What the 2016 National Education Technology Plan Means for Students with Learning Disabilities

Many students with learning disabilities don’t have access to adequate accommodations in American schools. But this may be about to change.

For many years, students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities and differences have received help, such as resource room support, extra time on assignments and tests, and — for work involving written text — readers and scribes (usually teachers). More recently, the abundance of assistive technology (AT) has given these kids easier access to the tools they need to be as independent as possible.

Still, not all students are able to secure AT accommodations in their schools. Limited budgets and inadequate teacher training keep some kids with learning disabilities from the technological solutions they need. The United States Department of Education has recognized this — and it’s just published its National Education Technology Plan (NETP) to propose remedies.

Titled “Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education,” the 2016 NETP outlines the DoE’s recommendations for improving outcomes associated with technology use for all students, regardless of their learning abilities. There’s a strong emphasis, however, on using technology to meet the standards of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). For LD students, this means having access to adequate AT.

The NETP aligns with the recently authorized Every Student Succeeds Act and suggests plans for states, school districts, and even postsecondary institutions; it consists of five sections covering learning, teaching, leadership, assessment, and infrastructure. The report is full of useful (and sometimes futuristic) information, but I’m going to run through six of the principles most relevant to students with learning disabilities and differences.

Bringing Equity to Learning Through Technology

Ever since computers and the Internet became commonplace in education, there has been a digital divide between schools that can afford high-quality technology and those that can’t. The NETP aims to change that. While relatively inexpensive devices like Chromebooks and tablets are making technology (and assistive technology) more affordable to schools with limited resources, much of what makes these devices useful relies on the Internet for full functionality. Adding high-speed Web access to schools’ infrastructure is essential. The NETP reminds educators that federal funds exist for this very purpose.

First established in 1996, the Schools and Libraries Service Support Program, otherwise known as the E-rate program, provides billions of dollars in federal funding to U.S. schools and libraries to connect them to the Internet. Even better news: It was updated in 2014, helping level the digital playing field for thousands of students today.

The NETP insists that schools go beyond just buying pieces of tech, instead urging them to transform learning by “ensuring all students understand how to use technology as a tool to engage in creative, productive, life-long learning rather than simply consuming passive content.”

Fostering Ongoing Professional Learning

One of the main reasons schools and teachers are hesitant to implement technology in their classrooms is a lack of knowledge. According to the NETP, “more than two-thirds of teachers say they would like more technology in their classrooms, and roughly half say that lack of training is one of the biggest barriers to incorporating technology into their teaching.” This is particularly true when it comes to AT; not only do many teachers not understand the difficulties that students with LD experience, but they also are not aware of the various AT tools that can help.

Along with recommending formal ongoing training, the NETP encourages schools to establish mentor programs, in which “teacher-leaders and those with experience … can provide support to their peers by answering questions and modeling practical uses of technology.” The NETP encourages teachers to be co-learners alongside their students and not to be afraid of using technology just because they are not “experts” (yet!) in assimilating it into their classrooms.

Rethinking Teacher Preparation

While it is important for teachers already in the profession to keep learning and receiving supports, it is equally important for teachers-in-training to gain knowledge of education technology. In this day and age, technology should be embedded in all pedagogies. The NETP makes it clear that “effective use of technology is not an optional add-on or a skill that we simply can expect teachers to pick up once they get into the classroom.” Instead, they need to be able to use tech “to realize each state’s learning standards” from their first day on the job.

Teachers also need to understand that digital tools are necessary for students with learning disabilities, who use them to access and demonstrate knowledge as independently as possible.

Believe it or not, there are still teachers who believe that all students should complete their work in the same ways. They consider AT to be a form of “cheating,” claiming that it gives students with learning disabilities unfair advantages. This misconception can be avoided if teacher preparation programs cover the educational technology and assistive technology that can meet UDL principles of accessibility (more on this in a moment).

Providing Technology Accessibility for All Learners

According to the NETP, modern education needs to be driven by the principles of Universal Design for Learning, which exhorts teachers to provide lessons in multiple ways when possible (visually, aurally, interactively), to allow kids to demonstrate learning in multiple ways (like project-based or experiential learning), and to make a concerted effort to connect new lessons with students’ existing knowledge. Learning needs to be accessible to everyone, including those with learning disabilities.

As you might guess by this point, one of the best ways to ensure effective inclusion is through the use of assistive technology. The NETP points out that AT tools “such as text-to-speech, speech-to-text, enlarged font sizes, color contrast, dictionaries, and glossaries” can help all students learn.

Once teachers understand UDL and how to incorporate it into their classrooms, all students will have an equal opportunity to learn, express their knowledge, and stay engaged with their education. The NETP emphasizes that technology will lead to the best results in UDL classrooms because of the flexibility offered by digital learning — “mobile devices, laptops, and networked systems” allow instructors to tailor lessons and assignments to every student, empowering them to learn in the ways that work best for them individually.

Developing Budgeting and Funding for Technology

Technology can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. Traditional line items like copy machines and printers (and their related supplies and maintenance) eat up relatively large portions of schools’ annual budgets. And that’s not to mention textbooks and other print materials — many of which, like posters, brochures, and cafeteria menus, could be designed by students as part of forward-thinking projects. Even designated computer rooms and their upkeep, more and more old-fashioned as technology becomes increasingly integrated into education, are becoming things of the past. The NETP challenges schools to rethink their budgets and to be creative about funding technology initiatives.

Put simply, schools should cut spending on obsolete and unnecessary tech resources. The document also points out that there are a number of openly licensed educational resources available to schools at no cost. Free AT tools are among those resources; these can be made available to LD students without putting a dent in schools’ budgets.

Transforming Assessment Through Technology

Testing students’ knowledge is a necessary component of the educational system, but the NETP recommends using technology to transform assessment into a more authentic and useful experience. It makes clear that “the shift from traditional paper and pencil to next-generation digital assessments enables more flexibility, responsiveness, and contextualization.” In other words, technology can help teachers move beyond traditional multiple-choice and true/false questions, into more interactive and even immersive projects. Tools that are currently available can even help teachers provide real-time feedback to students.

While everyone stands to benefit from this responsivity, the potential gains are huge for students with disabilities. This shift toward accessible electronic testing has the potential to be a game-changer. The NETP points out that AT features “embedded in technology-based assessments reduce the need to single out individual students for extra supports, providing an added benefit for students and educators alike.” When assessment and tech are aligned, kids are more free to demonstrate and apply their knowledge.

Moving Forward

Realizing the vision of the National Education Technology Plan will take a group effort from all education stakeholders, including administrators, teachers, funders, technology developers, parents, and students. The NETP recommendations are capable of transforming learning from outdated methods to technology-driven pedagogy that is beneficial for all students — but only if they are embraced and put into practice.

While the NETP is clear on the fact that the mere presence of tech solutions will not “ensure equity and accessibility in learning,” it does have the ability to remove obstacles, dissolve geographic boundaries, and open doors for all students — especially those who have for years struggled within an education system that has not been responsive to their needs. Soon, with foresight, work, and smart spending, “all learners can access resources, experiences, planning tools, and information that can set them on a path to acquiring expertise unimaginable a generation ago.” It would behoove us to get started now.

Interested in learning more about how schools in your area use technology to support students with learning disabilities? Check out the comprehensive Noodle K–12 school search tool to explore all of your choices. If you have a specific question about a school, click “Ask a Question,” post your query, and expect an answer within a day.

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