iPad for Special Ed Families


The introduction of the personal computer in the late 1970’s was a culture-changing shift, but introduction of a mouse-driven interface in the mid-80’s allowed computers to become mainstream. I believe that the mouseless, touch-screen interface of tablet devices such as the iPhone and the iPad is as great a leap forward, if not greater. Touch interfaces make this technology even more accessible, especially for those with “special needs.” The combination of a simpler interface, network ability, rich multimedia and portability makes the iPad2 a particularly good technology for students with special needs and their families. Below are notes from at a presentation I gave Monday evening, 2 May 2011, to the Vancouver special education PTSA.

Students with special needs vary widely in what those needs are by age and condition. A high school student with normal cognition who is blind will have different needs from someone with mobility issues, an autism spectrum diagnosis or another condition. Key to successful use of technology is identifying what an invidual’s strengths and weaknesses are, then matching technology to build upon strengths to meet real needs and compensate for weaknesses. Although technology vendors can design astonishing devices, “no size fits all” and most people who assert there is a magic box or silver bullet that will solve all problems are mistaken. Industry is built on selling more boxes or programs, but thoughtful use of a few things is generally a sounder strategy than reliance upon a single thing. As an insightful athlete once noted, “there are no advanced techniques, only basics expertly applied.”

In the world of technology there is money to be made in trying to build a “killer app,” and the mobile market for iPad and other software emphasizes a diversity of fairly specialized apps. Many applications for “special education” tend to fall into this pattern, often grouped into categories such as “communications,” “skill building” or “calming apps.” When looking at technology I find it useful to distinguish between (A) technology as a vehicle to go somewhere and (B) technology as a destination or place to be. In reviewing iPad and other apps designed for parents of special education students, I noticed a third category of (C) waystation applications (such as “calming apps”) that are largely designed to distract or babysit along the way. Just as videos can be used for instruction, entertainment or sanity-preserving distraction, so can most technology. In evaluating technology, I encourage folks to consider what they want from it, and why. Technology as a destination is a fine thing, as are technology as babysitter or technology as vehicle. Clarifying what one wants for oneself and one’s child is a moderately important thing to do.

Many extremely useful and powerful tools are built in to the iPad 2, and skillful use of those tools would provide better versions of the things that many apps seem to do, with greater customization for individual students. “Special education applications” tend to be heavy on calming, sequencing and teaching lifeskills, the sorts of things that adults do with their smartphones, FiloFax organizers and laptops. Basic technologies built into the iPad2 allow children to do much of this through pictures, video and sound recording. Rather than obsessing about teaching letter literacy, the iPad2 provides a wide variety of tools for non-lettered literacy through pictures and video, including individual creativity and expression.

The iPad2 has two built-in cameras, a “mirror” camera which lets one to see oneself and a “forward-facing” camera that allows one to take pictures or video facing outward. Both have many uses, from “Facetime” videoconferencing to documenting the world around them for expression or creation of very specific life-skill tools. Pictures from a regular, desktop computer, can be organized into “albums” and easily transferred to the iPad for reference. Albums can be used as sequencing aids in teaching lifeskills, or turned around for a student to create and narrate their own stories. Albums with various objects and common activities are useful point-to-tell tools for communication, replacing wordboards and flash cards in some cases. Videos can also be created on the iPad, created on a computer for storage and playback on the iPad, or loaded from external sources (such as DVD) for playback on the iPad. With three different storage capacities (16 GB, 32 or 64GB), the iPad2 can store a prodigious amount of audio, video or pictures for a variety of purposes, and be used by a student for expression and to create additional materials.

The iPad2 can also be used as a sound recorder for capturing classroom lessons for later playback and retention, or to record presentations or requests for playback later. Common phrases or explanations can be recorded this way and played back in iTunes, as can instructions and coaching from parents, for later playback. Most sound-recording programs have the option to plug in headphones and can effectively be used as hearing aids, to amplify sound or cut out ambient noise for people with auditory problems. With the ability to record, organize and play back sound, iPad2 is in a position to fulfill the promise of cassette tapes from the 1970’s, without the logistic nightmare.

Properly understood, the iPad2 is a low-cost, portable, multimedia studio, for recording and creating sound, pictures and video. This ability can be dramatically augmented with the addition of a few, relatively inexpensive iPad programs from Apple, including iMovie (which allows creation and editing of video on the iPad) and GarageBand (which allows creation and sequencing of music and vocals). The creative and expressive options are tremendous for what I call “non-textual literacy,” an area of great potential for special needs students and helpful for their parents and teachers. For more conventional computer presentations and documents, there are other programs such as Keynote (for presentations) and Pages (for printed materials) which can interact with fuller versions on desktop Mac OS through iTunes. For folks who are not using Mac OS desktops, other programs such as DocsToGo can be used with cloud services such as DropBox to allow creation and sharing of rich content.

FaceTime video conferencing is built in to the iPad but currently only works with other Apple devices, although audio conferencing is available through a variety of programs. For anxious parents, another interesting feature is the “Find My iPhone” application, which allows one to log on and physically locate any iPad or iPhone connected to a wifi or cellular network such as those offered through Verizon and AT&T for the more expensive iPad2 devices. Internet sharing features and access such as web browsing, Netflix and YouTube videos obviously require such Internet access, but even the least expensive iPad2 has the option for WiFi wireless networking.

Caveats about the iPad2 are that, by default, it wants to be closely integrated with Apple’s “iTunes Store,” which is probably not a good feature for children. Once a credit card is entered, iPad2 users can quickly purchase and run up quite a bill, so I suggest that most parents NOT set up iTune Store accounts, or do so through restricted, “allowance” accounts. Another caveat is that the iPad2 is surprisingly robust, but very sleek and slippery. For students with motor difficulties, it might be advisable to purchase a “ruggedized” case which is easier to hold and adds some physical protection. There are literally dozens to choose. Those who wish to add a full, physical keyboard may do so with any bluetooth-capable keyboard.

The iPad2 is not a magic bullet, but it can be a useful tool. Its simple interface and a wide variety of ways to store, create and work with multimedia such as sound, pictures and video is an obvious advantage to many special-needs students. From the built-in VoiceOver utility for the blind to simplified home screen setups, the iPad2 can be configured in many sophisticated ways. Most of all, as a vehicle, tools built into every iPad2 are a terrific way for students with special needs to explore and express their own creativity. Indeed, with a special $40 adapter cable, the iPad2 can even output to an HDMI cable for display on many new, flat-panel televisions.

Parents and others who would like to discuss the possibilities for an iPad2 for themselves or their special-needs child are encouraged to contact Rory Bowman of MacRory.com at (360) 666-7679. A former schoolteacher, Rory has been offering technology consultation and assistance in the Vancouver Portland area full-time since 1998.

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