Today's newest "high tech" educational tools include computers and interactive software. From a teaching perspective, they offer many advantages ranging from classroom management, recordkeeping, assessment, lesson planning, and lesson presentation. Computer software exists that enables a teacher to accomplish all these tasks and more in less time than traditional methods.
The time saving features of databases, spreadsheets, desk top publishing, and word processing software allow teachers to organize their lessons, their classroom budgets, their communication with parents, and children's IEPs, assessment portfolios, and personal records. Once created and stored on hard drive or floppy disk, the files containing these materials are accessible and available for modifying and updating.
Calendar making programs, graphics programs, and such programs as Print Shop Deluxe provide teachers with tools for creating posters, classroom calendars (weekly, monthly, yearly), banners, invitations, name tags, and labels. Using authoring software, such as Roger Wagner's HyperStudio, teachers can even create their own software that enhances a curricular activity or is individualized for a particular student.
Technology plays an especially essential role for teachers of children with disabilities. Not only does it make some of the routine teaching tasks easier, but technology also allows a teacher to create learning activities and set up inclusive learning environments that enable the child with disabilities to learn and play along with the other children. In addition, special education teachers can take advantage of the plethora of information about disabilities and assistive technology that is posted on various web sites. Resources, chat rooms, and articles can be accessed to provide current, important information to any teacher, no matter how remote or rural her classroom is. Contact can be made with consultants, well-known professionals, and other early childhood colleagues through e-mail for sharing curriculum ideas and gaining resource information. The potential for future uses grows daily as new technologies are created and as inventive teachers realize the power computers have as teaching tools and begin to take advantage of their capabilities.Technology As A Tool for Young Children with Disabilities
Computers are extremely patient and uncritical when children make mistakes---marvelous characteristics which make them quite effective for young childrenıs learning. Not only that, the newer interactive software allows young children to explore and experiment in a safe environment where there is no wrong answer and where a child may experience success, sometimes for the first time.
Computers are an especially important learning tool for children with physical disabilities. Assistive technologies, including computers and adaptive devices (e.g., switches, alternative keyboards, touch tablets) provide children with disabilities a variety of tools that encourage autonomous behavior and increase the probability that they will interact with their environment (Hutinger, 1996). For example, a child who is unable to hold a pencil can use the computer, a switch or TouchWindow, and a graphics program to draw. Parents and teachers involved in Macomb Projects' longitudinal research study on technology's effectiveness for children with multiple disabilities reported that their children showed greatest gains in areas of social and emotional behaviors, "including enhanced self concept, independence, social interaction, cooperation, and exploratory play." (Hutinger, Johanson, Stoneburner, 1996, p. 26) Gains in cognitive, motor, and communication development also resulted from assistive technology use.
Both verbal and nonverbal children can use the computer as a communication tool. Software provides both subjects and purpose for conversations for those who are able, and willing, to speak. Social interactions among children using the computer occur spontaneously and should be encouraged. Children for whom verbal communication and/or social interaction is difficult are motivated to increase skill in these areas through their interactions with the computer.Implementing Technology
The potential technology has for all children is beyond anything in past educational experiences. But in and of itself technology is no magic wand. To be effective, it must be usedand used appropriately. Simply having a computer and adaptive technologies available for the children is not enough.Technology Integration
The teacher's role involves arranging the classroom environment (both the physical environment and the learning environment) to give children access to the technology. In addition, the teacher must plan developmentally appropriate activities that are available to the children throughout the day. Computer software can be used to introduce a concept or to reinforce a concept that has been introduced through more traditional methods. The effective teacher drops the "expert" role and becomes a facilitator to the childrenıs learning by setting up an appropriate environment and designing curriculum activities that reinforce key concepts both on and off the computer.
Ideally, classrooms have a computer center in addition to the traditional block center, writing center, art center, housekeeping center, and so on. Children are able to select computer as an activity during free choice time. They may work individually or gather around the computer in small groups. The teachers also use the computer with both large and small groups, depending on the activity. Children with physical disabilities or language impairments have access to their assistive technology throughout the day.
Over the years that Macomb Projects has been involved with young children, teachers, and assistive technology, we have witnessed many teacher practices that negatively impact successful integration. These include using computers for drill and practice, allowing only one child to sit at the computer at a time, limiting children's turns on the computer to no more than 5 minutes, and using the computer as a reward. Teachers using these practices typically do so because they havenıt been exposed to alternatives. They've simply made gut-reaction decisions about technology use in their classrooms. For instance, one classroom teacher took a child's augmentative communication away from her and put it on a shelf after morning circle time. In her mind, she was protecting the expensive equipment from damage it might receive during the school day. What she did not consider was that she was depriving the child of communication except for a short time each morning (Hutinger, et. al, 1994; Hutinger, Johanson, Stoneburner, 1996).Administrative Support and Staff Development
Administrative support for technology training is essential. Findings from Macomb Projects' Technology Inservice Project (Project TIP) indicated that technology training tends to be most successful when teachers and administrators plan together. Project TIP staff found that whether the initial idea to host a TIP workshop was a teacher's idea or an administrator's idea, if there was collaboration, the results were good. When either group tried the workshop without support and input from the other, events often did not go smoothly. If administrators scheduled a workshop without teacher "buy-in," teachers would attend as expected, put in their time, and go about business as usual when the workshop ended. If teachers organized a technology workshop without administrative support, the workshop itself was successful but, since there was no administrative support and follow through, teachers' initial excitement about implementing technology turned to frustration due to the administrator's lack of enthusiasm and support (Hutinger, 1995).
Change is seldom easy, but teachers who receive more than just "one-shot" technology training workshops, those who receive appropriate training at their own developmental level and who also are provided with opportunities for follow-up training and support, those who use technology as a tool for themselves, are the teachers who are most likely to see technology's benefits for learning and to implement technology effectively into their classroom curriculum. For such teachers, change is neither a headache nor a chore, but a natural and welcome evolution.