Education Week Issue 25 - Technology Counts 2014 - 18
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 16
New Tools Evolve
To Address Autism
Digital assessments for students with autism
have progressed with the help of tablets and
a plethora of apps that address social skills
hen teachers in Ohio's Mentor public schools conducted
for students with autism
last school year, they gathered paper worksheets, devised evaluations they thought
students could manage, and recorded results by hand before collating everything
into a binder for review.
This school year, students are taking the
assessments on computers, they are facing
more-demanding evaluations, and the results will be available in digital formats, said
Kerry Bowser, a special education supervisor
for the 7,900-student district.
In this new environment, students with
autism are tested electronically-often by
adaptive assessments that adjust the level
of difficulty of questions based on how students are answering them-and the assessments and activities are standards-based,
Ms. Bowser added.
"Before, all the students used to pass because teachers based the assessments on
what they thought the student could do," she
said. "It's definitely more of a challenge for the
Assistive technologies for students with autism have progressed with the help of iPads,
tablets, and a plethora of apps that address
learning, social skills, and communication, according to experts. Built into many of those
technologies are new methods of gauging
what students know, using adaptive techniques and multimedia features.
Autism is a developmental disorder often
characterized by social and communication
challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention, about one in 88 children in the
United States has some degree of autism.
Experts say that students with autism are
often drawn to technology, and an abundance
of high-tech tools and apps have been produced in recent years to help with everything
from communication to academics. Though
there is a lack of research on this connection
between people with autism and technology,
the consistency and predictability that technology provides may be part of the attraction,
said Andy Shih, senior vice president of scientific affairs for Autism Speaks, a New York
City-based advocacy organization.
Because technology can open doors of
communication for students with autism
and may increase focus, high-tech assessments can sometimes pinpoint students'
capabilities in ways that more traditional
methods of testing can't, said Terry Walderman, an assistant director of special education for the 84,600-student Jeffco district in
"The technology maintains their attention
more and motivates them," she said. "It can
give them an immediate reward in a way
that's better than paper and pencil."
Companies developing learning products
and services for students with autism are taking into consideration both the connection to
technology that many students have and the
adaptive nature of assessments.
Michele McKeone, the founder and ceo of
Autism Expressed, a Philadelphia-based company that provides digital skills training for
students with autism, said her product taps
into both categories. (Ms. McKeone is a cowriter for The Startup Blog, an opinion blog
hosted on edweek.org that chronicles the challenges of launching and sustaining an educational technology company.)
Every AutismExpressed lesson has an
activity attached, aimed at measuring how
much a student has learned. When a student
gets the activity right, he or she is instantly
awarded a badge, a strategy that experts say
helps keep students with autism engaged.
Repetition, an important strategy for students with autism, is built into the program,
which also allows students to move through
the curricula based on what they've mastered
previously, rather than on what an instructor
thinks they're capable of.
For example, Ms. McKeone said, a student
may watch an animated video about hyperlinks, then be asked to complete an activity
identifying hyperlinks on a page to unlock a
badge as a way to reinforce the learning.
"For our population of students-and for
any kid-if they're not into it, you're really not
going to be able to see what they're capable
of," she said.
Toby Price, an assistant principal at Richland Upper Elementary School in Richland,
Miss., has seen that firsthand, but not at his
school, which frustrates him. At Richland,
teachers still use paper-and-pencil alternative
assessments for students with autism.
Mr. Price, who has two children with autism
of his own, knows that technology can make
a difference in detecting a student's abilities.
His son was still nonverbal at age six when
introduced to the iPad. Within minutes, the
boy-who is now 11 and speaks a bit-was
on a cake-decorating app, appropriately decorating four different cakes based on the four
"He couldn't talk, so we had no idea he
even knew the four seasons," Mr. Price said.
Using technology for school assessments, he
said, "would be easier on the teacher and so
much more effective at showing what kids
can already do."
Other technological developments for children with autism are attracting interest.
One such development is the creation of a
$5,000, 27-inch talking robot named Zeno,
specifically designed to serve the learning
needs of students with autism.
Fred Margolin-the ceo of Dallas-based
RoboKind, which developed Zeno-said students with autism are fascinated by robots
and sometimes seem more engaged with the
>> MARCH 13, 2014
machines than with humans. Experts say
that may be because students with autism
have difficulty interpreting social cues. RoboKind is drafting 12 learning modules focused
on social situations and emotions for use with
Zeno, which can be programmed to be more
consistent and repetitive with instruction.
The robot can also connect to the Internet and
work with a tablet, Mr. Margolin said.
The company is working on a number of
methods for assessing students, including
facial-recognition tools to determine whether
they are paying attention, frustrated, or seem
to be absorbing the instruction-with the goal
of passing that information to teachers. RoboKind is also developing other ways of assessing behavior, such as determining how many
times a student looks at the robot's eyes-a
skill that is sometimes difficult for students
with autism. The company is working with
10 schools that will pilot-test the robot once
the modules are complete, Mr. Margolin said.
Analyzing Performance Data
Technological advances are helping teachers of students with autism use data more
effectively. New apps and software can instantly analyze, chart, and graph data on
how students with autism have performed
on electronic assessments and activities.
Educational technology company ABPathfinder, for example, can collect and centralize data from many different activities for
students with autism and deliver it to teachers, said ceo and President Jeff Blackwood.
Currently, the Overland Park, Kan., company is working with app Brain Parade to
incorporate students' results directly into
its therapy software. Mr. Blackwood said his
company hopes to partner with other apps to
achieve similar goals.
Software and other technology tools can
also look at data entered by different instructors or paraprofessionals to ensure quality of
instruction, said Anne S. Holmes, the chairwoman of the panel of professional advisers
to the Bethesda, Md.-based Autism Society
"Technology is being used to monitor programs, to ensure consistency, and to look at
accountability," she said. "This new technology lets the paraprofessionals enter information into the system, and a supervisor can
look at the trends and graphs, even across
But not everyone is enamored with the
new technological approaches.
Janet Mino, who teaches a class of students
with autism who are 18 or older at John F.
Kennedy High School in Newark, N.J., said
she uses iPads with her students, mostly for
communication assistance for those who are
But for assessments, she prefers to collect her own data and analyze it by hand.
Ms. Mino said she feels the more traditional
approach helps her develop a deeper understanding of where each student stands in
the learning process.
"When I assess," she said, "I always go
back to paper and pencil." n
and will work to resolve any barriers to the use of assistive devices
before operational testing in the
spring of 2015, she said.
Even aside from the common
core, assistive technologies are blurring the lines between what students with disabilities get versus
the rest of the student population.
In the 10,400-student Janesville,
Wis., school district, for instance,
many of the assistive technologies
used are available for all students
based on the concepts of universal
design for learning, said Kathy
White, an assistive-technology specialist for the district.
Word-prediction software, for
example, which suggests words
visually and aloud as students
write, is one of the most commonly
used assistive technologies in the
district, according to Ms. White. It
can help students with disabilities
struggling to spell or conceptualize
an idea, but it can also help an ongrade-level student writing about
a historical period who needs unfamiliar vocabulary, or a kindergartner who wants to use a big word
but doesn't know how to spell it.
Having such technologies available to all students takes away the
stigma that can arise when it's just
students with disabilities who use
them, Ms. White said.
"I've seen a dramatic shift in the
way these students look at technology," she said, referring to students with disabilities. "They used
to say they didn't want to use it
because they'd be different. Now
we know everyone learns in a different manner."
Districts also have to consider
expenses. Some costs for assistive devices are down, because
the technologies are now built
into the assessments-like a text
reader for example-or because
the technology is getting cheaper.
But that's not the case for everything, said Ms. Hymes.
Of course, the reality is that
even as districts embrace assistive
technologies and accommodations
for more students, that approach
doesn't necessarily carry over to
students' experiences with state
In the 210,000-student Houston
school district, officials have taken
up the udl philosophy. Houston
opted for laptops instead of tablets
for its 1-to-1 computing initiative
in part because that choice allows
all students, including those with
disabilities, to use the same technology, with some add-ons, said
Sowmya Kumar, the assistant superintendent for special education.
All students can also use Kurzweil
software, a text-to-speech tool with
built-in study aids, including a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an ideaorganizing tool.
But on state tests, the majority
of students who don't have ieps
won't have access to assistive technologies or accommodations. It's a
practice that Ms. Kumar hopes to
see shift in the near future. n
Education Week Issue 25 - Technology Counts 2014
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