As education continues to grow more high tech, new assistive technology tools emerge for supporting students in the classroom. But, it can be difficult to determine which tools have solid value and which are mostly bells and whistles that are unhelpful or have a negative impact on learning for children with 504s and IEPs. Having a guide or tool to determine if a technology tool supports inclusion of students and teachers with disabilities within the general education classroom (as a least restrictive environment) is important. It meets ISTE coaching standard 3.2, which states that coaches should “partner with educator to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.”
Forms of assistive technology vary because the needs of students vary. EdTech magazine divides the needs into 5 broad categories of disability: blind or visually impaired; deaf or hard of hearing, speech disabilities; learning, cognitive, and developmental disabilities; and mobility assistance (Castelo, 2020). Some aspects of technology decisions for these tools are specific to their unique purposes, but other aspects are general characteristics of effective assistive technology.
Technology and Inclusion
Creating effective inclusive technology has one major hurdle: a lack of disability representation and perspective on design teams. This is similar to the challenges of technology companies developing education technology without having educators in the room — it just doesn’t work, and teachers are left scrambling to adapt it. Microsoft Corporation, for example explains “We can’t create the next generation of accessible technology unless we attract more people with disabilities to play a bigger role in helping to develop it. And we need to create an inclusive workplace that nurtures this talent” (Smith, 2021).
As an example of how technology companies can approach technology inclusion, Microsoft provides details about their integrated tools for diverse learners that includes students with disabilities, gifted learners, and ESL learners (Microsoft, 2020). As such, they have provided both instructional materials for suppliers for their products, and pushed for inclusion within the workspace (Microsoft, 2021).
To understand the ways in which technology plays a role in inclusion and differentiation, it helps to see that learners are diverse in a variety of ways, so one technology or support system will not work universally well. ISTE explains that learners vary “in what they find motivating . . .in how they are able to take in and process information to make meaning from it . . .and in how they demonstrate their understanding” (Perez, 2021). These differences exponentially increase the considerations that technology leaders must make when making purchase and implementation decisions.
Tech Tool Recommendations
There are two options available for evaluating educational and assistive technology: relying on the recommendation of trusted sources, or using rubrics and decision making guidelines. Trusted sources include educational institutions, disability advocacy organizations, and educational technology organizations. These groups establish trust through their expertise, and utilize their expertise to evaluate the technology tools. This list of organizations includes links to their recommendation lists or rubrics.
- International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)
- Inclusive Schools Network: (student apps)
- Tech Matrix
- Common Sense Media (student apps)
Tech Tool Guidelines
Using Guidelines and Rubrics in the form of checklists and questions to ask before purchasing products allows coaches to make complex decisions by taking into account the complex elements of technology decisions.. The National Center on Accessible Educational Materials asks if materials are “perceivable. . . operable. . . understandable. . . and robust” when examining accessible content, but their categories of evaluation work well for technology tools as well (AEM, 2021). When an assistive technology tool is perceivable, it is visible and accessible to users in an education environment. To qualify as operable, the users for whom the technology is intended should be able to easily use the tool in a developmentally appropriate way. Understandable technology is simple and requires minimal steps to use. Robust technology tools work across multiple platforms and in varied environments, such as IOS, PC, or apple operating systems.
Tech Matrix provides an extensive rubric to guide administrators in making assistive technology purchasing decisions. The guide covers multiple aspects of the decision making process, to include funding, research and relevant laws (TechMatrix, 2007). This guide includes questions to guide purchase decisions including where and how users will use the technology, and previous lower technology approaches such as UDL.
Evaluation: Process Over Product
Educational technology is expensive, and poor decisions can deeply impact schools and districts. This importance is evident in the volume of resources that emphasize establishing the process of implementing assistive technology rather than the technology itself. As a result, it can be beneficial to establish consistent procedures and systems to evaluate technology and implementation. These systems involve ongoing evaluation “reconsideration and additional assessment should be conducted as needs change” (Haven, 2008). Some sources provide guidelines for making difficult assistive and supportive technology decisions. For example, OCALI published a six part guidebook that includes legal aspects, funding, student evaluation, and building a team to evaluate technology implementation decisions (OCALI, 2013).
QIAT, a “nationwide grassroots group that includes hundreds of individuals who provide input into the ongoing process of identifying, disseminating, and implementing a set of widely-applicable Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology Services in school settings” provides detailed guidelines for educational institutions when acquiring and implementing assistive technology (QIAT,2021). The rubric and process recommended on the QIAT website include an ongoing process of data gathering and adaptation. Their rubric rates implementation of assistive technology on a scale from “unacceptable” to “promising practices” (QIAT, 2015).
A different approach to evaluation is centered on evaluating technology based on the individuals using it. This approach, provided in detail by the Matching Person and Technology initiative, has the benefit of being tailored to each student or staff member in an educational institution. However, it presents the problem of scalability since districts typically purchase technology in large quantities, and often in anticipation of student and staff needs. However, once the technology has been purchased this tool, is useful. Also, it appears useful in determining future needs. The Matching Person and Technology website includes flow charts for decision making and guidelines for educational institutions (MPT,
The decision to purchase and implement an assistive technology tool is complicated and specific to the needs of users, schools, and districts. This makes lists of “best tools,” or recommendations from experts outside of the district a less reliable option than developing and using robust guides or rubrics for making those decisions with the specific need of each user in the educational institution in mind.
AEM Center: Vetting for Accessibility. (2021, May 26). AEM Center. https://aem.cast.org/acquire/vetting-accessibility
Assistive Technology & Accessible Educational Materials Center. (2013). The Assistive Technology Assessment Process in the School Environment Part 5. OCALI.
Castelo, M. (2020, May 6). Using Assistive Technology to Empower Students with Disabilities. Technology Solutions That Drive Education. https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2020/03/using-assistive-technology-empower-students-disabilities-perfcon
Haven, R. (2008). Assistive Technology Assessment – Find the Right Tools | Shelley Haven ATP, RET. Tech Potential. http://www.techpotential.net/assessment
Microsoft. (n.d.). Web Accessibility Tools. Accessibility. Retrieved July 31, 2021, from https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/accessibility/supplier-toolkit-resources
National Center for Technology Innovation & Center for Implementing Technology in Education. (2007, November 5). Consumer Guide for Buying Assistive Learning Technologies. Tech Matrix. https://techmatrix.org/sites/all/themes/TechMatrix/images/consumerguide.pdf
Perez, L., & Grant, K. (2021, February 9). 30+ Tools for Diverse Learners | ISTE. ISTE. https://www.iste.org/explore/Toolbox/30%20-tools-for-diverse-learners
QIAT. (2015). Matrices for Assessment. Quality Indicators for Assessment of Assistive Technology Needs. https://www.qiat.org/docs/2%20Matrices%20for%20Assessment.pdf
QIAT: Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology. (2021, July 4). Home. Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology Services. https://qiat.org/
Scherer, M. (2021). MATCHING PERSON & TECHNOLOGY – Assessment Process. MP&T. https://sites.google.com/view/matchingpersontechnology/menu/assessment-process?authuser=0
Smith, B. (2021, May 5). Doubling down on accessibility: Microsoft’s next steps to expand accessibility in technology, the workforce and workplace. The Official Microsoft Blog. https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2021/04/28/doubling-down-on-accessibility-microsofts-next-steps-to-expand-accessibility-in-technology-the-workforce-and-workplace/
Special education and accessibility resources for remote learning. (2020). Microsoft Educator Center. https://education.microsoft.com/en-us/resource/0c6e9c42