Children with unique learning needs will excel when their interests and skills drive specialized instruction that is delivered via assistive technology in an engaging and sensitive environment, says Maria Worthen, vice president of federal and state policy at iNACOL, the organization that advocates student-centered learning.
Students are also intrinsically motivated to learn. Often, personalized instruction meshes with growth mindset, and self-paced and competency-based education (including online and blended learning), in which students progress academically based on mastery rather than seat time, she says.
“We generally see the personalized learning environment as a co-creation of learning objectives between the teacher and the student,” Worthen says. “The teacher-student relationship is less hierarchical and more collaborative.”
When implemented appropriately, a tech-powered system of personalized learning allows educators to provide these supports and gives students who think differently new ways to learn,
While personalization does not depend exclusively on technology, adaptive tools that help children with special needs can be an equalizer, allowing these students to overcome physical and technological barriers as well as negative stereotypes.
Sidebar: 5 steps to encouraging self-advocacy and self-determination in special education students
Using technology in personalized learning—as well as student data and goal setting—builds resolve and self-sufficiency in special needs populations. Students can identify what techniques serve them well in their learning and can express their own technological needs and preferences, says Elizabeth LeBlanc, a curriculum and data coordinator and instructional specialist at Taos Academy charter school in rural New Mexico.
The school serves 215 fifth- through 12th-graders, 1 in 5 of whom have some form of learning difficulty, such as ADHD or autism, she says.
A unique element of the academy’s program is that students only have to attend school on campus two days per week. They can check in with teachers, submit assignments and review their learning progress remotely through Google Drive or Google Hangouts on the remaining weekdays.
Read more: Edtech equalizers in special education
“The modality of interaction is different—sometimes formal and face-to-face, sometimes informal, sometimes phone calls or emails outside of the academic day,” she says. “We actually get to know our students better in some ways. Technology allows us to connect in a much broader way that goes beyond the classroom walls.” Additionally, during tests and quizzes, students with special needs can refer to digital notes recorded during online courses.
Students with visual impairments have access to easy-to-read print, e-readers and digital highlighters.
Power of playlists
Chippewa Valley Schools, located north of Detroit, also relies on assistive technology for special needs students to bolster learning, build self-awareness and encourage self-advocacy.
Free tools, such as text-to-speech apps, and high-contrast screens aid students with dyslexia, and ad-blocking software reduces distractions, says Sarah Monnier-White, Chippewa’s instructional technology coordinator.
Individualizing instruction can pose challenges for teachers. “Trying to gather different ways to process the information is a lot of work for the teacher,” Monnier-White says.
To help, Chippewa’s teachers use an online platform to organize materials and to create “playlists”—a series of assignments or lessons for students to
This central hub lets students select modules or modify their learning paths based on academic progress, she says. Students with special needs can also choose accessibility functions based on their needs, she says.
An assistive technology team of special education teachers receives training to “keep up on what technologies are available and how they can help students,” Monnier-White says.
The team conducts instructional rounds and attends IEP meetings to monitor student progress and adapt technology based on learners’ competencies. “Every student has different disabilities and different needs, so we don’t just hand them all a laptop or an iPad,” she says.
What can a graduate do?
To move students beyond demonstrated mastery, educators can adopt a Universal Design for Learning approach, which provides students multiple ways to gather and display knowledge, says Worthen, of iNACOL.
A child’s learning style and preferences—visual, auditory or kinesthetic, for instance—may also dictate how instruction is delivered.
“Nothing about us without us” is a saying used in the special needs community, implying that proponents of this population and students themselves should help set self-directed learning objectives and assessment policies, Worthen adds.
“Students with disabilities tend to be held to a lower and less rigorous standard, even if their intellectual capacities are just the same as their peers’ capacities,” she says.
In policy discussions, education leaders should define the district’s vision of success for students with special needs, in part by creating a graduate profile and deciding how teachers will help such students advance toward college, careers and civic engagement by personalizing education, Worthen says.
“Recognize that when you’re moving toward a model of learning where students are co-creating, it provides a really important opportunity for students with disabilities to have voice and choice in their learning,” she says.
“That will reap benefits for them.”
Emily Ann Brown is associate editor.