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Letting Assistive Technology Do Its Job

September 13, 2022

This summer, in between weeks at camp, activity workbooks, and crafts that now litter our kitchen table, my daughter learned how to use our Amazon Echo. My daughter has used our Echo frequently these past few months – issuing commands to play the Sing 2 Soundtrack, tell her knock-knock jokes, setting her own timer for timeouts, and using Alexa as a watch. Although she’s only six-years-old, she’s quickly learning that technology isn’t just something fun that can provide hours of Minecraft tutorial videos – it’s a tool that can be leveraged for learning.

Despite my early attempts at getting my daughter to write – and do so frequently – it’s been an area of learning in which she continues to work at. She gets frustrated in her pursuit to spell all the words she writes correctly – and even more so when I refuse to spell the words for her, instead trying to coax her to write the sounds she hears.

Her frustration mounted recently when she was having a particularly rough time with some words she was trying to spell out. After my initial refusal to spell them for her, I asked her what tools she might be able to use to help her figure it out. She initially pulled out a list of sight words, but after not having much success locating the needed word from that list, she again approached me as I sat at my desk. Looking up at our Amazon Echo that sits atop my work area, I saw the “lightbulb” turn on as she proceeded to ask Alexa how to spell the word. And man, did Alexa deliver! The delight that took over my daughter as she realized she now had a tool that could help her spell words was palpable.

Now, as she took the next 10 minutes finishing her writing activity and utilizing Alexa to spell more complex words, did I stop her at any point and call what she was doing “cheating”? OF COURSE NOT! As an educator for the last 14 years, I recognize how technology can be leveraged as a tool for learning. My daughter might not have known how to spell that particular word this time around – heck, maybe not next time either – but at some point, she will and she’ll remember back to the time when she turned to Alexa and was provided a service that eased her anxiety with writing…that even made it more enjoyable.

As a former special education teacher and technology coach, I’ve come across many teachers who would view these types of opportunities as “cheating” or providing an unfair advantage to students. Things like using accessibility features on a device – speech to text for word processing, text to speech, masking,etc. – are sometimes looked on unfavorably in the general education classroom. However, I believe that learning to use these tools and then recalling and implementing them throughout one’s learning process not only teaches students important self-advocacy skills that will continue beyond the walls of the classroom, but it also helps relieve performance anxiety many students (especially those with special needs) feel when confronted with academic tasks they feel they won’t meet success.

This school year I encourage educators to let kids utilize these tools. Having more accessible devices isn’t cheating – it is providing structures that will make ALL students feel successful in your classroom. While technology may not completely level the playing field, it allows students – especially students who might be struggling – to get in the game and play.

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