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Equip kids with assistive tech superpowers

By Nicole Krueger
June 25, 2017
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Every superhero has challenges to overcome. Technology can catapult kids over their learning barriers — but only if they know how to use it.

The problem for many kids with learning disabilities is they don’t often see others modeling the assistive technologies that can help them succeed. In their day-to-day learning, they may not think to use of some the tools available right on their Chromebooks or iPads. Sometimes that can mean the difference between being able to understand school assignments or not.

“Most are in regular education classes, and they may not have the opportunity to see other students using the same kinds of technology and activities,” says Susie Blackstien-Adler, who works in professional development for Bridges, an assistive technology company in Ontario, Canada. Assistive technology can sometimes be isolating, like when students get pulled out of class for specialized training.

What they need, she says, is “time to meet with other students who are using the same technology, but in a more relaxed atmosphere.”

Give kids a toolkit 

At the Bridges Assistive Technology Camp, a weeklong summer camp for middle school students with learning challenges, assistive technology is the norm. In fact, it’s fully integrated into an ISTE Standards-based curriculum that involves researching a topic and collaborating a digital project — all while mastering all sorts of technology hacks for succeeding in school.

“We’re providing them with tools that help bridge the gap in their reading and writing skills,” Blackstien-Adler says. “We help them understand which tools can help them in each situation. If I’m on the web and don’t understand the words I’m reading, what do I have in my toolkit?”

The company partners with the Halton District School Board to offer the weeklong training camps at four different locations within the district. Over the past six years, the camp has expanded to serve 250 students in 29 camps. Many of the students are return campers, and there’s a waiting list to get in every year.

Start your own assistive ed summer camp

As many as 64 percent of U.S. schools nationwide have students who use assistive or adaptive hardware. For districts that want to replicate the program’s success, Bridges offers a training program that equips educators with everything they need to start their own assistive tech camp, which Blackstien-Adler will discuss in a poster session at ISTE 2017. She offered the following tips for helping kids master their assistive technology:

Differentiate learning. Since each student’s needs are unique, the camp differentiates learning to help kids master the tools that can help them overcome their specific challenges. Two instructors for every 10 students ensure everyone gets enough one-on-one time. Each student receives ample opportunities to explore the built-in assistive tools available on their own technology in addition to discovering free toolbars, extensions and apps they can find online. “If you don’t know how to control your Chromebook, they’ll teach you to control it,” says Henry, a student at one of the camps.

Elevate the super-users. There are always those students who are more knowledgeable about technology than their peers. Instructors provide opportunities for these students to take on leadership roles within the camp. “It’s amazing for some of them who feel left behind in a regular classroom,” Blackstien-Adler says.

Get parents involved. Technology programs work best when they’re reinforced by parents as well as teachers. The Bridges camp keeps families looped in with a website where they can view their students’ work each day, as well as an easily digestible online course for parents so they can better support their kids at home. “We want to educate families to help their kids understand the components of reading and writing, why kids struggle and some of the strategies and assistive technology tools that can be used to support their learning.”

Both parent and student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, she adds.

“Parents tell us it decreases the anxiety their kids have around the technology. They’re able to achieve more than they were able to before.”

At ISTE 2017? Stop by Susie’s poster session, Assistive Technology Summer Camp: Supporting Student Digital Learning and Confidence Building.