iPads, iPod Touches, and iPhones as Assistive Technology in Education

3/28/2011 6:00:00 AM

by Eric Lawson 

The recent release of Apple’s iPad has opened up some great new ideas and creative paths for teachers looking for assistive technologies (AT) for their classroom. Tactile learners and digital natives alike love to use these handheld devices to learn about core curriculum standards within the classroom. According to Apple's website, “iPod touch and iPhone use a high-resolution Multi-Touch screen, ideal for those who have difficulty using a traditional keyboard and mouse.” The iTunes app. store has even showcased a tab for special education apps, available as AT for students with learning disabilities. The app store often offers these same apps for the iPod Touch and iPhone. These tablets and handheld devices can be used in many different ways and offer communication options for students with autism. 

Applications

Applications for handheld devices are becoming more and more popular in education. Many teachers are starting to use these apps on handheld devices to promote reading fluency and comprehension, communication skills, and other core curriculum concepts. There are so many apps to choose from, it sometimes gets overwhelming when searching for one that best fits the lesson or the individual learner. I have a few recommendations for apps that can be used as AT within the classroom on all three devices.

TapToTalk is a free app that uses symbols to help students form sentences. Students with verbal issues or those who cannot speak at all can use this app to communicate with their teacher and peers. The free gallery offers phrases about feelings and every day statements such as, “I feel happy” or, “I need to go to the bathroom.” Additional galleries for forming sentences can be downloaded from the company’s website as well, including symbols or pictures to reflect the student’s, individual teacher’s or daily routines. This has been a great feature for one of our students with autism in fifth grade. He used to use a Vantage Vanguard touch box and is very familiar with touching symbols to form sentences. Having the ability to import pictures of his teachers and peers in his class has been a huge advantage in his communications, as he used to have to type in the names of these people before with his touch box. 

A more robust program for communicating for students with autism is Proloquo2Go. This app costs $189.99; however, compared to the cost of paying for software and equipment such as a text-to-speech touch box, the money could be well worth it. The application uses SymbolStix Symbols to help students communicate. Sentences are formed and the tablet or handheld device will read the text out loud. The product website states, “Proloquo2Go has been helping individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), cerebral palsy, down syndrome, developmental disabilities, ALS, traumatic brain injury, aphasia, apraxia, and more.” (http://www.proloquo2go.com/About/article/ipad)  

Text-to-speech and speech-to-text apps are also available on the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone. Dragon Dictation is a dictation tool that changes the spoken word into text. Students who have trouble with gross and/or fine motor skills can use this app to communicate effectively in text, without having to write or type. These text notes can then be easily shared via Facebook, Twitter and email. The copy/paste feature allows the user to transfer the text into any other application they may need to add to as well.  Personally, I have only used this a few times with students, but I have found that this app is a wonderful alternative to texting. I can speak into the iPhone using this app and convert it to a text message faster then typing on the smaller keyboard.

Text-to-speech options are available for many apps including iBooks. A student can pick out a book from the shelf and simply hold their finger on a word, and the word will be read out loud to the student. A dictionary feature also allows students to look up the meaning of the word and to add a note to review later that bookmarks the word on the page. Audio options are available for all of these features. I worked with a second grader who was struggling with reading, and the text-to-speech feature and dictionary option helped him get through the struggles of not understanding a sentence enough to grasp the key elements of the story. Two months into the school year, this same student was leaving sticky notes for the teacher within the application connecting the story to personal experiences. Clearly this student had grown leaps and bounds due to this technology.     

There are many apps from the iTunes store geared towards English Language Learners (ELL) as well. Apps are available for translation between languages, and ELL students can benefit from apps that offer language-building skills and promote reading and speaking fluency as well. I have seen an emerging English reader use iTalk Lite, a free voice recorder app. in a first grade classroom. The student read into the microphone on the teacher’s iPhone to record his voice. A synchronization program, also free from the developer’s website, allowed the teacher to grab a copy of the recording onto the laptop as well. After his best recorded reading, a CD was burned for the student to take home for further listening and practice. This is also a great way for the student to showcase their successes, or model inflection and fluency to other struggling students. This opens up all kinds of opportunities for teachers to create audio directions, alternative text books, and fluency practice lessons for students that require it.

Apple’s iPhone 3GS now comes standard with accessible navigation software, including spoken-menu technology for blind and low-vision students and Mono Audio mode for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Conclusion

Our school district has included 20 iPod Touches and 15 iPads in next year’s budget as a way to pilot some programs within our school and develop strong AT programs. These devices can definitely provide learning for everyone, but are especially great resources when it comes to assistive technologies.

Eric Lawson, is a technology integration specialist for the York School Department, in York, Maine. He is particularly interested in the use of technology in the classroom. Eric is enrolled in a master’s degree program in Technology in Education at Lesley University.

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