Assisting Teachers in Understanding Assistive Technology: What Recent Research Says
Author: Nicholas Jay Hoekstra
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) defines assistive technology (AT) as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of a child with a disability.” The act requires that AT be considered as part of every student’s individualized education plan (IEP) and that public agencies make assistive devices and services available if it is determined that AT is necessary for the student’s appropriate education.
The data on assistive technology use by students
Despite these requirements, a recent article by Emily Bouk and Holly Long of Michigan State University found that only around 30 percent of students with disabilities reported using AT while at school. The authors analyzed data from over 17,000 secondary students with disabilities from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLST2) for the 2012-13 academic year. While there were wide ranges in AT use across disability categories, less than 20% of students with speech and language impairments, students with learning disabilities, or students with emotional/behavior disorders reported using AT. The authors conclude their article with a call for continued education of preservice teachers regarding AT for students with disabilities.
Preservice teacher preparation
So, how can we better prepare future teachers to support the assistive technology needs of students with disabilities? Research consistently finds that exposure to AT during preservice teacher training, especially with opportunities for hands-on practice, can help teachers enter the classroom better prepared to support students. Evidence from a 2021 study by Jiyeon Park and colleagues found that even a two-hour orientation held in an AT lab on campus significantly increased preservice teacher’s preparedness to use AT. In their lab, the authors provided preservice teachers with an hour-long presentation on the use of AT in classroom settings, demonstrations, and hands-on activities. In addition, participants were able to spend 15-minutes each at varying stations around the lab that focused on technologies specifically designed for the home, workplace, early childhood, and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) areas. The outcomes from this study were particularly significant for general education preservice teachers (GEPT). GEPT reported lower preparedness to use AT than did their special education counterparts prior to the orientation but reported larger gains afterwards.
Similarly, in a 2020 study by Beth Jones and colleagues, preservice teachers were provided with hands-on training in AT as well as an overview of the SETT framework. The SETT framework describes the process of exploring AT devices and services for supporting student needs. In the study, preservice teachers spent 45-minutes in their university’s AT lab where they engaged with a variety of different technologies at a series of stations set up around the room. Following this hands-on exploration, preservice teachers received direct instruction on the SETT framework and how it could be applied when making AT recommendations for a student with a disability. After their training, preservice teachers were able to name significantly more examples of AT than they were before the study. In addition, 94% of participants were able to correctly name the four components of the SETT framework and many were able to apply the framework to a fictional case study.
Applying Research to Practice
We have seen that, despite legal requirements to consider AT devices and services when developing a student’s IEP, remarkably few students with disabilities report using AT in school. It is likely that a major reason for this lack of AT use comes from teacher unfamiliarity with different types of AT and strategies for choosing them.
Introducing AT instruction in preservice education has been demonstrated to be simple and effective. In hands-on orientations lasting between one to two hours, researchers have been able to improve preservice teacher preparedness to identify and select AT for students with disabilities. This training is especially important for general education teacher candidates, who may not be otherwise exposed to AT.
What are available tips for making decisions about the appropriate AT services to provide for students? The IEP team can benefit from considering the Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology Services (QIAT). Among the seven indicators comprising the QIAT are:
- considering AT for all students with disabilities, regardless of type or severity of the disability;
- basing AT decisions upon a student’s learning goals and objectives;
- exploring a range of different AT devices and services to address student needs; and
- documenting all AT decisions on the student’s IEP.
One caveat to the existing research is that, in both studies, preservice teachers were evaluated shortly after their orientations. So, it is not clear how long AT knowledge will remain with teachers. However, these studies have demonstrated the potential impact of short, hands-on exposure to AT, which could serve as a model for continued professional development in schools and districts.
If you are interested in a further discussion on system-wide change for providing assistive technology and accessible educational materials, you might consider CIDDL’s Research and Practice Brief 4, where we speak with Cynthia Curry, the Director of Technical Assistance at CAST. Cynthia discusses the importance of a coordinated system within a school to help ensure that students who need accessible materials and technologies receive them in a timely manner and suggests the POUR principles as a guide for selecting materials that are Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. For more resources, please visit our resource webpage for more resources and sign up for the updates from CIDDL.
Bouck, E. C., & Long, H. (2020). Assistive technology for students with disabilities: An updated snapshot. Journal of Special Education Technology, https://doi.org/10.1177/0162643420914624.
Jones, B. A., Peterson-Ahmad, M., Fields, M., & Williams, N. (2020). Training Preservice Teachers to Match Assistive Technology to Student Needs. Journal of Special Education Technology, https://doi.org/10.1177/0162643420918337
Park, J., Bagwell, A. F., Bryant, D. P., & Bryant, B. R. (2021). Integrating assistive technology into a teacher preparation program. Teacher Education and Special Education, https://doi.org/10.1177/08884064211001447