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Tuesday, September 23, 2014  
Tablet for better learning
iPads go a great way in helping children with learning disabilities, writes Mari-Jane Williams

At an Alexandria, Virginia, USA, elementary school, a second-grader who has autism is using an iPad to communicate to his teachers that he is hungry, and would like pizza and chicken nuggets for lunch.

Students in an 11th-grade English class at the Lab School of Washington, a private school for students with learning disabilities, are dissecting TS Eliot’s The Waste Land this spring, using an iPad application that provides notes on the text, editing notes from Ezra Pound, video interviews with scholars and interpretive readings.

At a Prince George’s County middle school, students recently used iPads to make a video call to a maths teacher in another room for a refresher on how to find the average distance a toy car travelled in five trials. Seventy per cent of the students in that class have a learning disability.

Two years after Apple introduced the iPad, the tablet is becoming increasingly popular with educators of students with special needs, especially learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. These teachers and administrators are repeatedly turning to iPads, which cost between $300 and $800, and other tablets to improve communication, reading and maths skills, to virtually dissect animals or to give students an easier way to take notes.

Results, they say, are promising. “I feel like it’s a much more powerful day” for students, said Katherine Schantz, head of the Lab School, which has about 100 iPads for approximately 350 students. “We’ve reduced the number of minutes that are spent in frustration.”

At the Auburn School for students with social and communication difficulties in Herndon, Virginia, the “kids enjoy being able to sit in a beanbag or walk around,” said Linnea Nelson, head of the private school. “The portability of a tablet allows that. They’re also not having to look over a computer at a teacher or their peers while they are having a discussion, so using a tablet doesn’t impede eye contact.”

With touch screens instead of pen and paper or a point-and-click mouse, tablets can be much easier to use by students with fine motor difficulties. They also help disorganised students by consolidating calendars, memos and notes all in one device.

Bryce Ballard, 13, a ninth-grader at Auburn School, has found his Samsung Galaxy helpful in taking notes and keeping track of assignments. “I can’t even read my own handwriting,” Ballard said. “That doesn’t help the whole note-taking process. [The tablet] promotes great learning for me and helps keep me interested.”

Educators also think these hard-to-motivate students are excited about using something that is a hip piece of technology, so that interests them more than traditional learning methods. “The iPads are engaging because there’s instant feedback,” said Jennifer Durham, Lab School’s elementary curriculum coordinator. “It’s easy to operate, it can read to them if they need it to read to them, you can make it bigger, you can make it smaller.”

Prince George’s County Public Schools bought iPads for every student at four low-income middle schools as part of a pilot programme, totaling more than 3,000 devices.

“Sometimes in a traditional classroom, where teachers are asking questions, the ones that are getting it are answering, and the ones who may take a little longer to process it may not have the time to respond,” said Eric Wood, who was the principal at Charles Carroll Middle School when the tablet programme launched in October.

Wood says the school is using an app called eClicker “to level the playing field.” With eClicker, science teacher Joy Long posts a question to the class on the iPads, then sees individual students’ responses as they click on their tablets in real time. She knows who is getting the answers right, and who needs more help, without everyone else in the class knowing.

“They can use this tool much easier than they can paper and pencil,” Long said of students who struggle with fine motor skills. “I just see this as meeting them where they are in order to increase their skills and abilities and even their participation.”

Tablets, according to school officials, allow students to work at their own pace and with a level of privacy formerly unheard of in the classroom. That can help remove the stigma that often comes with being a special-education student.

“If you’re in high school and you’re reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid because that’s what you can read, and I’m reading Pride and Prejudice because that’s what I can read, it would be embarrassing, if we were both sitting there with our hard-covered books,” Lab School’s Durham said. “. . . It evens the playing field because it puts them in a private space.”

Even with the new technology, progress still requires hard work, and lots of it, with an experienced teacher or therapist and committed parents leading the way. “There’s no magical tool,” said Rosemary Genuario, a special education teacher at Belle View Elementary in Alexandria. “But it’s certainly a fabulous tool.”

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