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iPads, Galaxys, and Other Devices are Becoming Staples of Special Ed Classrooms

By Gail Robinson 

Eleven-year-old Matthew Votto sits at an iPad, his teacher at his elbow. She holds up a small laminated picture of a $20 bill.

“What money is this?” she asks. Matthew looks at the iPad, touches a square marked “Money Identification,” and then presses “$20.” “Twenty,” the tablet intones, while the teacher, Edwina Rogers, puts another sticker on a pad, bringing Matthew closer to a reward.

They race through more questions. “What day of the week is it?” “What is the weather outside?” “What money is this?” In most cases Matthew, who has autism, answers verbally, but he is quicker and seems more comfortable on the device.

A few classrooms away at Eden II, a Staten Island, New York, nonprofit that provides programs for people with autism, the going is slower but the approach is the same. Anthony Scandaglia, a teenager who does not really speak, tries to identify simple activities on the iPad. “What do you use to drink?” the teacher asks. He presses a picture of a cup.

Anthony and Matthew are among a growing number of children on the autism spectrum who use electronic devices—in their cases, iPads equipped with a software program called Proloquo—for learning. Just a few years ago, they would have used bulky communication devices costing $6,000 to $10,000, if they used any technology at all. Or they would have communicated by picking out pictures and sticking them to a board.

Special education students have long used so-called assistive technologies, such as audiobooks for the visually impaired or special transmitters for hearing-impaired students. So today’s trend toward blended learning—the combining of technological devices with more traditional instruction—may seem less jarring to these students than to their general education peers.

Some experts caution that, as with so much in the world of educational technology, definitive research about results is scant. “There is little research on how students with disabilities are doing with online and blended learning,” says Tracy Gray, managing researcher for education at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit that conducts behavioral and social science research.

But others believe that children with certain kinds of disabilities, such as those on the autism spectrum, respond especially well to technology programs because the programs behave in consistent, predictable ways. And unlike earlier technologies for students with special needs, the tablets and laptops are portable and indistinguishable from devices used by other students.

As developers continue to design a huge array of products—from free apps, such as Bookshare, to expensive robots—hopes are running high. Some programs help students with attention deficit disorders get organized; others track students’ individual education plans or provide lists of words to prompt struggling writers.

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