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Ed Tech for Students in Special Education: What K-12 Leaders, Vendors Need to Know

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Schools spend more than $3 billion a year on digital content. So how can they make sure that their investment is paying off for all learners, including students in special education, who make up about 13 percent of the public-school population?

The National Center for Learning Disabilities is out with a report that seeks to help vendors do a better job of developing software, apps, and devices for students in special education. It also aims to demystify the procurement process for districts and states, and help schools figure out how to implement technology for students in special education. The overall message? Make sure people who are experts in students in special education are involved in every stage of the process. 

Complicating matters: Students in special education aren't exactly a monolith, and neither are their technology needs. Sometimes a feature—like text-to-speech functionality—can be great for say, blind students, but less great for students with ADHD and executive functioning issues, the report notes.

Here's a quick cheat sheet on NCLD's advice on each step of the process.

For developers and vendors: Think about students with disabilities on the front end of developing a new product. Involve people with expertise in students in special education and English-language learners, and make sure products are tested on those types of students before going to market.

For state officials on development: Consider creating an external review, as Louisiana and Utah have, where an independent panel can evaluate education technology for things like accessibility for students in special education, before awarding a big state contract.

On procurement: District and state officials are often the ones writing the Request for Proposals or RFPs used to purchase technology. NCLD recommends they make sure that they are clearly communicating to potential vendors that accessibility for students in special education is a key value that will earn or cost potential developers points in the process. And they should make sure that educators, parents, and other experts on students in special education get a chance to weigh in on the contract. Equally important: Making sure the team that reviews the proposals includes someone with expertise in educating students in special education.

On usage: School and district officials need to see that teachers are trained to use the technology with all groups of students, including those in special education. And they need to make sure that any new purchase works with other tech the district has on hand.

So is this more-inclusive process actually realistic for districts who have a lot on their plate when it comes to making complicated purchasing decisions?

Educators say yes, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

"For districts that have a strong management and collaborative environment already in place, I think it's a realistic process," said Matthew Lentz, the business manager and board secretary for the Upper Moreland school district, just outside Philadelphia. "Decisions shouldn't be made in vacuums, and decisions shouldn't be [rushed]. So it shouldn't be, oh it's June, it's the end of our budget year, I have 200 grand for technology and somebody says, well, iPads would be good. It shouldn't be that reactive. It also should be a process that ties to your strategic plan for the district."

But the more-inclusive process outlined in the report could pose a challenge for districts that aren't used to involving a lot of different departments in decisions, Lentz said. They may end up with a lengthy laundry list of asks.

"It's like yelling out to my friends at the beach, 'I'm going to the grocery store, what does everyone want?'" he said. "That's going to be the challenge that people have, if you're not used to this kind of opening up, getting feedback, talking about challenges within a structure."

It's equally important for school leaders to get a ton of input on purchasing decisions that could impact a wide range of kids, including students in special education, said Bethany Bonnemere, the assistant principal of Butner-Stem Middle School in Butner, N.C., near Raleigh and Durham.

"Where teachers have a voice in the decisions that get made" then feedback on technology purchases "happens pretty naturally. We have a lot give-and-take. We know when something works for them, and when something doesn't work for them they don't hesitate to tell us," she said.

In her school, special educators are represented on the school improvement team, which meets twice a month and is charged with making decisions for the school, including when it comes to buying technology.  

In crafting the report, NCLD teamed up with 20 organizations, including AASA, the School Superintendent's Association, the State Education Technology Director's Association, Digital Promise, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Consortium for School Networking.'

Image: Getty 


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