Technology in the Classroom isn’t Utopia. It’s a must.

by Cindy Matthews

Visualize the perfect classroom.  In it you would notice couches, cosy seating arrangements on the floor as well as tables and comfortable chairs for conferencing.  An aquarium stands in the right hand corner, three brightly coloured stools in front of it.  Lighting can be softened via a dimmer switch.  Abundant natural light would help the indoor plants thrive. Plentiful up-to-date computer technology like Smart Boards, smart phones and laptops would be accessible, easy to use, and helpful for all those who need / wish to use it.  Students would be learning cooperatively on problems posed by a teacher facilitator.  Some would be tapping out text responses via cell phone on a blog.

Utopia, isn’t it?  But why should it be?  If we are serious about universal design for learning, access to a learning environment that actually can help ALL learners learn optimally would look very much like what has been described in our model classroom.

Since I began my career in special education over thirty years ago, one area of significant change and evolution in classrooms is in the area of technology.  I invested many a night reading novels into a tape recorder so that the next day senior elementary students could ‘read’ with their peers, head phones wrapped precariously around their ears as they tried to ‘fit’ in.  In this article, we explore benefits and necessity of integrating technology into the regular classroom and reflect upon some of the challenges that lie therein.

Technology is a tool!

Technology in the classroom is merely a tool for learning just like an educational assistant, a dictionary or even a desk. Through invitation and then exploration, students should be offered opportunity to explore computer software.  Some students are, of course, more relaxed about taking these initial risks than others and often step up to invite more reluctant students (and staff) to take experimental risks with technology.  A peer using a coaching model with other peers enriches the technology experience.

But, unfortunately, some schools do not prioritize acquiring sufficient technology (hardware and software) for their classrooms. The reasons for insufficient technology in a classroom are many such as lack of funds to having other priorities.  Creative school administrators can find funds through approaching school councils and making a case for technology.  Some staff members, though, philosophically believe that the burden of paying for technological advancements remain with the Ministry of Education and that using fund raising dollars to buy technology gives the wrong message to the government and the public.

Further, some teachers are afraid or unwilling to learn more about how to use technology with their students regardless of the needs of the students.  Principals must believe that modern technology is a necessity and through those beliefs, persuade teachers to be sufficiently and competently trained and supported to use technology in their everyday planning, programming and assessments of student learning.

Kim Gill, a special educator at Ryerson Public School, Cambridge, Ontario, embraces technology for her students.  During observations in her classroom, this writer noted that while some students demonstrated more comfort with hardware like I-Pads and the Smart Board, others merely needed some subtle coaching and redirection from peers, educational assistants or the teacher.  Comments like ‘why don’t you try this’ or ‘I clicked on this’ really were all that was required to help a student get back on track.  But, without an advocate of technology in both, Gill and her principal, Peter Berndt, this technologically-inviting classroom would not exist.

I don’t have a computer!

Many students may not have technology in their homes or have access only when technology is available at school.  Therefore, it is imperative that educational facilities prioritize purchasing and offering access to technology to students in order to improve student learning.  Some students do not possess, for instance, sufficient reading skills to decode print in their grade seven history textbook and software like Kurzweil, a text-to-voice program, can remove that barrier.  The software, if the student is savvy enough and willing, can allow for independent access to readings that s/he would never normally be able to take in unless a paired oral reading opportunity existed or the text passage was tape recorded prior to the lesson.  This type of software needs to be in every classroom but often it is available only through special education services or a centrally located room away from where that student might be learning their lesson.

The reality is that not only do some students lack technology options in the home, they actually also lack access to these devices in their classrooms.  How the allotted computers in a school are used varies.  Some school administrators, with or without staff input, allocate most computers to be equitably distributed among classrooms in the school while others put all machines into a lab so that a class set of computers sits in one classroom.  Teachers sign up for an opportunity once a week or so for a limited session to do word processing or an Internet search. Therefore the bulk of time is spent off-screen.  And it’s the student who loses out.

Universal Design

A number of years ago, teachers in Ontario were encouraged to plan and program using Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  Originating in architectural studies, design and flexible use of physical structures saw adaptations to structures in order to assist multitudes of users.  Examples are including ramps building design.  Ramps benefit not only people who use wheelchairs but other users such as caregivers with strollers or people with walkers.

UDL uses innovative media technologies in order to facilitate access to curriculum.  Implicit in UDL means teachers consider and design instructional materials and activities that permit all learners to achieve learning goals.

Let’s face it, the vast differences in the sea of learners is incredible.  There are those with variations in ability to speak, hear, see, do, move, write, understand, translate from English, express ideas, attend, organize, engage, remember…and the list goes on and on.  Examples of UDL include and are not limited to the following:  spell checkers, access to websites, electronic versions of textbooks, captioned or narrated video, built-in audio speakers to amplify instructor vocals in every classroom, voice recognition software, word prediction software, pictures, and captions.

An expectation in UDL is that these instructional design features are built-in BEFORE lessons begin, not later in the process as an after-thought.  This kind of technology and philosophy means teachers CAN reach all students.  Those students with specific special needs requiring access to specialized equipment, like wheelchairs and visual and communication aids still continue to have those needs.  But building accessibility for all into buildings and classrooms contribute to maximum inclusion of learners from the onset.

Who really cares about this stuff?

The biggest detriment to a teacher’s lesson is student lack of engagement.  The only person who owns that is the teacher.  Students do not lack motivation or engagement because something is inherently wrong with them but rather it’s the ineffective way the teacher is teaching.

For example, Child and Youth Worker, Chris McMillan, has noted in the behaviourally focused classrooms he has worked in that technology is very beneficial.  It helps students “make gains in work time completion, vocabulary expansion, and writing / typing.”  Confidence also can soar.  Some students have never completed work in other settings before without staff constantly intervening to keep them ‘engaged’.  Yet, once technology manipulation has been taught to students, independence is the goal and many students have evidenced savvy confidence in using technology to finish tough tasks like math problems.  Taking away the pencil and replacing with an Alpha Smart (also known as a Neo) or other keyboard is often sufficient manipulation of the learning environment.  Self-directed learning is often the result.  McMillan states that built-in options like dictionary, synonym finder, highlighting and footnoting in programs like Kurzweil allow students to learn and use these concepts where in other formats they did and would not even try.

Technology is more than computers

Harley Kaufmann-Sacrey would agree that availability of technology in classrooms is very beneficial and when contemplating it, people should not assume that technology refers only to computers.  Kaufmann-Sacrey is a special needs student who required and was offered enrichment programming.  Unfortunately, the building in which the enrichment was offered had stairs.  For most students this is a non-issue.  For Kaufmann-Sacrey, who gets around via a wheelchair, it meant that when he was younger and physically smaller, he got carried to the classroom to meet with cognitively similar peers from other schools. Later his peers met with the specialized teacher and him at his home school, an accessible school.  When the district enrichment program was provided with a stair-glider, Kaufmann-Sacrey could independently navigate the stairs and be with his same age, cognitively superior peers during their once-a-week meetings.

Automatic doors, stair-gliders and elevators have become more widely available in schools in the last few years.  For Kaufmann-Sacrey, pushing a button to open a door is much more desirable over manipulating a heavy metal door from the seat of a wheelchair.  He was grateful that physical barriers like bulky desks and classroom obstructions were anticipated by his stellar in-school support team.

He appreciates computer technology, too.  During his earlier years in high school, he used an electronic typewriter (Neo) in a resource room for students with orthopaedic needs.  Eventually that tool was replaced by a laptop.  A teacher habitually using technology was also beneficial.  For instance, having access to PowerPoint slides provided by the high school teacher during class and lecture notes later posted online, he liked being able to print those notes off to which he could add sidebar comments.  Software programs like Inspiration (a graphic organizer program), Kurzweil (text reading software), Dragon NaturallySpeaking (voice recognition software) and Microsoft Office were offered in high school and continue to be available as he transitions to university in fall, 2011.

Not everything smells like roses

An educational assistant with twelve years in education requested anonymity.  In this article, this writer calls her Orin.  She has observed that there is a lot of technology in schools like Smart Boards and FM (frequency modulating) systems.  Technology can be quite powerful but requires the commitment first and foremost of the special education resource teacher.  Some teachers rely too much on the educational assistants to set up and program for special needs in the classroom.  From Orin’s view, the teachers should be programming and creating modifications with the educational assistant assisting with the implementation directly with the student (client).

Orin resents being the one to program, doing things like creating picture symbols on the computer using a Mayer Johnson Inc. program, Boardmaker, and facilitating the use of a laptop with students on assignments designed by her.  She believes this should actually all be done by the teacher.  The teacher is in charge of the classroom program and assessment yet most tend to lean too much on the educational assistants designated to their classrooms.  Further, Orin believes from her vast years of experience in education that the programs designed by the resource teachers are often too challenging for students and should be more life and social skills based.

Using up-to-date technology with students in both elementary and secondary school classrooms is highly recommended and necessary.  Teachers, support staff and students all concur that it is needed and not just with those with special needs.  Availability and professional development support for integrating technology into classroom best practice are required.  While it is not without potential challenges, to ignore integration of technology into schools would be akin to still using the chalkboard as a major communication tool during lessons.

Let’s not permit fear of change to limit the potential of our students but rather let’s embrace what modern technology can do to motivate students to do what they are there to do:  learn.

Cindy Matthews works as a vice-principal of Care, Treatment, Custody & Corrections and Enrichment for the Waterloo Region District School Board.  She has been a teacher in both elementary and secondary settings with the bulk of her experience with children with special needs.  Cindy is also an online instructor of additional qualifications for Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, facilitating learning with teachers enrolled in Special Education Part I and Part II as well as the Behaviour course.  Cindy writes on educational topics as well as other topics.  You can find more of her writing at .

Published November 2011