Note: If we don’t have a plan for what we are going to do and a goal to help us know what it will look like when we are successful, there is a good chance that we won’t get around to using the AT we spent so long selecting!
Gayl Bowser and Penny Reed (2001) suggest a few basic questions for students to answer as they get ready to use their assistive technology:
Let’s take a look at these questions.
We often think of portability when we select AT devices. We think about transporting materials from room to room and from home to school. We also need to think about moving AT around the room: good classrooms are flexible learning environments, with students moving from location to location frequently as groups are created and changed or activities group around centers or stations.
An underlying question here may be, “Should I only use this AT in the resource room or are there other settings when I am ‘out and about’ in which I need to access it?” Make sure AT that you need in Social Studies class is not sitting (inaccessible) in a resource room six rooms away!
For some hi-tech portable electronic devices and most computer software, students must have their login and password with them. Sure, there’s usually a way to retrieve a forgotten login or password, but by the time that’s done, the class may have moved on! School is a busy place and remembering what materials to bring each day can be a challenge; consider using checklists or other reminder systems.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is the difference between things we need to do ahead of time and the things that we simply do as situations arise. The middle of a language arts lesson is not the time to be preparing the AAC device for the day; however it’s okay for a teacher to take a moment and pull out easy-grip rulers or reading frames when she sees that students are (unexpectedly) having difficulty.
Computer-based AT requires some regular upkeep. Having a login and password does us no good if the license has expired, so we need to keep up with permissions and payments on any AT that requires them. Some devices require upgrades (free or fee-based); those must be tracked as well.
Using a computer that others use as well means that file storage and subsequent access to those shared files must be addressed; files may be saved to a portable USB drive or a named folder. Some students like to password-protect their files and folders; this can be dangerous (see note on passwords above).
Some things are easy enough to get a hold of but are sometimes forgotten: students need headphones for noise-making devices (talking spell checkers, etc) to avoid distracting others and feeling like they don’t fit in. Microphones are used in a variety of dictation programs, reminder systems, and other voice-activated tools; the “right” microphone suits both the task and the environment.
Batteries, chargers, and access to electrical outlets have to be considered prior to the first time the student will use mid- or high-tech AT devices. Students who use AT should be located with the rest of the class, not in a back corner or at a separate table due to the location of an outlet!
In general, the space necessary to use an AT device (desktop space during individual and group work, access to slant boards, etc.) is a reason to try a “dry run” with a student before his peers are in the room and class has begun. This allows for time to engage in problem-solving and avoid problems before they occur. The same goes for special situations (library time, field trips, projects, computer lab). Brainstorming solutions during a trial run allows for better outcomes than trying to catch a student up on missed time and opportunities because AT could not be used in a special situation. There is an element of respect here; we respect our students’ right to a comfortable and accessible learning environment in which they are not made to feel different or burdensome.
When a student is using AT that is new to him, he often needs some kind of support in getting started with it. The training needs may include not only the student who will be using the AT tool, but also the teachers or specialists who will be working with the student. One set of skills is required to use the tool; an additional set may be required to appropriately design instruction or experiences in which the tool can be easily accessed and used by a student (Bausch, Ault, & Hasselbring, 2006).
There are many ways for teachers and other education specialists to support students in learning how to use a new AT tool or device. Most of us require at least a demonstration of how to apply a tool skillfully to a new task or in a different environment. For students using software, tutorials can be helpful to get rolling. Students using tools that require skill and/or strategy application, such as spellcheckers and outlining devices, may do best when offered short- or long-duration coaching instead.
Depending on the student and the situation, we have to decide where to learn the skill and how to generalize what we’ve learned to other settings. For example, a student may not want to explore how to use a new pencil grip while she is working in a group to sketch out ideas for a poster. She may instead want to try the grip out in a resource class or at home, bringing it to class when she feels she is in her comfort zone. Students working with more complicated tools (software, mid-tech AT devices, etc.) may need to start with a few small steps rather than overwhelm themselves by trying to learn everything all at once.
We also have to consider whether teacher, specialist or peer support makes the most sense for a student who is using a new AT device or transferring to a new environment. If a student needs assistance learning and properly applying a new tool to a situation, a peer would likely lack the skill to assist another student. Other tasks, however, may be appropriate for peers. Perhaps a student uses a heavy slant board for writing and currently lacks the strength to lift it onto a desk and remove it. She may determine that she is more comfortable with her friend (who sits beside her) lifting and lowering the board when she requests it rather than having a teacher or paraprofessional assume that responsibility.
Some tasks probably have to be assigned to one person. Working with corporate technical support people is most likely not a task we want every teacher to be doing; having a point person to collect questions and seek solutions makes more sense. For more complex AT, such as AAC devices and portable computers, it may be necessary to have a professional to keep track of technology issues and the student’s general skills and concerns related to using the tool (which may not be the same across different classroom, home, and community settings).
As time passes, it’s not unusual for our AT needs to change. Schoolwork gets harder, we begin jobs and other community activities, and the social demands on us increase. As we ask for more from our AT, we may need to upgrade, add to, or change what we’re using. If a tool isn’t doing what you need it to do, it’s time to look at other tools!
Some of us take a look at Bowser and Reed’s AT questions and think to themselves, “But my student is too young to have this kind of sophisticated, evaluative conversation!” or “I find it challenging to get this kind of information out of my student as we are still seeking effective means of communication.” That’s OK because the process of selecting and implementing AT is just that: a process.
As you work with a student and his team to implement selected AT in the classroom, use your best judgment to make decisions about the issues listed above. Observe how the student’s day goes and how they respond to and use (or avoid) the AT tool. Determine what needs to be in place for AT use to be successful, and what happens when those factors are absent.
As your student’s communication skills develop, however, remember to scaffold their self-determination skills as well. Seek their input into their AT use as you would in the other important areas of their lives! Many of these questions can be answered by indicating happy and sad faces or simply responding yes or no. Challenge yourself and the rest of the team to involve students as much as possible in the AT process.