How EdTech Is a “Game Changer” for Special Education

September 29, 2015

This article was written by Dennis Pierce, the former editor-in-chief of eSchool News, and current freelance writer covering education and technology. He has been following the ed-tech space for more than 17 years. To contact him, email: 

During a recent event in Washington, D.C., educators described how technology is opening doors for students with disabilities. edtech

For instance, at the city’s E.L. Haynes High School, 44 percent of students are English language learners, have special needs, or both. Yet all of the students in this urban charter school’s first graduating class have been accepted into college, said Principal Caroline Hill—and she attributed this success to a personalized, self-paced approach made possible by technology.

E.L. Haynes has a one-to-one laptop program, and students also can bring their own devices to school. Using a “flipped” learning approach, teachers record their lessons and post them online, so students can watch the content over and over again until they understand—and class time is used to provide more personalized support.

If schools are to meet the learning needs of every student, including those with disabilities, then “we have to think differently about how we provide instruction,” Hill said.

Hill was speaking at a June 17 briefing on Capitol Hill that focused on the intersection of technology and special education. During the event, which was hosted by the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training, Hill and other educators described how technology is empowering students with disabilities to achieve at high levels.

About 2.5 million children in the United States have some kind of learning disability, said Kim Hines, associate director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. For these children, “technology has been a game changer,” she said, “and for some, it’s been life-changing… We now know what kids are able to do and not just what they are unable to do.”

Edtech innovations have helped make content more accessible for students with disabilities, while also allowing them to demonstrate what they know in more diverse ways, Hines said. As a result, technology has “opened doors for students with disabilities that have previously been closed to them.”

At E.L. Haynes, students are able to work at their own pace, Hill said—making learning the constant and time the variable, instead of vice versa. This eliminates the anxiety that students often feel when the teacher moves on to the next topic and they have not learned the previous content.

“For students with disabilities, this anxiety could be the difference between staying engaged in their learning and mastering content,” Hill said, “or disengaging and failing.”

Angela Foreman, a special-education teacher at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Va., said her school has seen “a huge difference” from putting iPads in the hands of students with disabilities.

Like E.L. Haynes, Jamestown has embraced a flipped approach to instruction. This helps with pre-teaching concepts, Foreman said, such as multiplying large numbers. Kids can watch the videos “as many times as they need” the night before a lesson, and Foreman and her colleagues infuse these videos with humor and catchy songs. Then, when students come to class the next day, the teachers start singing those songs—and “the light bulbs come on” for students, she said, stimulating the connective pathways in their brains.

Technology also helps teachers differentiate their lessons for students with disabilities, Foreman said. For instance, teachers can create customized content for students to download and work on independently.

Kate Nagel, a science teacher who works with high-functioning students on the autism spectrum at The Ivy Mount School in Rockville, Md., said her school is using the Science Techbook from Discovery Education. This interactive digital textbook includes features that make the content more accessible for students with disabilities, such as the ability to have the text read aloud to them.

“This gives students a sense of independence and ownership,” she said, because they no longer have to ask for help.

The Techbook content also includes interactive games and video clips explaining key concepts, which students find engaging, Nagel said. When students are interacting with the content in this way, “they really internalize what they’re learning.”

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