower barriers to both in ways previously impossible.”

Until recently, for instance, classroom tech tools known as assistive technology, or AT, designed to aid children with disabilities, were frequently clunky and expensive, said Dr. Sean J. Smith, professor of special education at the University of Kansas. Today, with important exceptions, AT in many cases seamlessly blends into classrooms as schools acquire affordable technology like iPads and Chromebooks, which come either preloaded with helpful tools or accommodate apps that support the needs of a wide variety of learners, including but not limited to students with special needs.

“That’s a game-changer,” Smith said. “And this is how assistive technology aligns itself more and more with the needs of all learners.”

Using technology to teach a broad spectrum of students requires, among other changes, a seismic shift in the role of the teacher. “It’s a fundamental change of design and planning for instruction,” Smith said. “It’s putting huge demands on teachers. It takes a lot of time to alter the instructional experience. Otherwise, all you’ll be doing is taking traditional instruction and putting it online — not particularly helpful to struggling learners.”

But that extra work can add great value, as teachers explore how to use technology to teach large groups of students together — new territory that holds the potential to more deeply align principles of inclusivity with real-world circumstances in the classroom.

“For so long, special education and assistive technology has been for ‘those kids over there,’ ” said Dr. Tracy Gray, managing director for the American Institutes for Research and technical assistance lead to state and district leaders for the Center on Technology and Disability. “But because technology has evolved so much, as has our understanding of students’ needs, there is a lot of merit to looking at this beyond the individual needs of each student.”

MS 88 students set their own learning goals and work at their own pace, an approach to learning that requires a high level of independence.

However, Gray cautioned, “This does not mean students with severe disabilities don’t need that one-on-one match; it’s important to differentiate between struggling students and kids with severe disabilities.”

As consumer technology, instructional technology and assistive technology continue to converge at an increasingly rapid pace, Gray noted that many features that were historically only available to children with disabilities are now embedded in everyday, standard-issue technology. Examples include text-to-speech, a function available on many tablets and laptops, through which text can be highlighted and read aloud by a computer-generated voice; interactive graphic organizers that enable a child to click and drag items to help organize written work; word prediction, a spelling and vocabulary support, in which a child types the first few letters of a word and the device suggests possible matches; and, increasingly, the ability to alter reading levels within a digital text in order to meet the needs of many readers. This last tool helps children learning the English language, students with disabilities and those who simply need extra reading support.

Related: Where special education students are succeeding under Common Core

“Five years ago, these tools were considered purely assistive technology [for children with special needs]; now everyone’s using them,” Smith said. “And the reason is, everyone has access to it. Every computer and iPad has it. The fact that everyone is using technology is a great benefit to the child with a disability because now it’s universal. And, in the best-case scenario, the teacher is now more competent in using these tools and understands the application.”

That critical piece — teacher training — lags far behind according to the 2016 National Education Technology Plan. Adequately preparing teachers to effectively use technology in the classroom, the study concluded, “will require more than sharing tips in the faculty lounge or after-school professional development for educators. It also will require systemic change on the part of teacher preparation providers so their faculty and programming reflect more closely the standards and settings for which they are preparing teacher candidates.”

Aaron Kaswell, a math teacher at MS 88 in Brooklyn, is using personalized-learning software to teach his seventh-grade students.

Beyond traditional teacher training programs, Gray said that ongoing teacher support is another critical factor.

“This notion that you will train a teacher [to use technology] in August and expect them to remember this training in March of the following year, that’s just not how adults learn,” she said. “It’s about providing just-in-time support for teachers and staff so they have a way to remember what they learned throughout the teaching year and beyond.”

Indeed, deep into his second year teaching the most tech-intensive program of his career, math teacher Kaswell said he’s had to step up his game considerably, becoming sharper and better prepared to meet the different learning needs of his students and working extremely collaboratively with his teaching colleagues.

“A lot of people worry that technology will take the place of the teacher, but I think it’s exactly the opposite,” Kaswell said. “The more we use technology, the better we need to be as teachers, because there’s so much that technology can do that we can’t.”

To this end, Kaswell said he is learning to maximize technology to do things he cannot do, and maximize his own efforts to do things only he can do, like decide which students need a small group break-out, or which can be pushed to go deeper and develop higher-level questions.

“It’s about making sure the teacher does what he or she is best at, and the technology does what it’s best at. That’s how I’ve learned to use technology to our advantage every day and meet the needs of all our students.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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