Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 7, 2013

Technology equals opportunity for special education students

By Lindsey Ziliak
Tribune staff writer

— Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in Emily Nicholson’s life skills class at Western Intermediate School matched letters on what looked like a giant iPad.

The children squealed and clapped when they matched a letter pair correctly.

“They’re really proud of what they’ve done,” Nicholson said.

All of her students have a moderate to severe disability. Some of them don’t speak. Some have limited motor skills. A few of them have behavioral problems.

Teachers are using technology to reach all of those students in new ways.

The Kokomo Area Special Education Cooperative, which serves students in seven school districts, recently spent $20,000 to buy two TAP-its — giant interactive learning stations designed specifically for children with special needs.

The 42-inch screen is designed to recognize the difference between an arm resting on the screen and a finger or assisted device intentionally tapping an image. The screen is mounted on a stand that can be adjusted to accommodate students who are in a wheelchair and sit lower to the ground.

Students practice number and letter recognition on it. They listen to music on it to learn about patterns.

The students love it, Nicholson said.

Concepts like numbers and letters are very abstract and can be hard for students to learn.

The games they play on the TAP-it give more meaning to those concepts.

Some of the children already know their letters and numbers, though, and the technology is simply a means to communicate how much they’ve mastered.

Nicholson said she has students who don’t speak and don’t have the motor skills to hold a pencil or turn the pages of a book.

It’s hard to assess how much a child has learned when that child can’t take a written or oral exam like other students, she said.

But technology now allows students to show what they’ve learned with the swipe of a hand or even the touch of their nose.

Nicholson has watched students transform before her eyes once they finally make a connection with the world.

KASEC Director Cheryl Harshman said some behavior problems have disappeared completely. Students who were aggravated that other people couldn’t understand them before could let go of their frustrations.

“It opens up a whole new world for them,” she said.

A few miles east at Eastern High School, the scene is much the same.

High schoolers in a life skills class concentrated on counting money using an iPad application.

Their worksheets show a picture of four pennies. They find the picture of the penny on the iPad and type in the number four.

The iPad tells them those pennies are worth $0.04.

Jonathan Snow worked through the exercise, rarely looking up from his tablet — even as people around him talked.

“That’s amazing,” Harshman said.

At one time, Snow veered off task so many times in a day he had to wear headphones to block out the distractions.

The technology keeps him so engaged that he no longer needs them, Harshman said.

Students learn to read books using an easy reader application.

Sometimes the teens learn to play games on the tablet, life skills teacher Mary Evans said.

The high schoolers she teaches often can’t play video games like their peers because the controllers have too many buttons.

But on the iPad, many of the games can be played with just a swipe to the screen.

“The kids love it,” she said.

They’re constantly asking her when she will let them use the iPads again.

Harshman said it’s her dream to implement one-to-one technology in all her special education classrooms at Western and Eastern.

She wants students to be able to take the devices home at night and have one to use at all times during the school day.

Funding prevents her from doing that now. She said she’s working to secure grants for the project.

She’s certain it will happen one day, though.

So Snow will be able to walk down the hallway carrying his tablet like the rest of his peers at the high school.

KASEC Assistant Director Wendi Campbell said that will be a beautiful sight.

“This is just one more way they’re like their peers,” she said.