The Ottawa Network for Education (ONFE) has created a website (www.onfe-rope.ca/at) full of videos and resources to help students, parents and educators explore the capabilities of assistive technology (AT) and make implementation as smooth as possible. The website focuses on computer-based AT and other tools – each for a specific purpose, such as reading, writing, or idea organization. The website and resources developed as part of this project are bilingual and fully accessible. The site has separate sections for K-12 (elementary and secondary) students and postsecondary (college and university) students, as well as resources for teachers and parents.
What is AT?
Just like a pair of glasses can help us see more clearly, computer-based assistive technologies (AT) can make tasks such as reading, writing or organizing information much easier. Students identified by the school board as having certain types of learning disabilities at the K-12 level may be given a laptop with specific AT software (funded by the Ministry of Education) to support their school work. The use of the AT would be identified in their Individual Education Plan. Using AT can level the playing field for students with learning disabilities when they are provided with the appropriate tools, learning strategies and home support.
Although necessary for some students, AT can benefit anyone. There are many types of software and even applications for handheld devices that can support learning, work and other everyday tasks. Just think of electronic calendars, voice recorders and even cameras – these can all be used to store and organize information. They can all be used as “assistive technologies” in a broad sense.
Some students use one particular tool, while others may use a combination of tools to support their learning and the completion of assignments. For some students, support may be needed both at school and at home. As is the case with any new process or software, however, there can be a significant learning curve for new users. It can all seem overwhelming at first.
Origin of the Project
The impetus for the Assistive Technology Support Initiative (ATSI) came from a request by a school in Ottawa for volunteers who could support students using various AT software, such as text–to-speech or speech recognition applications. Through its Ottawa Volunteers in Education program, ONFE facilitates the contribution of over 160,000 hours of volunteer time to local schools – but despite recruitment efforts and searching through hundreds of volunteers in its database, no-one with AT experience could be found. So how could willing volunteers be trained to offer the necessary support? How could we make introducing AT less intimidating for students? Furthermore, parents and even teachers new to AT were looking for more information and support.
After consultation with learning technology experts, ONFE decided to develop a series of AT resources for students, teachers, parents and volunteers accessible via the Internet. A committee was formed, including assistive technology professionals and learning strategists from all four school boards in Ottawa, and the planning began! ONFE received project funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Inukshuk Fund, the Cowan Foundation and from an anonymous donor. The project evolved to include two phases — phase one resources for K-12 and phase two resources for postsecondary students.
The ultimate goal of the Assistive Technology Support Initiative is to achieve synergy with the formal education system in order to enhance the academic success of students using AT for their school work.
At the K-12 level, neither volunteers nor any online resource can replace the role of the classroom teacher in implementing AT and helping students to use appropriate learning strategies. But students who are using AT for the first time are essentially tackling an extra curriculum – they are working through their classroom material while also learning how to use a whole new set of tools. Some children and youth may even be reluctant to begin using tools that their classmates do not have. Through the ATSI website, students, parents and teachers can access resources to support AT implementation. As an added support, the program is training volunteers to work with students one-on-one to help shorten the learning curve and increase acceptance for using new tools and methods.
Upon reaching the postsecondary level, some students may experience new challenges or limitations in applying methods that may have previously been adequate. New tools and strategies can help. Our resources for postsecondary students include information about how students can find and use applications to make the most of tools they already have, including laptops, smartphones and other handheld devices. Links are provided to help students locate appropriate support services at their campus.
ATSI Content Highlights
Students, teachers and parents are partners in the learning process, and trained volunteers can be an important source of added support in the classroom. ATSI includes a customized component for each of these audiences:
- A series of student-focused videos, accessible online to help students better understand what AT can do for them (there are separate videos customized for K-12 and postsecondary students);
- Training and online resource materials to help increase the awareness and understanding of AT by parents/guardians, so they can support their child’s learning;
- Online learning materials, including videos, to supplement teacher training with respect to the implementation of AT;
- Online resources and in-person workshops to train local volunteers so they can be matched with teachers and students through ONFE’s Ottawa Volunteers in Education program.
ATSI resources were developed in close collaboration with the four Ottawa area school boards, local postsecondary institutions, learning disability associations and other experts. All resources are freely available online at www.onfe-rope.ca/AT and are fully accessible and bilingual. Please visit and explore all our resources … new learning modules for elementary and secondary teachers will be added in fall 2011!
Lee-Ann Scott is the Director of Ottawa Volunteers in Education, an Ottawa Network for Education program. Lee-Ann began her assistive technology journey several years ago, while trying to support her child’s learning. Lee-Ann recently completed professional development programs at Cambrian College: Learning Disabilities Specialist Assistive Technology Trainer and Learning Strategist. Lee-Ann’s hope is to share www.onfe-rope.ca/at resources and information to help students become independent learners while allowing their strengths to shine.