Lots to Learn about Assistive Technology

I realized after taking part in this week’s presentation by Benita, Heidi, Allison, Launel, and Holly that I have much to learn when it comes to assistive technology. In my job I rarely deal with this type of technology directly. I often meet students who are struggling in courses and recognize that they would benefit from some type of assistance in terms of technology or other accommodations. I usually refer these students to the Centre for Student Accessibility(CSA). I also work with students who have accommodations to develop learning strategies and improve their study skills. However, I have never really considered that I may be able to offer additional support to these students in terms of assistive technology. However, after this week’s presentation I realize that there are things that I can do to assist these students technology-wise, especially those who have not been diagnosed with a learning disability.

In an effort to learn more about the types of assistive technology available to U of R students, and the challenges present for students, I interviewed the manager of the CSA, Stephanie Gomersall. Here is what she had to say:

Naomi – What types of assistive technology are available to U of R students?

Stephanie – In the AT lab we have Kurzweil (text-to-speech software), Dragon Naturally Speaking (speech-to-text software – voice recognition), and Inspiration (mind-mapping templates) that are all used for reading/writing/study strategies. These can be beneficial for students with attention difficulties, learning disabilities, slower processing, and challenges with memory. 

We also have JAWS and ZoomText for students who have visual impairments (ie. low vision). Jaws, in particular, can be very difficult to initially learn as there is so much to remember. Each command on the computer can be programmed, which allows students to verbally use applications – and Jaws will describe each page/item out loud. It really is amazing to see a student become confident using the program – particularly if they’ve lost their vision later in life, as it allows complete independence again. 

We also have a CCTV in the AT lab that allows students to place written text under a magnifier and select the degree of magnification that they require. The image appears on a large screen, and can be converted to alter the contrast as needed. 

The most common type of AT is the Livescribe Smartpen that allows students to audio record lectures and upload to an online Evernote account. There are a wide variety of apps available for the pen and it’s really quite straightforward to use. Probably the greatest function of the Smartpen – if students write in a Livescribe notebook while audio recording the pen will actually sync the two together. They’re also relatively cheap!
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Photo credit: “@derrellg in the Assistive Technology Lab” by mjmonty is licensed under CC by 2.0

Naomi – What are the challenges students face when it comes to assistive technology?

Stephanie – Basically the biggest two barriers for students are access and training. There is government funding for eligible students but many who aren’t eligible (ie. registered in just one course, not permanent Sask residents) can’t access the tools. Some of the software is really expensive – Kurzweil is generally around $1500 – so it’s difficult to purchase without funding. 

Learning to use and becoming truly comfortable with the technology takes a significant amount of work as well! I would say a good percentage of students that first try software in university don’t feel like they have the time to master it and end up reverting back to their usual learning strategies. Depending on how user-friendly the technology is, it can really require commitment to get comfortable. 

Naomi – Do you ever recommend free or low cost software or apps to students?

Stephanie – Sometimes we do recommend free apps, depending on what the student may need – and in other cases psychologists may refer to specific software/apps in their psychoeducational assessment report. Honestly, students are so “techy” these days that a lot are familiar with apps that could technically be considered “assistive tech” (ie. those that help with organizing tasks, creating to-do lists).

Naomi –What are the challenges when it comes to recommending free software or apps?

Stephanie – The challenge with apps is that there are always new ones released, so it’s difficult for our office to stay on top of the ‘best’ or most user-friendly. We’ll often mention a few to students and encourage them to explore various apps to see what works best for them.

Admittedly, knowledge of and experience with assistive tech is where our office lacks – most universities actually have a separate Assistive Technologist position who would assess students needs, create resources, and offer individual training.

Stephanie’s responses to the questions about challenges with AT come as no surprise. Tuesday’s presentation outlined access to technology and lack of training as common AT challenges. In addition, In Rethinking Assistive Technology, Edyburn cites similar challenges in the field of AT including lack of AT specialists, not enough training, AT becoming a “task of procedural compliance”, and the fact that AT and IT are not linked. I believe that on our campus the IT department has little to do with the AT lab.

I agree with Edyburn’s recommendation that AT should be renamed “Technology Enhanced Performance”, and that the educational institutions should have easy to use tools in place that are available to everyone, not just those students who have received diagnoses. As Heidi mentioned in her blog, AT should be available to all learners. I loved Heidi’s example of the wheelchair ramp and how at times we all benefit from using ramps.

I know that there are things that I can do to help make this a reality at the U of R. For example, Stephanie sent me a document with many different apps and software tools that are available for free or a small charge. This document includes apps for note-taking, life skills, money management, text-to-speech, auditory processing, classroom apps, handwriting, time management and more. Note: The document is a pdf so I cannot post it here, but email me if you want a copy. I can become familiar with these apps so that I can recommend them to students who would benefit from using them. In addition, I can work to find other ways to make students’ lives easier. I loved Tyson’s example of how he was able to get an iPod touch for a student to use in place of a heavy device. I can look for opportunities like this to advocate for students and help them use technology to be successful. Are there things that you can do in your classrooms or work places to help make AT available to all learners?

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