Guest Author: Kathy Howery, University of Alberta – Assistive Technology Implementation: How do we know it? How can we show it? I was delighted to be asked to participate in the recent Rocky View Research Conference, and particularly delighted to have the opportunity to talk about assistive technology implementation. Why is this topic so near and dear to my heart you might ask? Well that’s easy – now more than ever before there are assistive technology solutions for students that can help them overcome physical, sensory, cognitive and even social/emotional challenges to become active participants in learning and life! There are hundreds, no thousands, of assistive devices on the market. Able Data lists some 40,000 products! Happily they also help us sort through those thousand of products by categorizing them by function and special features so we are not so likely to get lost in the AT forest. Since the huge uptake of tablets and smartphones there has also been a huge increase built in accessibility in the operating systems (see for example Apple Accessibility solutions). Back in the day we had to add all those features as add-ons – the world has certainly changed for the better! These almost ubiquitous devices have also lead AT manufacturers to create 100s if not 1000s of apps that create new opportunities for barrier free access to the tools of today’s classrooms.
So you might say what’s the problem? Why am I so keen to talk about implementation when it seems like all we need to say is “there’s an app for that’? Well… there is the rub. Despite, or one may argue perhaps because of, the vast array of AT devices the rate of underuse or even worse abandonment of AT remains extremely high. People who have studied this phenomenon of AT abandonment put the rate anywhere from 30% (Phillips, B. & Zhao, H.1993) to a shocking 75 to 80%. (Ebner, 2004). To be fair, sometimes AT is not abandoned but appropriately put aside for something new or more appropriate. But, in my journeys around the province I continue to see students that have access to software and devices that they are underutilizing or not using at all despite that fact that it would very likely help them communicate, participate and learn.
There are a few definitions of AT in the literature, including of course the Alberta definition of Assistive Technology for Learning (see http://www.rockyview.ab.ca/techsupports/assistive-technology for this definition). What is key in this definition as well as in others is that AT is defined NOT ONLY as the devices, the things, but also as the services that are necessary to be in place to ensure those things are implemented in a way that the result improved student function and success. As I often say, one can go to any number of websites or catalogues and find a device or devices that sound like they will be the “the thing” to compensate for a child’s struggles, but it is much more challenging to find the expertise, personnel, training and supports necessary to really make that thing or those things (the AT system) work for the student in his or her environment to accomplish the tasks involved in schooling and in life. This is what we seem to be missing – Assistive Technology Services and Supports – and the research tells the same story.
Studies conducted during the past 20 years have documented lack of access to technology, insufficient funding for devices and services, and the need for further training as the most commonly expressed needs and barriers (Bausch, Ault, Evmenoa, & Behrmann 2008). A recent study of AT implementation in Michigan reiterates these same themes (Okolo and Jeff Diedrich, 2014). The Michigan study highlighted need for improved awareness, knowledge, skills and-to a lesser extent attitudes as being at the top of the list of barriers and actions needed. These authors also note that concern about educators professional preparation has been cited in several decades of research, their findings suggest this concern continues. Even if teachers are keen to learn about best practices in AT evaluation, implementation and use they struggle to find professional learning opportunities either at the pre-service or in-service level.
Unfortunately most of the research has been done outside of Canada. Certainly there has been little to no research done looking at effective AT implementation in Alberta. So now perhaps you understand why I am so keen to talk about this.
Rocky View Schools has a proud history of leveraging technologies to create engaging, authentic and accessible learning for students. But, how are we doing for students that need AT to be successful? Are RVS students with complex or significant needs getting the devices and services they need to communicate, participate and learn? Are those systems being implemented in ways that really promotes success and facilitates meaningful inclusion? How do we know it? How can we show it?
There are several good resources teachers and consultants can go to consider best practices in AT implementation. Here are a couple of my favourites:
QIAT stands for Quality Indicators of Assistive Technology (www.qiat.org). If you visit the QIAT site you will find a wealth of ideas and resources on best practices in AT. Some of you may know of QIAT through the amazing listserve where you can ask an AT question and get answers from some of the most experienced AT personnel across North America. I encourage you to look at the Quality Indicators themselves. These have been developed and vetted by AT experts and in my opinion are the most useful tools one can use to understand that quality looks like – and what might happen if we don’t attend to some of the issues raised. While there is certainly an American slant, I think the information is definitely translatable to our context.
The second resource I would like to point you towards is a Canadian gem!
SETBC is a organization funded by the government of British Columbia to provide AT supports and services to students with disabilities in that province. Happily for us, andmany others, they generously share their work and resources on their website, www.setbc.org . While you may find yourself dazzled by the great information here, I would like to point you to their resources on Effective Implementation of Assistive Technology. I use these every time I teach an Assistive Technology course. I think you will not go to far wrong if you use them as guidelines as well.
In closing, I want to acknowledge that there is much good work being done across the division in this area! But I put out the challenge to do better and to document what you are doing, how you are doing it and how you know it’s working for kids! I am hoping that next year at the RVS Research Conference there will be many more people presenting on AT and how you have used best practices and data to inform your work and create student success.
In closing I will leave you with my favorite quote about assistive technology!
“The success of technology has more to do with people than machines. All the right parts and pieces together won’t work miracles by themselves. It is people who make technology powerful by creatively using it to fulfill their dreams.” Alliance for Technology Access, 1996
Looking forward to hearing about dreams fulfilled!