Monday, April 16, 2012

iPads help students in special education learn

from The Daily Times by Jenny Kane:
Davie Jacobs sat at his desk while his teacher asked him to read the next page of a lesson on farm vegetables. He has Down Syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that delays physical and mental development.

A teaching assistant gently took his finger and directed it to an iPad on his desk. Davie's finger followed the sentence on the screen, the same one in his classmates' paper handbooks and, as his finger moved, a grown man's crisp, low voice recited the words.

"Potato," said the voice, as Davie's finger crossed over the boldly typed word accompanied by a picture.

If Davie could speak, he would not have the deep tone of middle-aged man, but for the time being, the man's voice is Davie's voice.

Davie is just one of the special education students in the district who is using iPad programs for both engagement and enablement. It is reflective of a growing interest in technology among those invested in special education.

This year, the Bloomfield school district distributed about 30 iPads to students in special education, an experiment that is becoming increasingly popular with school districts around the nation. Little research currently exists regarding the effectiveness of such methods, but the feedback from educators across the nation is positive.

"They think they're having fun and playing a game. I think they're learning," said Ehren Gieske, an occupational therapist with the district.

While not all special education students using iPads are without the use of their voice, many are reliant on those around them for either physical or mental assistance. Some use the technology to advance abilities that they have, and their curriculum is less centered on the technology.

Some students, for example, better learn coordination on an iPad because they can draw, but are not forced to hold a pencil to do so; they can use their finger. Others learn how to better articulate because the iPad can repeat back what it thinks students are trying to say, showing students what words or sounds they need to work on once they see which words were misunderstood.

"What I see is student empowerment," said Jennifer Martin, the district's communications specialist.

While many of the lessons are nothing new, the medium by which the lessons are taught is changing how educators look at the potential of students.

Davie, for example, likely never will be self-sufficient. However, with the iPad, his parents and teachers both take pictures of what he has done during his time with them. When Davie arrives at class or at home, he has a series of pictures of himself with explanations that relate what is going on in those photos.

While he is unable to type out the explanations or take the pictures, he is able to relay them to those around him by touching the screen.

"A lot of people think this is just for fun," said Martin, but she argues instead that the technology gives students such as Davie a means to communicate. Already, she said, he has his favorite programs, indicated by his tendency to click on specific programs more than others.

Additionally, the iPad is not the sole tool used to teach students, who still use tangible items such as books, puzzles and toys.

"It's not the end-all, be-all," said Gieske.

The district this year spent about $70,000 in stimulus funds on innovative technologies for special education, a pricetag that included the each of the $400 iPads and other items.

"We provide whatever would support our kids the best," said Lorna Bulwan, coordinator of student services for Bloomfield schools.

It will take several years before much data is available concerning special education students using iPads, but educators believe the qualitative evidence tells the iPads are helping the students retain knowledge and skills. Also, lessons can be taught more efficiently using the iPads, which work more quickly than the older technologies, teachers said.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm," said Bulwan.


  1. Hello! I was wondering if anyone had any recommendations for apps to use for teens with Down syndrome. A lot of the apps and information on the web is about children but I think it could really benefit teens as well so I was hoping someone had some ideas.

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