Technology has revolutionized 21st-century classrooms. That's nothing, new. But what is new and ever-changing is the way educators and parents are utilizing devices, apps and software to better reach and support students with learning challenges.
This fall, The Reading Institute and Simmons College are partnering to offer a new graduate degree program to train educators to becomes specialists in what's known as assistive technology. This can range from low-tech rubber pencil grips to a wheelchair-compatible computerized communication system.
"I think technology is a great equalizer in learning and ensuring all students have access to curriculum," said Madalaine Pugliese, director for this assistive technology graduate program.
Pugliese has been working with Janet Stratton, director of The Reading Institute, a non-profit organization that trains educators ways to teach and improve literacy rates for students.
The two administrators said that while surveying area schools to determine the level of need for assistive technology training, they found while many schools and districts had designated technology specialists, few had the background in helping teachers and students use devices in a manner that enhances a student's education.
"They need to be able to teach about the devices in context. It's not about how the tool works, it's about how a life can change," Pugliese said.
This week and again in June, The Reading Institute will offer free introductory workshops and information sessions on assistive technology and the new program, as well as tuition-based, full-day workshops.
According to the state Department of Health and Human Services website, the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission contracts with three organizations for the provision of assistive technology assessments, purchase and set-up of equipment, training and follow-up: Massachusetts Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy of Berkshire County and the Dartmouth Center for Rehabilitation of the University of Massachusetts.
But Stratton said the new Simmons-Reading Institute program is the only program in the New England region that offers a degree with on-going training and support, and the potential to have assistive-technology experts embedded in schools instead of having an off-site specialist.
Stratton said in the past, some Berkshire County schools have had to call in experts to help troubleshoot equipment or programs. "I've heard examples of someone in Sheffield having to call someone from the Hampshire Educational Collaborative in Northampton to help," she said.
The new nine-course degree program will take approximately 18 months to complete. Coursework includes topics, such as how to integrate assistive technology into a students Individualized Education Plan (IEP); what are the best apps, devices and software to address different needs; how to develop curriculum in accordance with state assistive technology requirements; how to evaluate educational software and devices among other subjects.
Pugliese said although there will be an initial investment in enrolling educators into the course, having certified assistive technology teachers in schools can save school and districts money in the long-run.
She said knowledge and understanding how to use these new tools will help school's better meet the needs of today's students.
"We don't have a textbook generation anymore," Pugliese said.