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District-Wide AT Planning: A View From 40,000 Feet

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Hello and welcome to the webinar titled District-Wide Assistive Technology Planning: A View from 40,000 Feet.  My name is Jan Rogers. I am currently employed by OCALI in the AT Center but prior to working at OCALI I worked in school districts as an occupational therapist and assistive technology specialist. Today we are going to talk about how to do global planning for your district’s AT needs based on a tiered approach.  I hope to challenge your thinking about the way that AT services are traditionally delivered in schools and encourage you to rethink some of your approaches.  Let’s get started.

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Let’s begin our discussion today with a brief history and review of the current state of assistive technology services in schools. Prior to the reauthorization of IDEA in1997 most viewed assistive technologies, also known as AT, as something that was considered only for those students with low incidence disabilities. In other words it was thought to be primarily for students who were deaf, hearing impaired, blind, low vision or students with significant motor limitations. The reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 added language that directed IEP teams to consider AT for ALL students with disabilities at their annual IEP. More specifically IEP teams were to consider whether the child required assistive technology devices and services in order to meet his or her educational goals and access the general education curriculum.  It was clear that all students with IEPs were to be considered for AT not just those students with the most significant needs.

According to Dr. Dave Edyburn, of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in theory this added over 4 million additional students to the AT caseload across the nation. Unfortunately most IEP teams, were ill prepared to implement these new mandates. Additionally the directive to consider AT did not indicate how teams were to specifically engage in the consideration process.

In 1999 Dr. Diane Golden who is now the Project Coordinator at the Missouri Council of Administrators of Special Education and a Project Consultant at the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs conducted a focus group among AT experts to determine the expected use of AT by disability category or in other words developed an expectancy benchmarking model for AT use in the schools. The chart on the screen represents the % of expected use of AT among various school disability categories. These numbers were estimated based upon the type of educational needs students typically have in academic areas, study skills, daily living, leisure/recreation and program accessibility related to the AT available in 1999 to address such needs. One might suspect that 13 years later these numbers might be larger relative to the technological advances and new supports created during this time. As you can see it was anticipated that many different types of students with disabilities could benefit from AT.

Unfortunately the vast majority of students with disabilities reportedly continue to have limited access to AT and services. In 2009 it was estimated that only 3-5% of students with disabilities have AT written into their IEP. So why do so few students with disabilities receive needed AT and services?

There are many barriers, identified in the research as well as observed during my time as an AT specialist, that may impact effective consideration of AT and subsequent delivery of AT services in the school. Concerns related to AT may include limited knowledge by the IEP teams to make good decisions about a student's AT needs, limited funding for purchases of AT, antiquated networks and computers to effectively support assistive technologies and limited staffing to provide training and technical support. Additionally teachers may worry that AT will become a “crutch” for a student or worse, students may feel embarrassed using AT. Teachers have also expressed concern over their changing role when technology is used and the impact on their instructional practices.  It is important to know that all of these concerns can be eliminated or minimized with effective training, planning and a willingness to consider some changes in instructional practices.

Let’s look critically at some of those things we have considered as best practice in school-based AT services. In the past and possibly currently we may think about AT assessment and implementation as requiring the specialized skills of a trained AT team or specialist.  While this may still be true for those students with the most intensive needs as well as for a few other students; for most students with mild to moderate disabilities their IEP teams should be able to address many of their AT needs effectively. Over the years assessments conducted only in the expert model have likely hampered building capacity at the district IEP team level for AT assessment and severally limited getting AT into the hands of many students with disabilities who could benefit. There simply are not enough specialists or teams of specialists to conduct these evaluations, as pre-service and in-service training for these specialties is limited across the nation.

Additionally expert models of individual AT assessment have probably also lead to a piece-meal approach to retro fitting needed AT into the grand scheme of school technology. As needs were identified in the evaluations, recommendations were made and the AT was purchased for the individual student, it then needed to be retro-fit into existing  school technology. This often led to incompatibility and instability issues and ultimately likely impacted the consistency and ease of use of the AT for the student. I believe that for a student’s use of AT to be most successful in the schools, it needs to be a part of the bigger technology plan of the school and become a part of the schools culture of technology use.

We have just talked about models of AT assessment and some of the strengths and limitations of those models. Now let’s move on and talk briefly about all of the other tasks within the AT process including supporting activities that need to occur to contribute to the success of AT use in the schools. First there is the complete AT process which begins with consideration during the IEP,  may then lead to assessment, trials, equipment selection, training, implementation and finally follow-up and follow along. These are the traditional activities that are associated with AT use in the schools. However there are many behind the scenes supporting activities that need to take place and these are the things that are often overlooked. They are also often the pieces of the puzzle that are outside of the scope of the typical IEP team either due to resource limitations in expertise or limitations simply in the time they have available to devote to these activities. Examples of additional activities are organized on the slide in areas of funding, software/hardware management, digital materials management, training, and general tech support.

We are now going to begin looking at assistive technology district wide planning from a 40,000 foot view. We will begin by looking at the big picture of a school district and how there are many parts and pieces that need to be considered to effectively implement a sustainable AT plan over time. We are then going to look at how asset mapping may help with planning and identifying current resources and those additional resources that will be needed for implementation. Finally we are going to look at AT planning based on a tiered model of student needs.

In any school district there are school buildings and various departments. Those buildings and departments all work in some fashion to provide the services that address the needs of the individual students within the district. Understanding the inter-relationship of these systems can be essential when planning for AT needs and supports.

One of the first things you need to do is to assess the current culture or relationships of the departments and schools within your school district. Do the departments work in isolation from one another with little collaboration or are they highly collaborative. Are decisions made centrally at the highest district level or are building principals given a great deal of autonomy to make their own building level decisions. If you do not currently have formal AT services at your school how are those needs being met in your school district. The answers to all of these questions are important because successful AT implementation requires support and interaction among many different departments within a school district.

Collaborative relationships with pupil services/special education, learning and teaching/curriculum, technology and the district and building level administration is needed as each has specific functions that will impact the success of AT implementation within your district. Let’s look more specifically at the various departments and common functions.

Most of us who work in the field of assistive technology come from a special education background either as special education teachers or related service persons. In terms of AT and special education there is a strong link as the majority of students in need of AT will be students identified as having special education needs. AT is a part of the IEP process as I mentioned earlier and the function of the AT is to assist students to be able to access more of the general education curriculum. While many of us who work in AT came from special education backgrounds that doesn’t mean that all special educators and related services personnel are knowledgeable about AT, in fact many probably are not. So there is much training and support needed to ensure understanding by special education staff of assistive technology and services.

When I worked in a district I requested opportunities to do general AT informational trainings with special education supervisors, school psychologists, related services staff and direct service special education staff such as teachers and paraprofessionals. Each year I also provided a “state of the AT address” for the special education director and included in that anything we accomplished for that school year and my proposed plans for the next school year. It was a great opportunity to open up conversation about the direction of the AT services, and to also begin to plan for funding for needed projects.

The technology department can make or break a good AT program. Those involved with AT need to have an understanding of the existing technology systems and the reasons why those systems are in place within their district. It is also helpful to understand the “language” of technology to be able to communicate effectively with technology personnel. Effective collaboration with the technology department can help when determining compatibility of AT with the IT and to help you to collaboratively and creatively find solutions to the “locked box” syndrome. (that is the security measures that I now understand are necessary on school computers). You may also be able to influence future IT purchases that would better support the AT you need for students and ultimately the IT department may be able to provide you with some funding assistance for projects.  We really need to work toward merging the general IT and AT in your schools and to align our missions and tools to meet the needs of all students

One of the ways I was able to influence more collaboration between AT and IT was to request an office in their physical space of offices. The typical space for AT is often with special education but given that I came from special education I  felt like I needed to immerse myself in the IT world so I could better understand their perspective and language. It proved to be a wise decision as they became interested in my work, I could speak their language, understand their point of view and we were ultimately able to collaborate more effectively on many projects.

The department of learning and teaching or curriculum as it is often called in districts typically oversees the curriculum and course of study content for all students. For AT to assist a student in gaining greater access to the curriculum often times it is necessary for materials to be provided in accessible formats. Because the Department of Teaching and Learning often makes selections of textbooks and supplemental learning materials it is helpful to have the AT person collaborate with this department so that selections can contain accessible instructional materials if possible and suggestions can be provided for consideration of materials that are compatible with a wide range of assistive technologies.

When working with the Department of Curriculum and Learning at my school I was able to find out what novels and textbooks were being used at the various grade levels so we could search for or create accessible versions. We also discovered that many of the supplemental materials they had already received from textbook publishers contained materials that were useful to students with learning challenges. We were able to find audio, short chapter summaries and video versions of textbooks for struggling readers. We were also able to find computer activities on CDs with built in text-to-speech of relevant academic content as well as a variety of supporting materials. It just took time for someone with an eye for AT supports to look at the extras that were provided  often time for free by the textbook company.

As was mentioned earlier Teaching and Learning also works with students with other learning needs such as English Language Learners (ELL). We found that many of the assistive technologies used for students with disabilities who struggled with reading and writing were also helpful for our students who struggled with English language learning.

District and building administration control access to the teaching staff, the professional development that occurs in a district, as well as directs the day-to-day operations of the district or buildings. It is essential that administration is regularly informed about the AT activities that are occurring in the district and how those activities might impact the students in their district or their building. In working with administration as was mentioned earlier it is important to understand the general hierarchy of power to understand how to best impact teachers and students.

During the time that I worked in my district, building principals had a great deal of autonomy to determine the programmatic direction of their building and to also control their buildings financial budget. I worked with building principals to create model projects that would fund some aspect of an AT program but would then encourage them to provide funding for scale-up of the project. I also worked with them on matching fund projects that seemed to increase the care, maintenance and security of the equipment since there was also building buy-in for the equipment.

Now that we have an understanding of the system assets that are available we now need to take a look at the AT assets you may unknowingly have available in your districts.

It is not uncommon for districts to have AT but to be generally unaware of what they have available.  In our district because our principals had the control to purchase for their buildings, AT would be purchased for students and when the student moved to another building those things would be put into a closet and unless another student needed the item immediately it was often forgotten. Also enter into this picture turn over of special education teachers and there was even more lack of knowledge of the things that were in the closet from the previous years. I spent a good amount of time when I first started my job in the district hunting through closets, creating an inventory of the AT items that were available.  It is important to mark items with a number that is not removable, and to record that number as well as any serial or registration numbers, a brief description and the location of the item. In searching for items I encouraged teachers to provide me with a listing of the AT in their rooms and I also went through old PO’s. As mundane as this task may seem it did help us in our purchasing as I was able to locate things we had that we didn’t need to purchase and I was able to use some of our old software as a way to purchase software at upgrade prices rather than at full price so the end result was worth the effort.  I also posted the inventory for all to see so that when teachers wanted to try a piece of equipment they knew who they could contact to borrow equipment and they also had another teacher they could speak with about the equipment. Additionally this eventually helped us to move towards the step of centralizing our AT devices and software which helped to save money through bulk purchasing and made it easier to move equipment among buildings when a student transitioned from building to building. There was no fighting over who paid for the equipment when It came from the central funding source.

Now let’s move on to discussing the people supports that are needed for an effective AT service. Beyond the individuals who directly work with AT whether it be an AT facilitator, AT specialist, or AT Team it is also essential to look for those within the district staff who are able and interested in supporting the AT services. I tried to find a point of contact in every building within our district. I looked for those with an interest in AT, interest in helping co-workers and students to learn about AT, and the ability to take direction via the phone, chat or e-mail. Those people were a great support for immediate technology trouble shooting needs that occurred within the buildings.

It would also be helpful to ask a group of people representing a broad range of school departments to sit on an AT advisory or planning board that would meet periodically. You may want to consider representatives from teaching, related services, parents, administration, technology, curriculum and special education to participate. Those people will help you to better understand the broader picture of the district and they may also help you in developing those collaborative relationships with the various departments.  The point is to create the “buzz” about AT within all departments, include their input in your planning and to also encourage them to include your input in their departments planning when appropriate.

The following are a list of individuals who I found to be most helpful in providing additional support. Within the special education staff you may want to look for those teachers and related service staff that have previous experience with assistive technology and/or use instructional technology on a regular basis as well as special education administrators with a strong interest in technology.

Technology staff as well as media center staff can also be rich supporters of AT. You will need the help of the technology staff from technicians to network administrators and technology coaches to gain access to computers and networks and to collaborate to make sure that the AT and IT function well together.  Media center staff was extremely helpful to me in housing AT in the school libraries and also in overseeing the circulation of the AT.

Finally, regular education staff particularly teachers who have participated in full inclusion classrooms, regular education tutors, reading specialists, RTI coaches and teachers who have a strong interest and frequently use instructional technologies in the classroom can be helpful.

For example: One of our regular education teachers who co-taught with a special education teacher in a full inclusion classroom wanted to use one of the text-to-speech programs along with the novel they were currently reading in class. She wanted us to provide the novel in a digital format for her whole class so no one would be singled out using the assistive technology. While it was a fantastic idea I unfortunately had to tell her  that we were not able to provide the novel to the entire class because it would be an infringement to the copyright law. I suggested that if she wanted to contact the author and publishing company for permission that might be a way we could actually provide the text to everyone in the class in a digital format. She wrote to the author and publisher explaining that she had a hard copy of the book for everyone and she wanted to make the derivative work for her whole class and why she wanted to do this. They gave her permission and we provided the digital copy for her use. For subsequent novels she requested and also obtained permission to use those in a digital format for her class. She became a great supporter of AT use for her students with special needs and also found the benefits of some of the assistive technologies for other non-disabled learners in her classroom.

We have looked at system, AT, and people resources through asset mapping to begin establishing the needed supports for AT service delivery. We are now going to look at the consumers of those services….the students. In the past we have assessed student’s needs for AT individually. The assessment result if indicating AT then led to equipment trials, purchase, setup, implementation, follow-up and follow-along. Often this was a lengthy and time-consuming process. As was mentioned earlier it also created difficulties in retrofitting assistive technologies into the existing technology which often was not capable of supporting the AT.

Let’s now begin to think a bit more globally. Many district are implementing tiered service delivery models to support student achievement. We can also think about AT in a tiered model as well. Thinking about AT in a tiered model can help us to plan for many student’s AT needs and ensure that the AT and the school technology can work together effectively.

So let’s begin by thinking about the various types of learner needs, how we might group those needs, and then plan for AT that may be common among the group. Remember this is just a model for looking at AT from a big picture. It is not intended to be an absolute solution for all students. It is intended for general AT planning purposes. The gold triangle represents the student learners and each level represents a group of learners with specific learning needs. The section at the top represents learners who typically understand grade level materials but may need some type of accommodations to fully access the curriculum. These may be students with learning disabilities, speech and language delays, maybe students with other health impairments and emotional disturbances. The middle area represents students who may need modification of grade level materials to access as much of the curriculum as possible. These students are probably most often students with moderate cognitive delays.  The base of the triangle represents students with very unique curriculum access or learning needs. These may be students with orthopedic disabilities who need specialized physical access to learning materials and the environment. Students who have sensory limitations such as those who are blind, low vision, deaf or hearing impaired. They might also be students with multiple disabilities or those with severe cognitive disabilities.

In this slide we now see AT that has been populated in the blue areas next to the various student learner tiers. The blue area represents the various types of AT that may benefit students shown in the adjacent areas of the triangle. Those students at the top of the triangle often benefit from supports that provide anytime, anywhere access. These students are often in full inclusion and are as mobile within their school environment as their peers.  They are often the students who need reading and writing support in the form of text-to-speech. Those supports may include low and mid-tech options such as electronic talking dictionaries, spell checkers, calculators and math manipulatives. They may also benefit from higher tech solutions such as robust reading, writing, and scanning software with built in supports such as word prediction, text-to speech, electronic graphic organizers, topic dictionaries, and other built-in reading and writing supports.  These students can also often benefit from materials that are in a digital format so they can access those materials in alternate formats such as listening to reading materials on an MP3 player or using some of the Web 2.0 or managed learning systems that support participatory learning and allow collaborative work in various formats.

The students in the center of the triangle participate in a variety of LRE settings, which may include receiving supports and services in a resource room as well. These students may also benefit from all of the assistive technologies that were previously mentioned but may need additional recall supports due to cognitive limitations. These supports focus on providing them with needed recognition assists. They may benefit from AT supports that allow cognitive rescaling of the reading level of academic materials, picture supports of text to enhance reading comprehension, electronic picture, word and sentence banks for writing activities, picture supported schedules and low to mid tech communication systems

The base tier as I mentioned earlier represents those students with very unique and specialized needs. Again these students may benefit from all the other AT solutions mentioned for the other two tiers but may additionally need very unique AT solutions.  The AT assessments for these students may require a specialized team with knowledge of AT that can be customized and fit specifically to the students unique needs. These solutions may include custom curriculum adaptions, alternate computer access and highly customized communication system solutions.

We are now going to start looking at how I organized AT services within my district, but before we do that I wanted to talk a little bit with you about some of the philosophies I came to embrace along my journey. These philosophies that eventually became guiding principles for me also influenced the AT services delivery model that was eventually developed. One of the guiding principles I used was to minimize the variety of AT software and hardware purchased for students. I started instead looking for robust, feature rich products that could capturing the different needs of many different students.

When I initially started providing AT in the schools I tried to find very unique solutions to student needs.  We purchased a huge range of AT to meet each student’s very specific needs.  While this definitely provided the exact feature match for a student’s needs what it failed to provide was a practical way for teachers and staff to support the wide variety of AT and therefore there was a great deal of device and software abandonment. It was not practical to train the teachers on the ever changing variety of software and devices they were confronted with each year as they got new groups of students and it was difficult for me to move and setup the equipment in a timely manner each year as students moved to new classrooms.  What I discovered was that if I could purchase a few pieces of AT that had many features and we could still meet the students exact needs because the product provided many features that could be used or turned off if not needed. Teachers only needed to learn a few products rather than many products and since they were all learning the same products they could support each other when they had difficulties.  It also allowed me to obtain volume-purchasing prices so that I could potentially purchase more with less dollars invested. The tech department was also happier because it minimized the number of software titles that could potentially conflict with one another minimizing the need for trouble shooting and they had fewer pieces of software to load.

Another guiding principles I embraced was that technology becomes more difficult and restrictive the further the tools are away from the student. Students need to have readily available the AT they need in locations that are as close to them as possible.  As a result I tried to always consider the multiple environments in which the student might need AT support and to find ways that the needed AT might be made available whether it be in the classroom, study hall, the media center or at home.

To provide AT in all environments for a student we adopted an “anytime anywhere” access mentality when selecting AT. We looked for AT solutions that could be networked, explored web-based or cloud solutions or purchased “to go” licenses. This often allowed the needed AT supports to be on all computers in a district or allowed a student to carry with them the needed AT software and sometimes also provided at home supports. I also partnered with the public library to provide a core set of our AT on the computer at the library and provide some of our other AT devices for in-library use. Now lets take a birds-eye look at the AT services at the district where I worked. Keep in mind that this plan was implemented over 7 years and included funding from the district as well as from a couple of grants.

This chart depicts the way that I organized AT resources and services within my district. This structure was developed based upon the asset mapping of the systems, people, and AT found specifically within my district. It was also based upon technology that was available in the 7 years I worked within the district.  In thinking back to the various tiers and needs of students you may recall that many students would likely benefit from reading and writing software so I selected a product that provided many reading and writing supports built into the product and also was available in a network version. When selecting the software I also considered what was used in the local colleges and universities. I wanted our students to learn the software they might use if they decided to go on to post secondary education.  Because we selected a network version of the software we were able to then install this software on all the instructional computers in our district. We were able to make this available in study halls, the media center, language arts, social studies, tutoring rooms, resource rooms and many other places. While there are many products that can provide this we selected just one and then trained our teachers on how to use the product. When possible, entire buildings were trained at the same time so they could support each other in using the product.

Other AT was provided in specifically assigned rooms such as the media center and special education resources rooms. We provided a scanner in each special education resource room and in the media centers. These scanners worked with the reading and writing software that was networked. Picture supported writing software was also provided in both locations.  Additionally, organizational software and custom curriculum adaption software was provided in special education resource rooms and alternate access kits and a basic low and mid tech AAC kit was provided in more self-contained special education classrooms.

Mobile AT solutions were provided through a check out system of devices to individual students in a small AT library centralized in the district with supplements for equipment trials that were not on hand in the district through the state AT Tech Act lending library or OCALI. Additionally we equipped our media centers with AT items that could be checked out. These included specialty equipment such as magnifiers, talking book products, talking dictionaries, talking calculators, iPods with core novels and academic content videos to supplement comprehension of material and laptops loaded with all of the special education software. The laptops were primarily for student use during the day but could also be checked out after school hours by the teachers for overnight use to create materials for their students.
After school hours solutions were provided by the use of “to go” licensing and a computer station and software at the local public library as well as a collection of devices for in-library loan that matched the set available in our school media centers. While web-based solutions were not available during the time that I was in the district there are now several web-based products that allow true at home access also.
It is important to remember that not all student needs were met by the AT global plan and solutions. There were still students who needed other solutions so teams needed to be responsive to these students and appropriately match student needs to device feature and then appropriate products. The second point is that again the plan that I have just outlined is not intended to be the solution for all districts. This is a solution that worked for my district given the system, AT, and people resources available.  I would suggest that the areas in red on the diagram are certainly areas where you should be considering solutions for your students and planning strategies to meet student needs.

If this all seems a little overwhelming to you I want to remind you that the program I developed did not occur in year one or even in year 5. It was an ongoing project that was still in process even when I left. It took seven years of development to move the program to the level that I described. I had grant money from three different grants that helped to fund the project and I also had an annual budget for 3 of the 7 years. I was able to work with the technology department to collaborate in funding some of the basic technology items and building principals occasionally contributed funding for sub pay so teachers could be released for AT training. I started out addressing individual student needs and then addressed more global concerns as I was able to find larger chunks of money through grant funding.  I also worked with building principals in introducing projects that they could add to for scale-up in their buildings. It was a lengthy process but has been sustained and grown since I left three years ago. I hope this webinar will inspire you to begin to think differently about how you deliver and plan for AT services.  At this time I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Please use the chat window to submit your questions. If you are looking for additional resources for AT, the following agencies and websites shown on the slide have additional information that you may find beneficial.

If there are no more questions then we will be signing off. A recorded version of this webinar can be found under the webinar archive button on the OCALI website home page. Any documents referenced in the presentation can also be found at that same location.

Thanks for learning with OCALI.

Assistive technology (AT) supports have traditionally been considered on a case-by-case basis within the scope of a student's IEP. It is necessary to consider and assess the need for AT individually for appropriate alignment of student needs with AT features and supports. Unfortunately, it has not worked well for the actual implementation phase of the AT process in school settings. This system often delays student access to needed AT due to the time involved in pursuing and implementing individual funding, training, setup and integration within already existing school technology.  This OCALI video will discuss a comprehensive system of district-wide planning for AT implementation that allows students quicker access to needed AT supports.  Included in the presentation is a demonstration of a tiered model of AT supports. Consideration for multi-environment implementation for "anytime anywhere" access to AT will also be discussed.  This video is appropriate for administrators, AT specialists, classroom teachers, related services providers and others interested in the "big picture" implementation of AT services within their district.

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