Some summer camps teach archery or horsebackriding skills. The Bridges Assistive Tech Camp gives kids digital superpowers for pushing past their learning barriers.
By the time they return to middle school in the fall, campers with a variety of learning disabilities will have mastered all sorts of tools and hacks for succeeding in school.
“We’re providing them with tools that help bridge the gap in their reading and writing skills,” says Susie Blackstien-Adler, who works in professional development for Bridges, an assistive technology company in Ontario, Canada. “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?”
For the past six years, the company has collaborated with the Halton District School Board in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, to provide the week-long training camps for students who receive government funding for assistive technology. The program has grown to encompass 250 students in 29 camps at four locations throughout the district – with a waiting list of students eager to get in.
If student and parent feedback is any indicator, the camp has been a smashing success. “Parents tell us it decreases the anxiety their kids have around the technology,” Blackstien-Adler says. “They’re able to achieve more than they were able to before.”
Why does it work?
STUDENTS LEARN THROUGH CREATIVE PROJECTS. Students gain mastery over their assistive technology by collaborating in groups to complete authentic research projects, each of which culminates in a creative presentation in which they showcase their learning.
Last summer, they contributed to a nationwide effort to celebrate Canada’s 150th year as a country by researching their local communities and posting their work on a national website created by kids, for kids.
TEACHERS MODEL TECHNOLOGY USE. In a regular classroom, many students with learning disabilities rarely see teachers using assistive technology, so they may not always think to reach for the tools that can help them. At tech camp, they’re constantly seeing these tools in action. “Teachers know modeling matters,” she says. “If we want students to be using it, they need to see their teachers using it. And it needs to be ongoing – they need to keep seeing it and hearing it.”
LEARNING IS DIFFERENTIATED. With two instructors for every 10 students, there are plenty of opportunities to personalize training for each student’s unique needs. Campers learn to take advantage of the built-in assistive tools on their Chromebooks and other devices as well as the free features, extensions and toolbars available through their Google Suite apps. They use text-to-speech to support their reading comprehension when researching online. They use speech-to-text when their mind is moving faster than their keyboarding skills. They discover organizational tools like Mindomo for mapping out their writing projects.
To help expand the tech camps beyond district borders, Bridges now offers a training program for educators who are interested in replicating the idea within their own communities.
Educators can spend a week in Ontario, observing the camp from start to finish and working after hours with instructors to create a plan and develop their own curriculum.
“When they leave at end of week, they’ll have everything they need to start their own camps,” Blackstien-Adler says.
Turning parents intotechnologyleaders
It takes a tech-savvy village to raise good digital citizens. But parents who are living in poverty and learning English may not be prepared to help their children safely navigate the online world.
Once they’ve completed the Digital Citizenship Academy created by California’s Santa Ana Unified School District, however, they walk away with the skills and confidence to support not just their children, but also other parents within their school community.
“We wanted to build parent leaders at individual school sites who can help their friends and neighbors become stronger in regard to technology,” says Nadia Hillman, Ed.D., executive director of elementary education for the Los Angeles-area district. “The academy was designed to elevate parents to be those leaders.”
It began as part of Cyber Savvy Week, a districtwide program designed to teach kids about online safety and digital citizenship. To loop parents in on internet safety best practices, the program included classes and resources for parents as well as for students.
“We want our students to be empowered to access information online – and to be critical consumers of that information,” Hillman says. “And we want parents to have the same level of capacity.”
But in a district more than 50,000 students strong, engaging a critical mass of parents isn’t easy. Their solution: Expand their Cyber Savvy Week curriculum into a Digital Citizenship Academy that shapes parents into technology leaders. Each participant receives training, curriculum, materials and logistical support for leading their own digital citizenship classes within their school communities.
So far, over 150 parents from 43 schools have completed the training and taken what they’ve learned back home to share with other parents. Based on feedback from principals, the academy has already boosted parent engagement throughout the district.
Why does it work?
PARENTS LEARN FROM PEERS. For parents who don’t speak English, receiving technology training from a friend or neighbor who understands their needs often makes all the difference. “These are highly technical topics that are detailed in nature, so it helps if it’s a parent they know well and feel less intimidated around,” Hillman says. “They’re more apt to be able to ask questions about technical issues.”
TECHNOLOGY USE IS INTEGRATED. The academy teaches digital citizenship concepts by familiarizing parents the same tools their children are using. “By using technology as part of the instructional program, it becomes more than just making sure kids aren’t cruising the internet on questionable websites,” she says. “It’s more about how they can use technology in productive ways in their own adult lives.”
PARENTS ARE EMPOWERED. When parents are elevated to leadership roles, no matter their background or experience, the district's entire support system is bolstered. As they discover what a difference digital proficiency can make in their lives, they’re more likely to get behind other edtech initiatives.
“Our overarching goal is to make sure students have the agency to be lifelong learners in a global society,” Hillman says. “If parents have an idea of how technology helps them connect with the larger community and the larger world, it models for students how important this is for them.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter. she writes about education technology and the transformation of learning.