Systems of Support Supporting Educator Excellence through Technology and Strategy

Category Archives: Assistive Tech

Upcoming Webinar on Creating Mobile Content for your Classroom

Wednesday, October 10 (3:30pm – 4:30pm EST), will be the second of my webinar sessions as a part of an online series organized by the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA). This session will focus on creating content for the mobile devices (iPad, iPod, Droid) so that you can use your personalized classroom content rather than having to rely on pre-loaded material.  The focus is on simple and easy to implement, so don’t let the description make you wary. If you can attach a file to an email, then you will be able to stay engaged in this session.

As always, this will be practical, research-based, and ideas that can be immediately implemented in the learning environment. If you are interested in attending this webinar. Click on the link here to access additional details and session registration information (there is a nominal fee). Feel free to email me if you have any questions.

When Instructional Technology becomes Assistive

Awhile back I made a very short post titled AT vs. IT.  Basically I was just commenting on how it is odd that assistive technology for some students is instructional technology for other students and vice versa.  Sometimes I wish we could just call it all technology and stop the debate.

The purpose of this post is to expand on that previous post and share some information I received last year when listening to Dave Edyburn speak at the Council for Exceptional Children conference in Nashville, TN.  He brought up a couple of points that I believe are worth repeating here.  The first is that there is very little data showing that assistive technology works.  He said, which I believe to be very true, that the primary data we have on AT are the receipts showing how much we spent on it.  There are a number of reasons the data is hard to find.  One of which is that technology changes so fast that by the time a study is ran and published the technology either no longer exists or has been updated with even more features that weren’t originally available. I believe there is much more research that could be done in this area however and appreciate the work that Mr. Edyburn does each year to disseminate information on what research does exist.

The second thing I wanted to repeat from that session (and main reason for this post) was the way Instructional and Assistive Technology were defined through the use of data.  Often in conducting research we use a withdrawal design (we will have a post on studies we ran using this design soon).  The basic idea of a withdrawal design is that you take data with and without a support over time to determine if it is making a difference.  For example, if a student types on a computer with no support, then uses word prediction software while typing does he or she do better?  To know for sure, we would collect baseline data with no word prediction for a set number of times, then take data with the support, without the support, and again with the support.  The longer you continue this pattern the better the data.  The idea is to rule out the student doing better or worse due to a one time circumstance (sick, content that is more difficult than usual, etc…).

Back to the difference between AT and IT…  Going by what was presented in the session, if a student always does poorly without a support, but always performs well with a support then that is assistive technology – the student must have it to perform well.  It is helping them to overcome a barrier.  However, if the student does poorly without the support to start with, then gradually gets better over time after having used the support, that is instructional technology – the technology actually helped the student to be able to perform the task independently over time.

To date this is the best way I’ve heard the difference between AT an IT defined.  And what I like most is that it requires data collection!

Creating Effective AT Guidelines

A couple of weeks ago I made a post on the top barriers to implementing assistive technology.  In it I discussed the top 10 barriers we found when surveying school districts.  I then put the barriers into categories.  The largest category was guideline and procedure barriers.   This is no surprise because effective implementation of assistive technology usually starts with having solid guidelines in place.  In fact, one of the most requested workshops I do is working with teams to develop guidelines.  I’ve included some of the things I cover in these workshops in this post.  I hope that you find them beneficial and will add any additional resources you find to the comments section below.

Work through the QIAT Matrices

The Quality Indicators for Assistive Technology (QIAT) website contains a wealth of information.  If I were to only use one resource during a workshop on developing AT guidelines it would be this site.  On day one of a 2 day workshop on developing guidelines I will have participants work through the self evaluation matrices available on the site.  This basically takes you through all 8 indicators and provides descriptions of what poor through excellent implementation of each indicator looks like.  Teams rate themselves to see how well (or poorly) they feel they are doing in each area.  This is a great place to start because not only does it get groups thinking, but it also gives me a framework for facilitating the remainder of the workshop.

Do a Google Search on AT Guidelines

It’s tough to start from scratch when developing AT guidelines for a district.  Therefore I always have teams search for Guidelines other districts or states use to get an idea of how they would like the “layout” of their guidelines to appear.  A simple search of “AT Guidelines” will produce results from Michigan to Minnesota, Hawaii, New Zealand and more.

Develop a Flow Chart

Rarely is the expectation that a fully developed set of guidelines accepted by everyone in a district be complete in two days.  However, requiring two days to work on these things better produce something.  At a minimum I like to have a flow chart of what the process will look like in a district.  I like this flow chart to be complete with names.  For example, the top of the chart may be an event (IEP meeting for a student for example).  During this meeting AT must be considered (I use the BEEC AT consideration guide to help with this).  There are typically three possible outcomes from this question: 1.) No AT needed, 2.) AT Needed, Document in IEP 3.) AT may be needed, request consult or evaluation.  Options 1 and 2 are pretty straight forward.  Option 3 requires some work however.  Developing a flow chart will help to know where to go from this point.  For example, a team in a district will likely change depending on the school a student is in, the area of AT needed (communication, writing supports, etc…), and the availability of staff.  Developing a flow chart that shows who is responsible in various situations will be a tremendous asset.  I recommend developing the flowchart in Google Docs or another format that allows everyone to have access.

Disseminate the Information

AT Guidelines will be a living document.  Staff will come and go, modifications to documents will need to be made and up to date information will always need to be available.  Creating a document, then printing and disseminating to all staff will stay to up to date for a few months, however creating your guidelines as a wiki will allow folks to always have the most up to date information at their fingertips.  This is great from a district perspective as well because once a change is made the entire district will have access to it without having to wait for version 1.1 to be printed and released.

This post could go on forever, but I think I’ve already exceeded the length that most of our attention spans can handle in one setting.  The take away is that successful AT Implementation is dependent upon having solid guidelines in place.  Having 3 people in a district develop some bullet points isn’t enough.  You need buy in from everyone.  Using some of the ideas above in combination with staff meeting discussions and plenty of revisions will eventually get you to that point.  Just remember that we’ve only scratched the surface in this post.  Reviewing all of the indicators on the QIAT website will show all of the areas that must be considered when putting guidelines in place.

Top Barriers to Implementing Assistive Technology

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to survey several school districts to learn more about barriers they come across when trying to implement assistive technology (AT).  Instead of just letting folks list anything, I worked with a group of AT professionals to come up with 20 possible barriers, then worked with doc students at a nearby university to put an appropriate survey together.  The goal was to have participants list the top 10 barriers.  Some choices were typical, while others were more of a surprise.  To simplify things, I’ve grouped the top 10 barriers into 3 categories and listed them below:

  • Category 1 – Implementation Barriers
    • Incorporating AT into instruction across settings (number 1 barrier overall)
    • Integrating AT into specific settings
    • Number of people available to support AT
  • Category 2 – Guideline and Procedure Barriers
    • Properly evaluating students for AT
    • Understanding the AT process in your district
    • Understanding how to fund devices
    • Maintenance of products/devices
  • Category 3 – Product Awareness
    • Knowledge of what already exists in the district (number 2 barrier overall)
    • Knowledge of product and devices
    • Knowledge of where to find products and devices (outside of the district)

Some of these barriers, such as maintenance of products and devices, could probably go under product awareness (being aware of how to change the batteries), or guidelines (who is responsible for it).   The goal was to list each barrier only once however.  The number one barrier (incorporating AT across settings) is no big surprise, but I found that knowing what already exists in the district being the number 2 overall barrier interesting.

What are your thoughts?  Does this match up with what you see in your setting?  In future posts I will go into detail about possible solutions to some of these barriers.  For example, for knowing what is already in the district you could use Google docs to list items, or a more comprehensive system such as the new web based AT Inventory System we created.

Task Management Applications

Over the past couple of months I have went from one extreme to another when it comes to providing assistive technology (AT) consultations.  By far the number one reason I am asked to provide AT consults is to assist in finding appropriate communication systems for students who are non-verbal.  However, recently I have been brought in to help with a number of students who suffer from ADHD or similar disorders.  These students may be performing well (many are straight A students), but struggle with time management, prioritizing, scheduling and other skills that are necessary for success.  Because of this I thought I would use today’s post as an opportunity to list a few task management apps that students who struggle in these areas may benefit from.  Since many of the students I work with have access to a smart phone or other mobile device such as an iPod, most of the listings below are found in App stores, but some have a web based or installable software version as well.


A quick disclaimer… These are just a few of the many options available at the time of this writing. These are not recommendations, just options.  As opposed to listing 10 apps that do the same thing, I tried breaking them into categories.  The one you or your student finds most beneficial will be dependent on individuals needs.


Basic Task Management Apps:

These apps are very basic.  Create a list (grocery list, class assignments, etc…), then add items to that list.  You can also add reminders in case you forget to check.


Reminders App for iPhone – Free: The reminders app comes with iOS 5 and is very basic, but user friendly.  Create lists, then add items to those lists.  Once an item is complete, simply check it off.  Complete items will be sent to a “Completed” list so that you can retrieve later if necessary.


Clear task management appClear – .99 cents at time of writing – Clear is another very basic app.  You can manage multiple lists and prioritize items on those lists unlike the Reminders app.  Somehow this app is just fun to use.  It has a very clever interface and is easy to manipulate.  The standard theme shows items at the top of the list with a red background (these are a higher priority) and gradually changes to a lighter color as you get further down the list.  To move an item, just hold down on the item and move it whichever direction you would like.


Apps better suited for projects:

The basic apps mentioned above are great for basic things.  For example, if there are 6 or 8 things I need to get done today I can list them all on one list, prioritize them in some cases, then check them off as they are completed.  However, many things require multiple steps or collaboration.  For those purposes, these apps can help:


wunderlist task management appWunderlist – Free – Although Wunderlist does’nt allow you to create sub-items it is not short on features.  Wunderslist is free and is available as an app, web based application or installable software on a mac or pc.  Once you setup an account your lists sync to the cloud and are available on any device you use.  In addition to the basics, you can also share lists with other users, which is great for group work.  You can also email items from Wunderlist, or send an email to Wunderlist with items to add.  You can add notes, change the look and much more.  


ToDo Task Management AppToDo by Appigo – $4.99 – ToDo – ToDo is a more robust task management app. In addition to the basics (adding items, reminders, prioritizing, etc…), ToDo allows you to add multiple reminder alerts, create sub-tasks for items, add notes to tasks complete with clickable phone numbers and links, advanced searching and much more.  



Producteev – Producteev is a web site that allows you to create, track and prioritize tasks.  You can add collaborators to your projects (one for free, then upgrade for a fee), which is a nice feature for teams or group work.  You can access producteev from the web, a mobile app for the iPhone or Adroid, or installable software for the mac and PC.


I really like the feature of sharing your to-do list with others that is available on second set of apps listed.   As mentioned, prioritizing is a skill many students have difficulty with.  Some students prioritize a 5 point assignment the same as a 100 point assignment.  The ability to share or collaborate on lists gives students the ability to have a mentor or parent assist them with prioritizing items on their list.


As mentioned, this is only a few of the many apps that are out there.  More comprehensive (and expensive) supports with companion apps such as MyLIfeOrganized and OmniFocus are also available for those needing additional tools and supports.  If anyone reading uses a task management app that they would recommend please add it to the comments section of this post.  

Stages of Learning – Knowing your Learners

If you have ever heard us speak at conferences or workshops, I’m sure you will recognize this quote (and many variations) we often repeat over and over – “Technology without Strategy will lead to poor outcomes”.  Though we will dive into this deeper in a later post, I wanted to share a foundational principle for meeting the needs of ALL learners.  Before you select the technology, you must identify the strategy. Before you select the strategy, you have to know where you learners are in regards to the content/skill you are teaching! Knowing this will allow you to make the best instructional (including when, what, and how with technology) decision for each learner. Haring, et al., 1978 was one of the earliest to dive into these stages and it has moved forward with a few minor changes through the years. Here they are (drumroll please!): Acquisition, Fluency, Maintenance, and Generalization.

Here’s a scenario from when I was in the classroom. I was teaching multiplication facts to middle school students. I taught one of the fact families and gave a quiz. They got them all wrong, and I was frustrated because they were doing them successfully during the week! Where did I go wrong? Well, it was all about generalization.


I taught this

But tested this



My students weren’t able to “generalize” the vertical presentation of the multiplication fact to the horizontal presentation. Read below for more information about each stage of learning along with a couple of examples.


Stage of Learning


Multiplication Facts Example

Communication Example


Student is not able to   engage/complete/do the target skill, but is beginning to

Chris does not know and is now learning   multiplication facts for the number 3 (e.g., 3 X 1, 3 X 2, 3 X 3)

Glenda does not know and is now   learning how to request a restroom break using the communication device


Student is able to engage/complete/do   the target skill, but is not accurate or efficient

Chris now knows the multiplication   facts for the number 3, but works very slowly and makes errors when answering

Glenda can now request a restroom break   using the communication device, but works very slowly and makes many errors   when requesting


Student is able to continue the skill   successfully after teaching/training has been discontinued

Chris still knows the multiplication   facts for the number 3 accurately and quickly after teaching is discontinued

Glenda continues to fluently request a restroom   break using the communication device after the teaching this skill is   discontinued


Student is able to do the skill in new   settings or ways that it is presented

Chris knows the multiplication facts   for the number 3 when it is presented in different forms (e.g., 3 x 3, 3(3),   3·3,   3*3, three times three)

Glenda is able to fluently request a restroom   break using the communication device at home, community, and other new   environments


Realize that your learners can be at different stages with different content and skills (at the acquisition stage with some content/skill and at the maintenance stage with something else). This is not a one-time assessment, but rather a systematic process that needs to be ingrained in your teaching.

I’m sure you are asking yourself what’s next after knowing where the learner is with a content/skill? In my multiplication fact teaching example, I should of “sampled the range” during the instructional process. We’ll be posting some strategies in the coming weeks for each stage. Until then, if you have any strategies that you have used and can connect it to a specific stage of learning, feel free to share in the comments section of this post.



Highlight Supports

I had the opportunity to present a session on merging AT and Literacy supports at the ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association) conference a couple weeks ago in Orlando.  The feedback was great so I thought it would be a good idea to share a piece of that session here.

The primary focus of the session was to help folks understand that technology alone (assistive or otherwise) rarely increases student achievement.  You must include strategies, or at a minimum explicit instruction on how to properly use the technology to see success.  One great example of this is the use of highlighting tools.

I separate highlighting tools into three categories (I actually do this with most supports): 1.) Low Tech, 2.) Web Based and 3.) Downloadable Software.  A discussion of each is below:

Low Tech
Low tech highlights are pretty simple to grasp… They are the common sharpie or other brand highlighters that you purchase at the office supply store.  I’ve seen these used in a variety of ways.  For example, guided notes are an evidence based practice that work with almost all grade levels and content areas.  They work great for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they ensure students have the important information.  It’s easy for many students to fill in the blanks on a guided notes handout.  However, some students with disabilities (physical or other) struggle with the act of filling in multiple blank spaces with written text.  In these scenarios I’ve seen teachers provide a version of the guided notes that are already completed, then have the students highlight words instead of write them.  I think this is great.  All students have the same handout regardless of ability, they just may access it differently.

Web Based
Web based highlighting tools are a newer feature that I use frequently.  Install an extension into your web browser (Diigo is a great one to use) and you instantly have access to highlighting tools that you can use on any website.  Once highlighted, those highlights will either stay, or be copied to your account so that you can review them later.  Many of these supports even create and save a citation, which makes creating a bibliography much more manageable.

Downloadable Software
In addition to the web-based tools, there are similar features beginning to show up in a variety of software products that may be installed on classroom computers.  For example, Read&Write Gold from Texthelp has a toolbar dedicated to what they call “study skills.”  This includes different color highlights that can be used with Word, Internet Explorer and more.  Once highlighted, there is an option to collect highlights so that they will be dumped into a separate file by color, date or whatever your preference may be.  There is also a bibliography tool built in to help cite your sources.

The Strategies
What we know is that use of a variety of strategies can improve student performance (Pressley, 2002).  Explicitly teaching students how to highlight and annotate text is a very good example of one of these strategies.  Literacy consultants around the globe will tell you that students need to be “engaged” in their text.  This is difficult to do by just listening to a story, or reading a chapter.  However, having students highlight sections they feel are important in one color and words or sentences they do not understand in another is a great way to get students thinking and engaging with their text.  This of course is just one of many ideas.  How you choose to have students use these supports may be different.

Ups and Downs of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

One of the most well known methods for working with students who are non-verbal is the Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS.  According to the PECS website, “PECS was developed in 1985 as a unique augmentative/alternative communication intervention package for individuals with autism spectrum disorder and related developmental disabilities.”  As the name suggest, PECS begins by having students exchange pictures to request a desired item from a communication partner.

Recently a meta-analysis was conducted by Flippin, Reszka and Watson (see full citation below) to examine the effectiveness of PECS for students with autism spectrum disorders.  Overall they found that ” Results indicated that PECS is a promising but not yet established evidence-based intervention for facilitating communication in children with ASD ages 1–11 years.”  Specifically, here are a few things I took away from the article:

  • The publication mentions several reports that suggest that PECS has increased functional communication in students with ASD in a relatively short time period.  While this is good to note, the article makes the point that while positive, these reports lack evidence.
  • There are enough articles mentioned throughout the publication that will keep any researcher busy for some time, but the most common outcome from referenced studies was the success in increasing students’ ability to request items.  While this is far from what one would  consider to be proficient communication skills, it is never the less a positive result that data clearly indicates is capable with PECS.
  • Some studies referenced did demonstrate an increase in communication.  Some of these were said to have treatment fidelity (meaning that it was clearly demonstrated that PECS was implemented correctly) while others did not.
  • Data is limited for the maintenance phase (ability to continue effectively using PECS after training) and the generalization phase (using PECS effectively in other settings).

Anyone using PECS or working with students with ASD and communication delays should read this article.  It is titled “Effectiveness of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) on Communication and Speech for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Meta-Analysis” by Flippin, Reszka and Watson in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, May 2010.

It is important that classroom teachers as well as AT specialists and other related service providers are familiar with what the research says.  While this article demonstrates the effectiveness of PECS for requesting items, it gives concern for having expectations past this, or for assuming that a student will maintain progress once training stops.

Staying up to Date

The most common question I am asked when I speak at a local or national conference is “How do you stay up to date with all of this stuff?”  While it would be nice to be able to say that I travel the world going from classroom to classroom and lab to lab to find only the best products and practices, it really is much simpler than that.  There are two primary ways I stay up to date:

There are 3 or 4 national conferences dedicated to Assistive Technology that I try to attend at least two of each year.  They are:

In addition, there are tons of state and regional conferences available all over the United States that are great ways to network and learn about new products and strategies.  This year, I will have the opportunity to visit Australia to speak at Spectronics’ Inclusive Learning Technologies Conference, which looks to be a great time and learning experience.  So in short, there is no shortage of opportunities to learn and network in this area.

Traveling to one conference, much less multiple conferences isn’t easy for most folks.  And even if you do get the opportunity to attend one, you can never get around to every session available.  Because of this, I use blogs and news feeds from several sites to stay up to date.  If you aren’t familiar with a feed reader, now is the time to learn.  A feed reader basically takes any frequently updated content with an rss feed (think news sites and blogs) and puts them all in one place for you.  This way you don’t have to visit 10 or 20 different sites each time you want to see what’s new.

I personally use Google Reader and check it at least once a week.  It is a great way to pass time when flights are delayed or I am waiting somewhere.  I will typically have over a thousand items I can look through when I check it.  Not that I’ll ever have time to review everything, but it is always nice to just skim through and see what sticks out.  I can also sort it by date, topic, etc…  If you do decide to start using a feed reader, be sure to subscribe to this blog!

I also like to read through the QIAT Listserv.  You can sign up at  Note that is a very active listserv so you may want to setup the emails to go into a folder until you have time to read them.  I am also becoming more and more of a twitter fan.  If you follow the right people you can learn about tons of useful sites and products in no time.  Follow me at

This may be a longer answer than those asking the question wanted, but hopefully it helps!

Interactive Timelines

The use of graphic organizers in classrooms have been shown to be an effective practice for some time now.  Graphic organizers can be anything from a Venn diagram or KWL chart to an interactive web based support.  These types of supports help students make previously invisible connections visible.  Now before you get too excited, there isn’t any evidence that I am aware of that says if you walk into a classroom, hand out a “graphic organizer” worksheet and walk away that you will see a bump in achievement.  The goal here is to increase engagement, not bore kids to death.

So keeping engagement in mind, there is a particular type of graphic organizer that you may find beneficial: Time-lines.  Commonplace in many classrooms, time lines are created to show events, outline a story, develop a family tree and much more.  While this can all be done with paper and pencil or arts and crafts, web based software now allows students to not only add much more information to time lines, but also collaborate on them with other students, embed in blogs and forward out to others.

A few sites to check out that allow you to develop these types of time lines for free include:

As with most web based software, you can create a limited number of items for free with these sites, then opt to pay for premium features.  Consider creating a time line to use for teaching content to your students, or allowing your students to demonstrate their knowledge of content.