At Charles Carroll Middle School in Prince George’s County, students in one of Joy Long’s seventh-grade science classes recently used iPads to make a video call to a math teacher in another room for a refresher on how to find the average distance a toy car traveled in five trials. Seventy percent of the students in that class have a learning disability.
Two years after Apple introduced the iPad, the tablet is becoming increasingly popular with educators of students with special needs, especially learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. These teachers and administrators are repeatedly turning to iPads, which cost between $300 and $800, and other tablets to improve communication, reading and math skills, to virtually dissect animals or to give students an easier way to take notes.
Results, they say, are promising.
“I feel like it’s a much more powerful day” for students, said Katherine Schantz, head of the Lab School, which has about 100 iPads for approximately 350 students. “We’ve reduced the number of minutes that are spent in frustration.”
At Herndon’s private Auburn School for students with social and communication difficulties, the “kids enjoy being able to sit in a beanbag or walk around,” said Linnea Nelson, head of the school. “The portability of a tablet allows that. They’re also not having to look over a computer at a teacher or their peers while they are having a discussion, so using a tablet doesn’t impede eye contact.”
With touch screens instead of pen and paper or a point-and-click mouse, tablets can be much easier to use by students with fine motor difficulties. They also help disorganized students by consolidating calendars, memos and notes all in one device.
Bryce Ballard, 13, a ninth-grader at Auburn School, has found his Samsung Galaxy helpful in taking notes and keeping track of assignments.
“I can’t even read my own handwriting,” Ballard said. “That doesn’t help the whole note-taking process. [The tablet] promotes great learning for me and helps keep me interested.”
Educators also think these hard-to-motivate students are excited about using something that is a hip piece of technology, so that interests them more than traditional learning methods.
“The iPads are engaging because there’s instant feedback,” said Jennifer Durham, the elementary curriculum coordinator at Lab School. “It’s easy to operate, it can read to them if they need it to read to them, you can make it bigger, you can make it smaller.”
Fairfax County Public Schools’ Department of Special Services, which oversees special education, has bought 110 iPads, and more have been bought by individual schools or parents, said Cheryl Temple, the manager of assistive technology services for the school district. Prince William Schools have ordered 1,510 iPads for students, teachers and administrators to use, particularly in special education. Loudoun County Public Schools have bought 12 iPads for special-needs students to use as communication devices.
Prince George’s County Public Schools bought iPads for every student at four low-income middle schools, including Charles Carroll Middle, as part of a pilot program, totaling more than 3,000 devices.
“Sometimes in a traditional classroom, where teachers are asking questions, the ones that are getting it are answering, and the ones who may take a little longer to process it may not have the time to respond,” said Eric L. Wood, who was principal at Charles Carroll when the tablet program launched in October.
Wood says the school is using an app called eClicker “to level the playing field.” With eClicker, science teacher Long posts a question to the class on the iPads, then sees individual students’ responses as they click on their tablets in real time. She knows who is getting the answers right, and who needs more help, without everyone else in the class knowing.
“They can use this tool much easier than they can paper and pencil,” Long said of students who struggle with fine motor skills. “I just see this as meeting them where they are in order to increase their skills and abilities and even their participation.”
Tablets, according to school officials, allow students to work at their own pace and with a level of privacy formerly unheard of in the classroom. That can help remove the stigma that often comes with being a special-education student.
“If you’re in high school and you’re reading ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ because that’s what you can read, and I’m reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ because that’s what I can read, it would be embarrassing, if we were both sitting there with our hard-covered books,” Lab School’s Durham said.
“We see kids who carry around books that they can’t read because they know developmentally that what they can read is not appropriate, and it makes them feel stupid. So by giving them this technology, I really think that helps. It evens the playing field because it puts them in a private space.”
Even with the new technology, progress still requires hard work, and lots of it, with an experienced teacher or therapist and committed parents leading the way.
“I want people to realize that it’s a great tool,” said Joan L. Green, a speech-language pathologist in Potomac who specializes in assistive technology. “And when used appropriately, it can speed up progress toward goals. But it’s not a quick fix, and it’s not the miracle worker that some people portray it to be.”
“There’s no magical tool,” said Rosemary Genuario, a special education teacher at Belle View Elementary. “But it’s certainly a fabulous tool.”