Handhelds and Special Needs Students

Long before legislation required schools to consider appropriate assistive technology in order for students with disabilities to receive a free, appropriate public education, professionals working with these students realized the potential of technology for educating these students. As desktop computers became widely available in classroom settings, I was a special educator who was intrigued with the possibilities of using technology to help my students reach their educational goals.

For students with learning disabilities, early educational software programs were the patient tutors providing basic drill and practice activities. Word processing programs provided hope for my students who struggled with writing. As the possibilities of technology expanded for improving the educational outcomes of students with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) established federal requirements for assistive technology, starting in 1995. Assistive technology is defined as any item, piece of equipment, or product used to increase, maintain, or improve the abilities of people with disabilities, as explained in The Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988 as amended in 1994 (PL 103-218). As an educator my hope was that assistive technologies – both low-tech and high-tech – would allow my students with disabilities to have increased academic success.

Early assistive technology devices were not very portable, and learning how to operate them effectively was complex and needed more technology support than what was readily available. Today handheld computers offer students of varying types of disabilities the power of technology in the palm of their hands. My students can take their handheld computers to their work rather than take their work to the desktop computer. For example my students can take their handhelds outside to collect data from the birdhouses we monitor. They have used their handhelds to collect information from probes and data loggers placed in incubators that were in two different classrooms in our building. These devices are easy to operate, flexible and very portable. The possibilities are endless, especially with the advent of the integration of wireless technology into the handheld computer.

Handheld computers can be effective in assisting students with disabilities in improving their language arts skills. Often students with learning differences have difficulty organizing and planning when it comes to successfully completing writing assignments. Using a handheld computer with an outlining program provides students with a motivational way to improve their writing skills. This type of program provides students with the needed structure and flexibility to ensure their success. When I was setting up a video conference with the director of Monarch Watch I had my students brainstorm topics and use the outlining program to organize their questions. This helped the conference run more smoothly.

With the portability of the handheld computer, the student can add notes from researching their topic anywhere they can access resources instead of bringing the resources to the computer. Word processing has long provided students with learning differences an opportunity to more easily express their thoughts and ideas. With a good word processing program for the handheld computer and add-on portable keyboards the power of word processing can go with the students anywhere. My students will actually ask me if they are going to use their handhelds with their keyboards. What they are asking me is if they are going to have a chance to write that day. This represents a significant change in their willingness to work on skills that are difficult for them. It also points out the benefits of providing them with technology that can motivate them to improve their skills. Adding a dictionary and/or thesaurus program provides additional accessible support for these students. It is so much easier and quicker to look up a word on your handheld than to walk to the bookshelf and pick up a dictionary.

Students with learning differences frequently need extra time to learn new material. This is evident when they are asked to memorize the basic facts of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. As educators we’ve often used flashcards and drills to assist these students but the students have not always found these to be enjoyable ways to memorize the basic facts. Using the handheld computer with math flashcard type programs has been very motivational for my students. Often I have to convince my students that it is time to move on to another activity.

When students with learning differences need to collect data for science experiments it can be difficult for them to organize the information and record it accurately. Knowing what information to collect and where to record it can be a significant challenge. Removing this challenge means the student can spend more time analyzing the data. A handheld computer using a mobile database program allows the student to accurately enter the data, and there are no lost papers. By syncing the handheld with the desktop computer they can create charts and graphs with the data collected on their handheld. In my classroom we have a weather station. The students use their handhelds to track the daily high and low temperature and rainfall totals. At the end of the month they can get averages and totals that they use to make graphs. The process is so streamlined that more time can be spent on analyzing the data collected rather than accurately recording the data.

Helping these students recognize and chart their progress is important for their self-esteem and resiliency. Taking a test is a stress-filled event for my students. If you can give them opportunities to review the material and receive feedback they are often more able to strive towards improvement. Using a quiz program on the handheld allows my students to do this anytime and anywhere. It also allows my students and myself to chart progress toward meeting the goals of the individual education plan. My students get immediate feedback and will often ask to retake a quiz to improve their score.

Handheld computers are flexible and motivational technology tools for students with disabilities. They are an affordable way to meet the varied needs of these students in a portable and personal package. Teachers and support personnel can learn how to use this tool with the students without the need for extensive technology support. The wireless capabilities of the handheld computer will mean additional learning opportunities for such activities as research using the Internet. Multimedia and voice recording applications will also add new dimensions to handheld computing for students with learning challenges.

Email:Karen Vitek