Promising Practices: Benefits of A Comprehensive Technology System

by Patricia Hutinger, Joyce Johanson, and Letha Clark

Technology innovations--computers, interactive software, touch tablets, and a wide array of switches--can level the playing field for young children with disabilities and provide access to activities in the general early childhood curriculum. Since the early 1980s, research results repeatedly indicate that assistive technology applications can improve children's learning outcomes. However, equipment and curricular applications alone are insufficient. Without a comprehensive technology system, such as The Early Childhood Comprehensive Technology System (ECCTS), outcomes may be diluted.

ECCTS, a collaborative research project carried out between Just Kids Early Childhood Center in Middle Island, New York, and Macomb Projects at Western Illinois University, was designed to implement and evaluate the benefits of a comprehensive technology system comprised of four parts: (1) on-going training, follow-up and technical support for teachers and a Technology Support Team (Tech Team); (2) team-based technology assessment; (3) technology integration into the classroom curriculum; and (3) transition into kindergarten.

Components of the System
The components of the system were based on tested, effective early childhood models for technology inservice training, team-based technology assessment, curriculum integration, and transition--models which had been developed through funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Early Education Program for Children with Disabilities. The project brought the four models together and examined their combined effectiveness as a system.

Inservice training model. Activating Children Through Technology (ACTT) Outreach and the Technology Inservice Project (TIP) provided the models for delivering teacher technology training. Macomb Projects' experienced staff of technology trainers trained teaching staff and an on-site Tech Team at Just Kids. That Team, in turn, eventually provided training and support to teachers, therapists, and families. Teachers and the Tech Team learned to set up an appropriate computer learning environment, operate computers, evaluate and select appropriate interactive software, connect and use adaptive peripherals, and customize materials for individual children, in addition to other skills.

Curriculum integration model. ACTT also provided the model for curriculum integration. During training, participants discussed ways to integrate technology throughout the classroom curriculum and learned to create curriculum activities based on ideas and themes found in software. Curriculum integration activities were designed to: (1) foster the child's expectations of control over the environment and develop a sense of autonomy; (2) provide an opportunity to participate in equalized play activities; (3) provide communication potential; (4) include most areas of the general curriculum; and (5) enhance problem solving and higher order thinking.

Technology assessment model. The ECCTS system incorporated the team-based TTAP model to ensure that children with moderate to severe disabilities received a thorough technology assessment to determine appropriate technology applications that would optimize children's development and allow access to the general curriculum. Macomb Projects trained members of the Just Kids Tech Team as key members of a technology assessment team. Training focused on TTAP procedures to use before, during, and after the assessment. Procedures included family participation, gathering background information, selecting equipment and software for the assessment, conducting the assessment, writing the recommendations for equipment and software that would be most beneficial to the child, and follow up.

Transition model. The comprehensive system included transition activities closely aligned to the Bridging Early Services Transition (BEST) model, which was designed to smooth the transition process for children and families. The transition philosophy, activities, and materials included interagency collaboration and family involvement in each step. ECCTS was especially interested in the inclusion of children's assistive technology goals and the communication between Just Kids and more than twenty receiving school districts regarding technology use.

Training: Approach, Content, and Follow-up
ECCTS incorporated a two-tiered training approach. First and most critical to the success of the system, the training team from Macomb Projects provided training and technical support to Just Kids Tech Team and staff. Team members had some, but not a great deal of, experience with technology use. Training content was based on critical elements of each of the four components of the system. These elements included setting up a classroom computer environment; operating and troubleshooting a computer system; connecting and using peripheral devices; evaluating and using appropriate software; integrating technology throughout the curriculum; customizing materials based on the needs of individual children; creating software using HyperStudio; using software to support emergent literacy; preparing for and conducting technology assessments; making recommendations for adaptations, equipment, and software following a child's technology assessment; and incorporating technology recommendations into the transition processes. Another important element of the training Macomb Projects' staff conducted was the focus on the principles of adult learning since the Just Kids' Tech Team would eventually be conducting inservice training for Just Kids' teachers, therapists, and classroom aides.

Prior to the Tech Team being fully trained to take on the role as trainers, Macomb Projects provided inservice training for teachers, therapists, and aides to ensure that technology would be integrated into classroom activities from the beginning of the project. As members of the on-site Tech Team became more adept, they provided training and technical assistance for the staff, while Macomb Projects continued follow-up training and technical support to the Tech Team and occasionally to teachers.

The Tech Team used a variety of strategies to bring the Just Kids staff together. They conducted workshops on a variety of topics in a lab setting and informal sessions in classrooms. Because of teachers' hectic schedules, the Tech Team offered training during the afternoons or at lunch time when teachers were available. They also hosted curriculum breakfasts twice a month. Therapists and teachers were invited to attend to brainstorm about a software program. They shared their knowledge and offered ideas for integrating the software into the curriculum through art, dramatic play, science, math, literacy, or other activities. In these ways, the Tech Team was instrumental in bringing people together to construct and maintain a positive learning environment that integrated technology.

Formal and informal follow-up for the Tech Team occurred throughout the three years of the project. Formal training, centered on specific topics listed above, was conducted either by the Macomb Projects' training staff visiting Just Kids or the Just Kids' Tech Team visiting Macomb Projects. Technical assistance and informal follow-up was as close as the telephone, fax machine, or e-mail. As the Tech Team asked questions, Macomb Projects responded verbally or by sending print or video materials. Often informal follow-up occurred after a formal training session as people discussed the topic and asked related questions or posed situations they had encountered.

The Tech Team provided similar follow-up services to Just Kids' teachers and therapists. The Tech Team was on-hand to answer questions, suggest software or curriculum activities, adapt materials, troubleshoot equipment problems, and provide a multitude of services in response to requests.

Additional Roles of the Tech Team
Besides providing training and conducting technology assessments, the Tech Team provided other important services. Members maintained a technology resource room where battery-operated toys, switches and other adaptive devices, and software could be checked out. The resource center was open to teachers, therapists, and families.

The Tech Team conducted technology workshops and offered to advise families who wanted to purchase equipment and software for home use. A series of newsletters, sent home in children's backpacks, presented tips on software purchases and use, explained technology-related activities occurring in classrooms, and included resources, such as addresses of web sites relating to assistive technology or particular disabilities that might be of interest to families.

Transition is an important part of the assistive technology program at Just Kids because children transition to many school districts. Therefore, the Tech Team participated in the transition process as children moved from one program to another. The smoothest transitions resulted from the Tech Team and representatives from the receiving school working together to decide how technology could be implemented to best benefit the child.

Benefits of an On-site Technology Support Team
Experiences at Just Kids emphasize that a trained on-site Technology Support Team provides services that benefit not only teachers and families--but, most importantly--children. As comments from Cathy Tasso, Director of Education Programs at Just Kids indicate, a Tech Team is an element that schools often overlook: "When we purchased computers in the past, we weren't smart enough to have a Tech Team. We had one resident expert that helped us if the printer jammed, but no one could really talk about how to enhance curriculum or how children could use the computer to enhance socialization and other skills."

Study results show benefits for young children across a wide range of disabilities when teachers integrate appropriate computer software and adaptations into the early childhood curriculum and set up accessible computer centers in the classroom. Findings demonstrate that computers and accompanying software, when employed according to the ECCTS model, are very efficient, compared to other classroom activities, in promoting (a) attending, (b) cause and effect reasoning, (c) emergent literacy, and (d) engagement. Children increase in social skills, including sharing and turn taking, communication, attention, and self confidence. They demonstrate increased fine motor skills and visual-motor skills (tracking). Children using a computer can stay focused and repeat an activity for relatively long periods of time. If children learn to use the computer appropriately, are taught to take turns, and have accessible tools like sign up books or sign up charts to assist with fair use, a considerable decrease in aggression occurs.

A comprehensive system that incorporates technology assessment, curriculum integration, and transition elements must be present, together with a staff development strategy for teachers focusing on equipment use and software integration into daily educational experiences in a variety of content areas. A well-trained, on-site Tech Team unites the pieces of this comprehensive system, thereby ensuring its successful implementation and maintenance.

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