Breaking Down Barriers: iPad Helpful Tool for Special-Needs Students


By Tina Calabro

Marlene Berncic helps a student work on an iPad during a second- to fourth-grade class at Pace school in Churchill. Robin Rombach/Post-GazetteWhen Nadia, a bright athletic 12-year-old, started the academic year at PACE School in Churchill the last week of August, she walked into a classroom equipped with iPads for student use, much like many of her peers across the nation — whether they attend a special school like PACE or a mainstream school.

PACE, a state-approved private school for students with autism and emotional support needs, started providing iPads to each of its 15 classrooms last school year. As a returning student, Nadia is already familiar with using “apps” for math and other subjects, and contributing to group lessons via wireless connection to the classroom’s interactive TV screen.

She is also aware that her new teacher can give her individualized lessons on the iPad that are geared to her ability level. And she won’t be surprised if those lessons feature one of her main interests — basketball — as the theme.

The iPad also is a social tool for Nadia, who attends PACE for its emotional support program and whose parents asked that her last name not be used. “Nadia is quiet,” said her teacher from last year, Annie Hanniford. “When she would earn enough points to use the iPad during recess as a reward, she would wait until another classmate also earned enough points so they could use it together. Nadia doesn’t say much, but she connects with other students through the iPad.”

For students who receive special education services, particularly for autism, emotional support and speech/language, iPads are fast becoming a mainstay. At the same time, the use of the devices for teaching and learning in classrooms of all types, kindergarten through high school, is skyrocketing.

The use of the iPad in education is “ever-expanding and ever-growing,” both for individual students who are eligible for assistive technology for communication needs or to access curriculum, and also for classroom use, said Lynn Chiafullo, assistive technology consultant for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

This school year, the school district’s 32 autism support classrooms have iPads for every student on the teachers’ rosters. Across the school district, 6,000 iPads have been distributed to schools that submitted proposals for how they would be used earlier this year.

“Most schools are using iPads in some capacity, with special education being strong,” said Jana Baxter, instructional media services coordinator for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which serves the county’s 42 school districts (excluding the Pittsburgh district).

“How schools use them varies from district to district — some are issued to students, some are on carts in classrooms, some are in libraries, some are in media centers.” The wide range of uses includes the Elizabeth Forward School District, which provides iPads for all middle and high school students, and the Duquesne School District, which serves grades K through 6 only and has a model classroom with iPads and other technology in its sole building. Grant funding is often the pathway for many schools and districts to initiate the use of iPads.

Launched in 2010 as a consumer product, the iPad was soon found to have tremendous potential for K through 12 education. In January 2012, Apple estimated the number of educational apps created for the iPad at 20,000, and the number of devices in education at 1.5 million.

“I’m not sure Apple knew the iPad would be so good for education,” said Maggie Zimmer, director of special education and student services for the Norwin School District in Westmoreland County. “Now, everyone now knows it’s a great tool.”

Educators describe the device’s dynamic display and touchscreen as engaging and enabling for students, stimulating and motivating. Teachers can customize it to meet a variety of student needs. “It keeps learning very focused,” said Cheryl Levin, education director at PACE School.

The iPad’s relatively low cost ($300 and up), light weight and portability are also factors in its popularity.

Educators also say it’s no exaggeration that the device is transforming education from the world of paper, pencil and textbooks into the world of their students’ future.

“It’s super-engaging. I’ve seen kids who have never taken interest, take interest,” said Lauren Enders, assistive technology consultant for Bucks County in eastern Pennsylvania. “It increases the level of engagement and without engagement, you don’t have much learning.”

The benefits for students with special education needs are many. Students with fine motor difficulties find the touchscreen easier to use than a mouse and keyboard (and, of course, pencil and paper). Built-in features, such as the capacity to quickly enlarge what is on the screen and vocal text-reading, address many different types of disabilities. For students who cannot speak with their own voices, the iPad can serve as a communication device.

Furthermore, “it’s a cool kind of technology” that does not call undue attention to a student’s area of need, said Ms. Enders, who described a student with speech difficulties who refused to use a traditional communication device in front of his peers but now uses an iPad without self-consciousness.

“As a teacher, it makes you feel that the possibilities are endless,” wrote Los Angeles special education teacher Neil Virani in an essay about the success of iPad use among his students.

“We haven’t reached the ceiling for what the iPad can do in education,” said Ms. Baxter of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. “The opportunities are endless. It’s up to the imagination of the teacher.”

But Ms. Baxter also stressed that although the iPad is a creative new platform for teaching and learning, “it’s not the savior.”

“It has tremendous power for kids, but it’s not the be-all, end-all,” she said. “There’s not a piece of technology that will replace good teaching, and there will always be a new piece of technology out there. The iPad is transformative, but it’s just a tool.”

And it’s not necessarily the right tool for every student with special needs, said Ms. Enders, whose job is to evaluate students for individual assistive devices. “The iPad is magical, but not miraculous.”


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